“Drives like a car”

by Sean Kilcarr

It’s such the cliché in the truck-design business today: developing commercial vehicles that offer the comfort, handling, and operational characteristics of passenger cars.

Indeed, many years ago, a truck engineer shared with me that one of the “guiding lights” of his profession pretty much followed the mantra expressed above.

Paraphrasing our conversation, he told me that truck drivers should not experience a “significant difference” when they climb out of their work vehicles at the end of a long day – be that vehicle a Class 8 highway tractor or delivery van – and get into their personal cars to go home.

In essence, work vehicles shouldn’t be uncomfortable, require more effort to steer, or lack onboard capability such as navigation systems, when compared to personal vehicles, he said – because those are the kinds of differences that convince many potential candidates not to become commercial drivers.

From that perspective, then, the new ProMaster City van built by Chrysler’s Ram Truck division I got to test drive last week in Austin, TX, meets such marks.

Easy to drive whether loaded and unloaded, with plenty of power combined with excellent agility, the new ProMaster City – due to arrive in dealerships sometime in the first quarter of next year – offers functionality meshed with easy operation so someone like myself well-versed in family minivan operation finds piloting such a vehicle a snap.

Let’s start with some of the key “driver-centric” features of the new ProMaster City that makes it easy to operate.

First, the tucked front-wheel-drive packaging is compact allowing for a short hood – giving operators a wider forward view. Big oversize side-view mirrors and the optional ParkView rear backup camera system (featured on the pre-production ProMaster City models I operated) vastly improve the safe operation “zone” for drivers.

Here’s a nice touch: More protective cladding on the side and rear protect the body from knee-level bumps; a frequent issue when you’re driving around in tight urban confines.

And here’s another nice little design flair: The door handles and divot spacing are big enough so you don’t have to remove your work gloves to open or close either the side sliding or rear cargo doors.

Those door openings are not only big but designed with safety in mind. Take the 60/40 rear door size split: the larger (60) rear door is the one opening on the driver’s or traffic side of the vehicle, providing the operator more protection when unloading. That also means the smaller door on the curb side is less of a hindrance when unloading the van as well.

Both rear doors lock open at 90 degrees and reach nearly the height of the van and can open to 180 degrees, parallel with the rear of the van for easy dock loading.

In terms of performance, the van’s 2.4-liter Tigershark I-4 engine cranks out 178 hp and 14 lb.-ft. of torque, but when combined with the van standard 9-speed automatic transmission – dubbed the 948TE by Ram – not only does it help the vehicle get 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, it provides for very quick response times.

Meshed with a 4.70 first-gear ratio, the ProMaster City can go from 0-to-30 mph in an estimated 3.7 seconds and 0-to-60 mph in an estimated 9.8 seconds. I had occasion where I required a little extra “oomph” to pass other vehicles quickly and the ProMaster City delivered without delayed response or the dreaded high-pitched whine of strain engine.

In terms of maneuverability, the ProMaster City’s MacPherson strut suspension on the front axle combined with its independent bi-link rear suspension made the van more comfortable to drive as well as more responsive during the performance course testing.

Big 12-inch front disc brakes combined with 10-inch drum brakes also boosted the stopping power of the ProMaster City, especially on the wet traction segment of the performance course.

The biggest takeaway, though, from my albeit short experience with the ProMaster City is pretty simple: it’s intuitive to operate and easy to drive. At the end of the day, that’s what I suspect any commercial operator wants in a van these days.