Unlike pickup trucks, which have been consistently redesigned to keep up with drivers' demands for greater capability, fuel efficiency and connectivity, full-size vans such as the Chevrolet Express and Ford E-Series have remained relatively unchanged for decades.
However, the van landscape is getting a new look for 2014, with the debut of all-new models such as the Ram Pro-Master. According to R.L. Polk data, the number of commercial van offerings has more than doubled in the past six years, with anticipated annual sales of 365,000 units—compared to 155,000 in 2009—and a bump in market share, from 1.5% to 2.3%.
To get a better look at Ram's player in this growing segment, ENR accepted the company's invitation to drive the 2014 ProMaster in Southern California. Our test vehicle, a short-wheelbase 1500-series model with a high roof, carried a sticker price of $33,005, which included $1,490 in options and a $995 destination charge. Base models start at about $29,625, compared to $26,415 for the 2014 Nissan NV and $36,915 for the 2014 Sprinter.
Ram is making the 2014 ProMaster available with a choice of two engines, including a 3.0-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged diesel that delivers 174 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, the latter doled out in its entirety at only 1,400 rpm. Unfortunately, neither that powerplant nor its accompanying six-speed automated manual gearbox is scheduled to arrive until later in the model year, so, instead, our test van was equipped with the familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. Output measures 280 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, all of which is transferred to the front wheels via a conventional six-speed automatic transmission, which also can be shifted manually.
On the hills and highways north of Los Angeles, the unloaded ProMaster's empty cargo area served as an effective echo chamber, a point exacerbated by raucous engine noise under full throttle. Pulling power was plentiful, even when a load weighing roughly one ton—the tester's maximum payload capacity was 3,794 lb—was strapped in back; the transmission provided smooth, predictable shifts. Ram executives claim that informal, internal testing indicates the V-6 is averaging fuel economy in the mid- to high teens, whereas the diesel is running in the low- to mid-20s. The company is also quick to highlight the van's tight turning radius; indeed, that is a definite advantage when navigating jobsites or, as we discovered, making a quick U-turn in city traffic.
Those are the relative pluses. On the downside, the 2014 ProMaster's hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering suffers from a lack of road feel. Granted, full-size work vans aren't known for their stellar handling, but we expected better from what is essentially a rebadged version of Europe's popular Fiat Ducato fitted with a beefier suspension for U.S. roads. Other areas requiring more fine-tuning include the brakes, which were effective yet overly sensitive, and downshifting that sometimes felt abrupt when letting off the gas on steep declines.
The inside of the cab leaves some things to be desired, as well. Reaching the driver's seat can be a challenge. There is a handy integrated step just inside the door, but the only grab handles are overhead and are of no use to shorter individuals. As a result, ENR's 5-ft, 8-in., reviewer used the steering wheel as leverage to hoist himself onto the seat. A simple grab handle mounted on the front pillar would remedy the situation.
Once inside, drivers will find a firm, height-adjustable seat that lacks thigh support but delivers a commanding view of the road, a slightly padded fold-down center armrest, durable cloth fabric, and basic gauges and controls. An optional UConnect touch-screen infotainment system adds buttons for Bluetooth hands-free calling to the tilt steering wheel, which lacks a telescoping function that would contribute to a more comfortable driving position. A clipboard, included as part of our van's Interior Convenience Group package, was positioned atop the dashboard and was complemented by several cup holders, lower-door panel bins that are huge but hard to reach, abundant cubbies, and shelves over the front seats.
Outward visibility is commendable, accentuated by a tall windshield; ample door glass; power-folding, wide-angle mirrors, and an available rearview camera with guidelines. Access to the cargo area is gained via the front-seat area, a passenger-side manual sliding door that's tall and wide but not too heavy or dual rear doors that open to 260°. The cargo floor's lift-over height is about 18 in.
Competition Heats Up
With last year's launch of a dedicated commercial-truck division and a network of more than 800 certified dealers, Ram is on the offensive. Built in Ram's Saltillo, Mexico, plant, the 2014 ProMaster is a critical component to the company's strategy, and it stands to grab a piece of the growing work-van segment with its combination of capability, functionality and expected fuel efficiency. That being said, vague steering and a somewhat uncomfortable driving position may be turnoffs for those who spend hours behind the wheel. We'll see how the full-size Ford Transit compares when we test it in the coming months.