By Christopher A. Sawyer
When it was part of Daimler-Benz, Dodge replaced its aged Ram Van with the rear-drive, diesel-powered Sprinter. Unlike its American predecessor, this Euro work van was tall, boxy, and came in different heights and wheelbases. There was little concern about whether or not it would fit into a garage. If you wanted to carry people, order one of Chrysler’s minivans.
Now part of the Fiat empire, Chrysler has made Ram its own brand, and replaced the Sprinter with Fiat’s Ducato. In European fashion it is tall, boxy, comes in different heights and wheelbases, and — unlike the Sprinter, or for that matter, the Ford Transit to be sold in the States — features front-wheel drive. It also dumps the Ducato name for a Ram ProMaster badge.
According to Ram Truck President and CEO Fred Diaz, the 2014 ProMaster is more than a Fiat Ducato with a new set of badges. As he told me at the van’s Chicago Auto Show debut: “We spent a lot of time over here on extreme-duty testing, and significantly upgraded some aspects to meet the requirements of North American customers.” These included more aggressive shock tuning, improved braking performance, additional corrosion protection, upgraded HVAC systems, U.S.-compliant powertrains, and safety systems that meet North American standards. It also meant modifying things like cupholders (they had to be made bigger and more accessible), improving connectivity options, and finding more storage space in the cabin. “We did more than just change the badges,” he said.
The ProMaster comes in two roof heights (90 or 101 in), three wheelbases (118, 136 or 159 in), and four body lengths (dependent on wheelbase, but spanning 195-250 in). All versions are 82.7-in wide (98 in with the side mirrors extended) and very boxy; a real benefit in Diaz’s eyes. “The cargo area walls are nearly 90 degrees (to the load floor),” says Diaz, “which makes for a very efficient use of space in combination with the front-wheel drive, and gives a low step-in height. And over the course of a work day, items like that, we think, really reduce an operator’s fatigue level.” This design also, Diaz claims, gives a wider center aisle in a cargo area that, with cargo door openings designed with forklift palette loading in mind, can be equipped with a painted, resin-finished wood or rubber-coated floor. A quick step up into the cargo hold showed the 21-in step-in height of the ProMaster is much lower than that of the Ford Transit.
Like the Transit, the ProMaster is available in chassis cab, cutaway and cargo van versions, and is a unit-body design with fully boxed frame rails that travel from front to rear. In addition, the floor of the cargo van is welded in place and integrated with the rails and the eight cross members located behind the cab. Structural adhesives are strategically used, a reinforced plenum and upper and lower front cross members contribute to lateral stiffness, and chassis cabs and cutaways get a ladder frame that extends to the rear of the vehicle.
Unlike the Transit, the ProMaster uses a transverse front-drive powertrain, leaf-sprung beam rear axle, and offers its turbocharged diesel engine (an inline four instead of the Transit’s five-cylinder engine) with an automated six-speed manual transmission. The M40 gearbox has electro-hydraulic actuators to take care of gearshifts and clutch work, and its shift logic is adjusted according to the steepness of the grade on which the ProMaster is being driven. There’s even an “Everest” setting to handle hauling heavy loads up steep grades, as well as curve detection to prevent shifts in corners, and a manual override that allows the driver to choose the right gear for the situation. The variable-geometry diesel produces 174 hp at 3,600 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque at 1,400, and includes urea injection (the five-gallon tank is good for about 4,000 miles), a three-way catalyst and exhaust gas recirculation. A block heater, which has a digital timer for automatic activation, is standard in Canada and optional in the U.S. to allow operation at temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If the diesel doesn’t do the trick, buyers can order Chrysler’s aluminum 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 mated to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission. It runs on 87-octane regular fuel and produces 280 hp at 6,400 rpm and 258 lb-ft at 4,175.
Ram says the ProMaster has a payload capacity of 3,500 – 5,189 lb and a maximum towing capacity of up to 5,100 lb. The gross combined weight rating for the ProMaster is 11,500 lb with the Pentastar engine, and 12,500 with the diesel. Curb weights for unoptioned vehicles range from 4,161 – 5,400 lb. Turning radius ranges from 36.3 ft for the shortest wheelbase cargo version to 46.8 ft for the long wheelbase models. Surprisingly, the ProMaster comes with four-wheel disc brakes with 16-in diameters and Brembo two-piston calipers front and rear.
Until Ford releases weights and capacities for the Transit, there is no way to compare and contrast it with the ProMaster. However, with its reliance on front-wheel drive and the absence of an engine equal to Ford’s EcoBoost V6, it’s apparent that the ProMaster will handle all but the heaviest and most bulky cargoes. For those, the Transit appears as though it might have the size and power advantage.