2014 Ram ProMaster First Drive

Westlake Village, California -- With headlamps placed high above the front bumper, the 2014 Ram ProMaster is rather frog-faced. But even if a pretty maiden planted a wet one on the Ram badge, it wouldn't turn this curb hopper into a handsome deliveryman. Indeed, the ProMaster, a new model in Ram's lineup, is designed for prosaic purposes.

Nevertheless, Ram officials seemed to have overlooked their big new cargo container's enchantments. Their relative neglect became apparent after we received a tag-team presentation on the attributes of the 2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel pickup and the ProMaster. The pickup was supposed to be the marquee attraction, but everybody wanted to know Pro. Would a window version be available? Yes, on demand. Where is it made? Saltillo, Mexico. How are they shipped to dealers? Two at a time, on flatbeds.

If not for the vigilance of the press, one of the most interesting new vehicles this year could have been a stealth job. The ability to load a pallet through the ProMaster's side or rear doors might have gone unreported.

In his lead-in, Ram president and CEO Reid Bigland did say that the third-generation Fiat Ducato, from which the ProMaster is derived, "goes toe to toe with the Sprinter all over the world." Of course, by Sprinter he was referring to the commercial cargo van that's sold here as a Mercedes-Benz and a Freightliner (as well as a Dodge before 2010). The Sprinter, which first brought European thinking to our commercial van market in 2001, hasn't been challenged until now.

Fine-tuned for the American market, the ProMaster claims a number of competitive advantages over the Sprinter and the Nissan NV-series vans.

Turbodiesel four or gasoline V-6 engines
The ProMaster is a front-wheel-drive van of lightweight, laddered-unibody construction. This makes it pretty special. It is available in fourteen different configurations with 90- and 101-inch roof heights, three wheelbases (118, 136, and 159 inches), and four body lengths up to 250 inches.

The range includes the 1500, 2500, and 3500, with maximum payload of 5145 pounds and towing of 5100 pounds. Chassis-cab and chassis-cutaway versions are available for adaptation to a specialized body or cube van setup. Bigland says Ram "would love to be back in the conversion van market" as well.

Two powertrains are offered. The available 3.0-liter DOHC turbodiesel four-cylinder from Chrysler's nursemaid Fiat makes 174 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, the latter at just 1400 rpm. Choosing this engine means having to mind your urea: in solution as diesel exhaust fluid, it reduces the turbodiesel's emissions, but the storage tank must be refilled every 4000 miles; the only bigger nuisance would be having a cow to milk twice a day. Better news is that a diesel likes warmth, and the engine will accept an available block heater (standard in Canada). It is matched with an electronically controlled six-speed automated manual transmission.

Alas, we didn't drive the turbodiesel. Ram only provided the standard 3.6-liter V-6 gasoline-fueled engine in the 1500 and 2500 for us to drive. We jumped into a cute, white, long-wheelbase, high-roof 2500, imagining how many motorcycles it might hold if we could afford the $38,175 price. Then we took off over the beautifully paved streets of Westlake Village. Our mission was to pick up a pallet loaded with cargo, which Ram's henchmen had arranged.

Holding the steering wheel that doesn't adjust for rake and really could use a leather wrap over the oozy, olefin-rich plastic, we sallied forth. This suburban enclave bears the indelible imprint of Dole Foods billionaire and longevity advocate David Murdock and is accented with a whiff of Kardashian. Autodidact billionaires with big ideas are an even bigger comedown than manufactured celebrities. We stopped dreaming of bikes and recalled our days long ago of delivering flowers in the Hollywood Hills. How advanced this ProMaster is over those old Ford Econolines! The clean instrument panel and sensible dashboard layout alone are a huge advance. The cloth upholstery on the pair of bucket seats has no sensual appeal whatsoever, but it looks as though it'll outlast most tapestries in the Louvre.

The Pentastar V-6 produces 280 hp and 260 lb-ft and comes with the six-speed automatic. It smartly powered the ProMaster away from stoplights and pushed us along quietly and smoothly. Dissatisfied with the automatic transmission's kickdown to a lower gear, we pulled the dashboard-mounted shifter into manual mode, toggling back and forth to control the tranny's activity.

Most notable, even on these perfect streets, was the smooth, carlike ride and lack of body roll due to the low center of gravity, both characteristics owing to the unibody construction. Independent front suspension and hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering didn't hurt, either.

When the next stoplight turned yellow, we feared bursting through the intersection and passing under the invisible sheet of graphene that separates the world from the Kardashian's reality show. No worries, though: the front brakes, with dual-piston calipers supplied by Brembo, bit hard and ensured our anonymity.

As for our laden pallet, we were handed the wrong route instructions and came back empty.

What accounts for the strange appeal?
The unique styling that's solely in the name of functionality really grabbed us. Beholding the ProMaster for the first time, we thought of Picasso's rearrangement of facial features on canvas. But the headlamps are up high for the same reason that the bumper has three pieces: operating costs are reduced. Now in its third generation, the Ducato that has sired this ProMaster has been produced prolifically -- 4.5 million units -- and nearly half are still on the road, according to Bob Hegbloom, Ram brand director. But they take a beating.

A fleet director will happily contemplate the ProMaster's cheap repair costs, just as he will welcome the easy way it is first modified into any of myriad guises at the upfitting center in Saltillo. Conversely, the driver who sits with his knees almost against the windshield may have other thoughts. (Six air bags mitigate this driving position.)

The ProMaster is on sale now, with Ram attempting to build up inventory in time for the commercial selling season, which Bigland says begins in November. We're fascinated to know how well American drivers take to Eurostyle and forward control. After all, this has been the land of long-barreled revolvers. But these days, Americans are composting their kitchen scraps and waiting impatiently for e-waste drop-off day. Now it looks like the time for frog eyes on the freeways.

2014 Ram ProMaster

Price/As Tested: $32,875/$38
Powertrain
Engine: DOHC 3.6-liter V-6, DOHC 3.0-liter turbodiesel inline four
Power: 280 hp @ 6400 rpm, 174 hp @ 3600 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4175 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic or six-speed electronically controlled automated manual
Drive: Front-wheel
Chassis
Steering: Hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion
Front suspension: MacPherson strut with stabilizer bar
Rear suspension: Solid axle with leaf springs
Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS, calipers supplied by Brembo
Tires: 225/75R-16C all-season
Measurements
L x W x H: 195.0-250.0 x 82.7 x 90.0-101.0 in
Wheelbase: 118/136/159 in
Track F/R: 71.3/77.6 in
Weight: 4161-5400 lb
Angle of approach: 18.6 degrees
Angle of departure: 20.0 degrees
Ground Clearance: 6.9 in
Cargo Volume: 283-530 cu ft
Towing: 5100 lb
Suggested retail price/price as tested: $32,875/$38,175 (including shipping)

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