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First Drive: 2015 Ram ProMaster City

Ignore the exterior. Ram's ProMaster City offers van-like versatility and car-like economy

It may not be the prettiest vehicle in town, but the ProMaster City will likely prove a smart choice for urban businesses seeking a practical and efficient work vehicle.

Surrounded by salvaged heavy-duty trucks at a production studio lot, Ram’s new compact van weaved through a course designed to prove its maneuverability and toughness. The 2015 Ram ProMaster City scrambled confidently over staggered tire treads fixed to the pavement, squeezed around a circle designed to flaunt its tight turning radius and weaved left and right in an emergency lane-change exercise.

Testing acceleration from a standstill, I slammed on the accelerator pedal only to promptly jump hard on the brakes, inducing a ABS-assisted slide on asphalt soaked with water.

Ram called the event “work cross,” a commercial-vehicle version of the closed-course autocross that tests vehicle dynamics at relatively low speeds. The vehicle, all-new for the U.S. but based on the European-market Fiat Doblo, is not intended solely as a work vehicle.

A five-passenger wagon version, spokespeople for Ram suggest, makes an ideal platform for individuals, too, thanks to a good balance of passenger space, cargo volume and efficiency, too.

Van, truck, or wagon?

Choosing a category for the ProMaster City is a challenge. It’s not a van, although it can easily accommodate a pallet in its 131.7-cubic-foot cargo space.

The ProMaster City’s ungraceful lines pack plenty of practical traits.

The ProMaster City has the long roof of a wagon but, even with the five-passenger setup, it’s taller and more upright than any typical passenger wagon. It could be considered a crossover, although that term usually describes a car-like SUV. The ProMaster City instead crosses a car with a minivan.

Rather than classifying it, the easiest way to explain the ProMaster City is by comparing it to a similar vehicle from Ford, the Transit Connect. These two – along with the Nissan NV200 and its sister model from GM, the Chevrolet City Express – represent a new, more efficient alternative to big, traditional American work trucks and vans.

Car-like ride and handling

Powered by 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine spinning the front wheels through a nine-speed automatic, the ProMaster City is an efficient little workhorse. The Tigershark engine makes 178 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque, enough to haul 1,883 lbs of cargo or pull a 2,000-lb trailer. Fuel economy is rated at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, impressive numbers for business owners and fleet operators always looking to minimize operational costs.

Thanks to an independent bi-link rear suspension and a low seating position, handling is more comfortable and car-like than in a body-on-frame truck or even some work-ready minivans.

Speaking of minivans, Ram will phase out its C/V minivan in 2015 as the ProMaster City becomes the sole compact work vehicle in a lineup that also includes the full-size ProMaster – also a Fiat-derived model – and, of course, a broad range of light- and heavy-duty pickups.

Comfortable interior

When business demands an eight-hour shift behind the wheel, ProMaster City drivers will be impressed with the vehicle’s spaciousness, comfort and practicality.

Headroom is vast, accommodating the tallest drivers and easing entry and egress.

Wide and supportive front seats are covered in fabric that feels tough enough for heavy use.

A fold-down armrest is attached to the inboard side of the driver seat. Headroom is vast, accommodating the tallest drivers and easing entry and egress. Controls are well-placed, and the design of the dash is simple and attractive.

Aesthetically challenged exterior

The same praise for attractive styling does not apply to the exterior. The proportions are odd and ungainly, despite the apparent best efforts of designers. On the wagon version, rear side windows are small and appear an afterthought. Imagining a customer choosing this vehicle for non-commercial use is a challenge when other vehicles – crossovers, minivans, or even compact pickups – offer similar capabilities without the awkward looks.

Still, form follows function, and the ProMaster City’s ungraceful lines pack plenty of practical traits. Sliding doors on both sides make it easy to access cargo – or passengers – from both the driver side and curb side.

First Drive: 2015 Ram ProMaster City front seats 2

Rear doors are side-hinged and split 60/40, although the smaller door opens only after the releasing the larger one. Push a simple lever and those doors swing wide past their usual, 90-degree detent. Finally, a low floor just 21.5 inches from the pavement aids easy loading and unloading.

Hi-ho, hi-ho

Spokespeople for Ram predict that 75 to 80 percent of ProMaster City buyers will opt for the cargo version, which starts at $23,130. The rest will choose the passenger version for a $1,000 premium. Considering the highly functional design of this vehicle, perhaps even those that go with the wagon will use it for work applications.

In fact, the 2015 Ram ProMaster City will be available with a factory applied, broom yellow exterior paint color, readying it for use in taxi fleets. Considering its blend of functionality, comfort and efficiency, I expect those cabbies to be impressed.

Conclusion

Full-size vans like the bigger ProMaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter are in a different class than compact ones like the ProMaster City and Ford Transit Connect. As such, the big guys offer more capability: greater cargo volume, beefier payloads and more truck-like towing ratings. The flip side, though, is weaker fuel efficiency and more cumbersome handling.

Commercial vehicles are tools. Different ones work best for different jobs. If you can get away with a smaller vehicle, the ProMaster City is a good choice. Choosing between it and the comparable long-wheelbase Transit Connect, though, is a chore; the two are remarkably similar in terms of price, efficiency, and capability.

The folks from Ram believe that overall cost of ownership is the number one factor on which buyers in this category base their decisions. Only time will reveal the winner in that race. Add one of each to your fleet and put them both to work. After a year or two of duty, one will surely reveal itself to be a more profitable tool than the other.

Highs

  • Voluminous cargo capacity
  • Commendable efficiency
  • Right-sized for urban environments

Lows

  • Void of style
  • Single powertrain offering