One can be fooled by the diminutive appearance of the new compact cargo vans arriving stateside. Built for European cities yet adapted for American jobsites, these small vans are economical and capable enough for in-the-field workers who need to pack light gear and supplies, especially where space is tight and traffic is thick.
Last month, ENR spent a week with a 2015 Ram ProMaster City compact van on loan from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Built in a passenger-wagon configuration with a second-row seat and power side windows, the wedge-shaped van was waiting for me in Milwaukee after I stepped off a plane. The base van comes with no rear seat, and both models feature rear 60/40 barn doors that open up 180°.
Designed by Fiat and built in Turkey, the Ram ProMaster City continually hinted at its European heritage: The durable, cloth driver's seat was supportive, including a lumbar control knob, yet it felt a bit cramped for my American-sized behind. A flip-down armrest on the inboard side was equally undersized, and an optional touch-screen navigation system spoke to me in a vaguely British accent.
Still, I appreciated the simple and practical cabin layout. A hard-plastic dashboard frames numerous cargo bins and keepers for drinks, gloves, phones and loose change. Above the driver's head is a handy storage bin that spans the width of the cabin and is deep enough to swallow clipboards, files and other small supplies.
The front and dual-sliding side doors wrap around the roof to suppress noise and wind drag, helping to make the cabin very quiet at highway speeds. This setup makes the doors farther away, so it's a long reach to grab the inside door handle or rest your arm. Ram provides a large molded armrest for additional comfort. Sitting at the controls, the small van is easy to drive, with a supple steering wheel, simple controls and no distracting electronica. I found the pedals a touch too close, making driving with work boots a bit tricky.
Ram's small van speeds off the line with a sprightly 2.4-liter Tigershark gasoline engine that delivers a plentiful 178 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. It uses electrohydraulic valve actuation to keep the naturally aspirated, four- cylinder, 16-valve engine running at peak efficiency. An automatic transmission with no less than nine speeds further conserves fuel, but, at times, it seemed as indecisive in choosing a gear as Congress debating a long-term transportation bill.
As I navigated the metropolitan streets of Milwaukee, Chicago and Indianapolis, the ProMaster City blended in smoothly with other vehicles on the road, even though it is slightly larger than the other small vans on the market. From bumper to bumper, it stretches more than 13 in. longer than the market leader, Ford's Transit Connect, so U-turns in the Ram are not as nimble. Furthermore, the ProMaster City's turning circle, at 42 ft in dia, is the widest in this segment.
The trade-off is that it is roomier than other compact commercial cargo vans, with 131.7 cu ft of space behind the first-row seats, more than the base Transit Connect's, and accepts a standard pallet in back; only Ram's C/V, a holdover model that essentially is a Dodge Caravan with solid-painted body panels instead of side windows, offers more space in this class. The squatter C/V has a one-piece, minivan-style rear door; it is slated to cease production after the current model year.
The Ram ProMaster City provided a pleasant ride during my 669-mile trip, and it was extremely fuel-efficient. An information screen estimated 26 mpg—on the back of an envelope, I calculated 25.7—translating into fewer trips to the pump. All this comes at a higher price, which starts at $24,125, including delivery fees, more than any other base small van's price. With the rear seats and SLT trim, my test model rang up to $28,820.