First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Ram Promaster City

Ram’s new urban work-pony also comes as a five-seater wagon

Ram Promaster City

AUSTIN, TX – Pretty much by definition, most auto journalists are gearheads. We enjoy nothing more than a spirited drive in a sporty car. But that doesn’t mean we expect every new-car preview drive to include track time or a playful romp along challenging mountain roads.

Case in point: We don’t mind that the preview of the Ram Promaster City involves a traffic-clogged drive through the inner suburbs of Austin, Texas. This urban environment is, after all, exactly the intended habitat for Ram’s new compact van. Underlining the point, some of the test vans are even burdened with about 270 kg (600 lb) of ballast in their cargo holds.

After an hour or two pottering around the ‘burbs, we arrive back at the base of the drive program. And surpri-ise! On the paved lot behind the building our hosts have laid out an auto-slalom for our education and entertainment. Loaded vans are available for that exercise, too. And yes, the City can handle it.

We’ve already heard the hype about the City’s credentials as an inner-city commercial workhorse, and it makes a pretty convincing case. But, like the Ford Transit Connect which first introduced these Class 1 vans to North America, the Promaster City also comes as a wagon. That gets us wondering: with its three-person bench seat behind the front buckets, could one of these be worth considering as a personal-use vehicle for families or active-lifestylers?

Refined and pleasant to drive

Certainly you won’t be deterred by the driving experience. The 2.4-litre, 178-horsepower four-cylinder Tiger Shark engine, teamed with a nine-speed automatic transmission (a power team also familiar in the Jeep Cherokee and Chrysler 200) is refined by any standards, not just “for a van.” The richness of ratios delivers brisk acceleration around town while holding engine rpm way down low on the highway.

Ride quality, at least on pothole-poor Texas pavement, seemed nicely cushioned; unlike most of its peers, the Ram has fully independent rear suspension, which surely doesn’t hurt the ride. And the handling, sampled both in routine street driving and on that wholly “inappropriate” slalom course, is tidy, competent and borderline entertaining.

I was able to achieve decent comfort at the wheel, but don’t expect a van-like tall-in-the-saddle driving position, at least in the ST trim level I drove (the up-level SLT has a height-adjustable driver’s seat).

Among wagons based on a Class 1 commercial vans, the Ram wagon’s most direct rival is the Ford Transit Connect wagon (there are no passenger versions of the Chevrolet City Express or Nissan NV200). The Ford wagon, however, is much more minivan-like than the Ram; it has three-row seating, full-length side windows, flat-folding seats, a fully trimmed cargo area (which reduces cargo-floor width to less than the traditional four foot measure), and a lifting tailgate (though split swing-out back doors are available).

The Ram comes only with swing-out rear doors (asymmetrically split, with the narrow half on the kerb side) and there are no side windows in the cargo area. The Ram’s 2nd-row seat folds and tumbles, so its all-seats-folded maximum cargo-deck length is less than the Ford’s; on the other hand the Ram’s wheel wells are unfinished, so it preserves the cargo van’s 4-feet-and-a-bit width between the wheel wells.

Wagon faces in-house competition

The toughest argument against a Promaster City Wagon as a minivan or SUV alternative is its price -- $28,995. Consider that pricing for the Dodge Grand Caravan starts at $19,995 (for the Canada Value Package). The Ram’s MSRP probably has more dicker room, but still, anyone looking for a handier-sized, more fuel-efficient alternative to a minivan shouldn’t have to pay more for it.

For the record, the Ram’s cargo-area is similar in height and width to the Caravan’s, and is 60 mm closer to the ground, but the minivan can pack in more cargo; and while the smaller vehicle has a higher payload, that’s offset by a lower tow rating.

“With the passenger van we’re looking at white space,” says Pete Milo, head of Ram CV engineering. “Maybe active-lifestyle customers, or somebody who needs cargo space primarily but has occasional need for extra passengers.”

That all said, the vast majority of Promaster City sales are likely to be the cargo van version. Like the wagon, this is based on the new generation of the European-market Fiat Doblo, and is actually built in Turkey (as was the original Transit Connect, though the second-generation Ford now comes out of Spain).

Among the cargo van’s peers (which include the Nissan NV200/Chevrolet City Express twins as well as the baby Transit), Ram claims best-in-class capability for engine power and torque, payload (854 kg), cargo volume (3,729 L), and cargo floor width between the wheel wells (1230 mm (48.4 inches)).

Van or wagon, ST or SLT

The Promaster City comes in ST and SLT trims list for $27,995 and $28,995 respectively, or $1,000 more apiece for the passenger wagon. Additional gear on the SLT includes premium cloth seats, power heated mirrors, cruise control, UConnect 5.0 media centre, voice control, Bluetooth streaming and steering-wheel audio controls.

The base van has left and right sliding doors standard with no glass, and neither is there glass in the back barn doors. That level of blinkering makes it strange that you have to pay extra for a back-up camera, and the door mirrors lack power adjustment – the latter a double whammy because the cabin is quite wide, making the passenger-side mirror adjustment a long stretch.

Power mirrors are standard on the SLT trim. Other options include a cargo partition with or without a window, and windows in the rear barn doors.

It’s a shame the Promaster City doesn’t offer a diesel engines like its Fiat cousin (none of its rivals do either) but even as they stand, these smaller, more fuel-efficient workhorses are a welcome addition to our urban roadscapes. And this particular Class 1 van just might be the class of its class right now.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model:  2015 Ram Promaster City

Price Range:  $27,995-$29,995 (excluding options)

Type:  Compact FWD Class 1 van

Engine:  2.4-litre 16V DOHC L4

Power/Torque:  178 hp/174 lb-ft

Transmission:  nine-speed automatic

Fuel consumption (cty/hwy): 11.2/8.1 L/100 km

Competitors:  Chevrolet City Express, Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200, Ram Van

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