When it comes to work vans, the next big thing appears to be getting smaller. Since Ford brought its European-made Transit Connect compact van to the U.S. five years ago, the small-van market has spilled open with the debut of the Nissan NV200, the Chevrolet City Express (a re-badged version of the Nissan), a second-generation Ford Transit Connect and, most recently, the 2015 Ram ProMaster City.
Based on the Fiat Doblò, the ProMaster City comes with instant credibility, as the Italian platform has sold more than 1.3 million units since its 2000 debut. However, Ram's all-American engineering team wasn't satisfied to just slap on a new grille and badging for this van.
Among the changes to the Doblò's underpinnings are a strengthened unibody structure and suspension, designed to help it contend better with rougher pavement and heavier loads; a modified front end, for better crash performance; and an enlarged engine compartment, which makes room for a different power train.
New to the engine bay is a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, with 178 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels via a new nine-speed automatic transmission, which helps the ProMaster City return an estimated fuel economy of 21 miles per gallon in city and 29 mpg on highway.
Inside, the driver's area is plain, with a utilitarian look and plenty of hard plastics. That said, the pluses include details such as cloth upholstery, large gauges, straightforward controls, an optional touch-screen navigation system, numerous storage cubbies and a relatively quiet, controlled ride.
In back, an 87.2-in.-long load floor and a 48.4-in.-wide space between the rear wheel wells help the ProMaster City best its rivals with a class-leading 131.7 cu ft and 1,883 lb of cargo capacity. If that's not enough, the van also can tow trailers weighing up to 2,000 lb.
At an introductory drive in December in Austin, Texas, Ram showed off versions with available side and rear windows as well as a crew van with a three-person, second-row seat. Also on display were a handful of the 60-plus available upfitting solutions that can turn the van into a rolling billboard or a workshop on wheels, from exterior graphics and ladder racks to cargo bulkheads and interior shelves.
The twin sliding side doors and 60-40-split rear doors, which swing open 180°, facilitate loading and unloading. Only a low-roof version with an interior height of 52 in. is offered at the moment, but Ram officials say that if demand increases, high-roof versions in global markets could be brought stateside.
On the road, ProMaster City surprised us with sprightly acceleration and responsive handling, making this one of the more likable of the current small vans. And while it may be larger than its more compact rivals, this van is still small enough to offer all the same advantages from a driver's perspective, including being able to fit into tight spots at jobsites, parking garages and openings in traffic that would stop a traditional full-size van in its tracks.
Though we didn't get to drive the ProMaster City in quite the same way a contractor might—making multiple stops, loading and unloading supplies, fetching tools and materials out of the back—it is clearly designed for commercial operations, with plenty of storage places for work gloves, clipboards, hands-free cell phones and other gear. It also has advanced safety features, including seven air bags, electronic stability and trailer-sway controls, available rear parking sensors and a rearview camera.
According to a Ram spokesman, the company will continue to sell its C/V Tradesman work van, a panel cargo van based on the Dodge Grand Caravan, into the 2015 model year, with "some overlap" as ProMaster City launches. At a starting retail price of $25,125 that includes a $995 delivery fee, ProMaster City is the highest priced of the small-van segment but offers features that make it a worthy rival.