First Look: 2013 Ram ProMaster

As a result of the cantankerous divorce between Daimler and Chrysler, Ram has done without a large, commercial van for a little more than three years. That may seem like a small loss, but as Ram continues to target commercial and fleet buyers and increase its share of the vocational vehicle market, that small loss is a gaping hole -- especially when competitors are updating and innovating with new vans of their own.

No more. Ram is finally ready to re-enter the van market with the 2014 ProMaster, a van that -- much like its Dodge Sprinter predecessor -- has its roots in European market.

From Italy, With Love

Fiat has contributed engines, platforms, and other key components to Chrysler-branded product, but the ProMaster may be the first entire vehicle ported over from its European portfolio. The ProMaster is essentially a federalized version of the third-generation Fiat Ducato van, which has been sold abroad since 2006. Like the Ducato, the ProMaster is front-wheel drive, and boasts unitized construction. That strays from American van tradition, which favors rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame products, but Ram says the ProMaster's design allows for a lower load floor than many of its competitors, along with a lighter curb weight. Indeed, a number of ProMaster models tip the scales nearly 400-600 pounds less than a comparable Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

There are only so many ways to style what's essentially a rolling box, and as such, the ProMaster still looks a little ungainly. Externally, it differs only from its Ducato sibling in terms of badging, wheel designs, and grille -- the latter now boasts Ram's signature cross-hair insert. The front-wheel drive arrangement allows the cabin to be pushed up and forward, allowing for a super stubby nose. What the ProMaster lacks in form, however, it gains in functionality. The near-vertical side walls reduce tumblehome and ease installation of cargo shelves. The headlamps, located just beneath the windshield cowl, are so positioned to reduce their vulnerability in a collision. And, on that note, the giant, black front bumper can be replaced in thirds, reducing the parts cost should something go awry.

Italian Design, Some American Mechanicals

Lest you think Ram slapped a few emblems on a Ducato and called it a day, the company has subtly reworked elements of the van expressly for the American market. In addition to meeting federal crash and emission standards, Chrysler also retuned the chassis to accommodate the larger payloads American operators frequently carry. Front suspension remains a double A-arm design with MacPherson struts, and the rear a beam axle suspended by leaf springs, but spring and damper rates are increased to accommodate payloads of up to 4417 pounds in van form (5189 pounds, should you order a chassis-cab). ProMasters also receive bigger brake hardware (16-inch rotors at all four corners and two-piston Brembo calipers up front), additional anti-corrosion measures, and improved climate control systems. Ram also incorporated reinforced mounting points on the roof for owners looking to install aftermarket roof racks or ladders.

Like the exterior, amendments to the ProMaster's cab are rather limited. Designers slightly tweaked door panels, arm rests, grab handles, and even cupholders (they're now big enough to safely handle Big Gulps). Six airbags are standard, as is stability control with hill-start assist and trailer sway control, and an infotainment system -- complete with navigation, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, voice-controlled text messaging, and a rear-view camera -- is optional.

Where the ProMaster breaks from its Ducato twin the most is powertrains. Overseas, the Ducato is available with a range of small-displacement diesels ranging from 1.4-3.0 liters in displacement. In our market, the ProMaster's base engine is Chrysler's oh-so-familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. In van guise, the DOHC six-cylinder produces 280 hp at 6400 rpm, and 258 lb-ft of torque at 4175 rpm. Power is sent to the front wheels via a revised form of Chrysler's 62TE six-speed automatic transmission.

The only engine offering imported from Italy is an optional 3.0-liter turbo-diesel. Don't let its displacement and EcoDiesel moniker trick you into thinking it's the same engine used in the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee -- instead of a V-6, this Fiat-designed engine is a large, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which is rated at 174 hp at 3600 rpm and 295 lb-ft from 1400 rpm. Interestingly, the diesel is only available with a Fiat-sourced six-speed automated manual transmission, and not a conventional automatic.

Two Roofs, Three Wheelbases, Four Bodystyles

Variety is the spice of life and, it seems, key to giving buyers exactly what they're looking for in the van market. As such, Ram offers the ProMaster in several different lengths and heights

A short 118-inch wheelbase is available only on the ProMaster 1500 model, and only with the "low" roof height, which measures 90 inches tall. Its overall length measures 195 inches. A longer 136-inch wheelbase model is available on both the 1500 and 2500 models, and stretches the overall length to 213 inches. A taller 101-inch roof is standard on 2500 models built to this length, and optional on 1500 models.

Need more length? A long, 159-inch wheelbase is available on ProMaster 2500 and 3500 models, and bumps the overall length to 236 inches. 3500 models can go one step further, and offer an extended rear overhang that brings the total vehicle length to a whopping 250 inches. Both lengths are available only with the taller roof option.

A 49-inch wide sliding door is standard on the passenger's side, but a matching door for the driver's side is optional. Buyers will also have the ability to specify what sort of cargo floor (wood, painted, or rubber) they'd like, order a cab/cargo area partition, and rear, side, and quarter windows. Unlike many competitors, however, Ram will not sell a passenger version of the ProMaster ex-works.

In addition to the straight cargo vans, Ram will also sell both chassis-cab and cutaway (a chassis cab sans a cab back) models. Available only as 3500 models, both chassis cab and cutaway models will be offered in 136- and 159-inch wheelbase forms, along with a 159-inch model with an extended frame.

Will buyers adopt the ProMaster's European styling, or its unconventional drive arrangement? Time will tell. Speaking of timing, it might just be everything in this segment -- Ford hopes to launch its new Transit van in North America by the end of 2013. We haven't heard precise timing for Ram's contender, but officials tell us the ProMaster -- which will be built alongside Ram pickups in Silao, Mexico -- should "beat an unnamed competitor to market." Stay tuned.

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