I just spent a week each with a Ram ProMaster 2500 cargo van and the smaller ProMaster City from FCA. And rather than driving aimlessly around in these purpose-built haulers, as automotive journalists turned loose in utility vehicles often find themselves doing, I put them to something approximating the real test. With a daughter graduating college 170 miles away, a car that needed towing from Connecticut, and a warehouse full of They Might Be Giants t-shirts to cart around New York, there was some real work that needed doing. No need to imagine these things with a load when real ones were waiting to be moved.
Longtime readers will know that rock bands were my original introduction to van life, one of my first pieces for Automobile Magazine (“Our Roadies, Our Selves,” Feb. 1988) being a test of a Plymouth Voyager minivan undertaken on one of the very first tours by the “modern,” (later “alternative”) rock group, They Might Be Giants, then a duo, who became the first band I managed. (Still do.) The intervening years have seen me spend significant time behind the wheel of a veritable parade of boxy haulers while on band duty, with more seat time in Econolines, GMC Safaris, Chevy Express, Dodge, and Sprinter vans to my name than memories of beer-stained, pee-infused rock clubs, of which there are more than I can count.
The Sprinter was, of course, the van that kicked off the American van revolution of the 21stcentury. After decades of only the most incremental updates to the domestic van fleet, this new box out of Germany heralded a new era of vehicles that followed the European practice of unit body construction, with taller, more configurable bodies and more efficient engines, plus the additional virtues of better handling and braking, and generally improved safety.
Recently a young act I manage, the saxophone dance trio Moon Hooch, practitioners of what they call “cave music” (like house music, but more primal and raw,) put their own money down to buy a Sprinter and racked up a quick 80,000 miles on it. So far, so good, knock on wood.
Climbing out of a Ford Aerostar with 370,000 miles on its odometer, the Sprinter was even more of a revelation for Moon Hooch than it was for me, when I bought a brand new 3500 duellie for band use from my local Freightliner dealer in 2002. Ten years and 195,000 rock and roll miles on the dually demonstrated just how hard life is on a working van and how expensive it might be to keep such a vehicle in safe and reliable condition. But it made it, and in 2011 was sold on quickly for good money to live on with a new owner, the first of dozens who phoned about the ad I’d placed—response and resale value that said a lot to me about the Sprinters reputation among the tradesmen who typically use it.
Still, if the Sprinter led the way into new technology, the Ram ProMaster cargo van, which was up first for me in my 2018 ExtraVanGanza, speaks just as clearly to the giant leap the American market took in recent years, especially at FCA. The ProMaster’s predecessor, the vans sold largely unchanged by the former Chrysler from the early 1970s into the 2000s, spoke most eloquently to the calcification of American van technology. But this latest FCA effort, based on the top-selling Fiat Ducato van one sees all over the rest of the world, (like Ford’s Transit, it was designed in Europe,) is more curious than the Sprinter, notable for a front-wheel-drive arrangement and extreme driver forward cab and seating position, with exceptionally short front overhang.
Front-drive limits the upper limit of its tow capability, some will say, but I am unconcerned. With standard 3.6-liter V-6 gas engine making 280 horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque, it is sufficiently hale and hearty in 2500 trim to tow a 1957 Chevrolet 210 four-door on a U-Haul auto transport trailer while returning gas mileage in the high teens. Steering is good with a reasonable turning circle and the ProMaster managed to pack a graduating college senior and all her worldly possessions into its cavernous hold without objection.
It is, to be clear, an all-business, no frills vehicle, devoid of distraction, which is kind of refreshing. Though the two front seats are comfortable and the driving position superior, its fixed steering wheel and unfinished cargo area, plus that the fact that there is no passenger van setup available from the factory, limits its utility as rock band transport. They also never let you forget that you’re in a commercial, lugging vehicle. Unlike, say, an optioned-up RAM pickup, where you might lose sight of the fact that you are in a truck, the ProMaster reminds you that you are a working stiff pretty much all of time. That said, I think there is pride in labor and in presenting the facts honestly.
So it is, too, with the RamMaster ProCity, a small, front-drive van that compares to the Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200 (aka the official taxi of New York City), and Mercedes-Benz Metris. It’s unmistakably a van.
Though it has as many features as your average passenger vehicle of a few years back, it seems Spartan to the novitiate. With interior materials a couple notches below best in class and no rear or side windows aft of the front doors to look out of, there’s a definite penalty box feeling to the ProMaster City we’re testing, though available windows might lend an uplifting airiness to the proceedings. But it really is a van. Sold around the world by Fiat as a Doblo and assembled in Turkey, it has been massaged for the American market but retains the enormous utility of the original—and for many van intenders will do just as well as a full-sizer. It rides better than most, a credit to its all-independent suspension, a rarity these days. With FCA’s 178-hp, 174 lb-ft 2.4-liter Tiger Shark four and heady nine-speed automatic transmission, the very ones we saw in the late Chrysler 200, it gets out of its own way pretty well while returning 28 EPA highway mpg (24 overall). In sum, it works and handles like a van (nimble, but a body roll Pro) but gets better gas mileage. And, stars willing, it will be reliable and long-lived, like a van’s supposed to be.
ProMaster Pro conclusion: Touring rock bands may need to look elsewhere, but these are worthy machines. Van consumers have never been so spoiled for choice.