By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Minivans started off as inexpensive, economical, hugely versatile alternatives to both cars and things a lot bigger. But today’s minivans are not-so-mini and rarely economical — either to buy or to drive. Some cost over $40,000 (the 2015 Chrysler Town & Country starts at $29,995) and all of them drink gas like Sam Kinison drank Jack Daniels.
Which may explain the growing popularity of little jitney bus things like the Ford Transit Connect (first to market), the Nissan NV200 (second) and now the 2015 Dodge Ram ProMaster City.
If you check the stats, you’ll discover these units are about the same size, footprint-wise, as minivans used to be before they bloated up to automotive Oprah proportions — and much smaller (on the outside) than current minivans — but nearly as roomy (and much more versatile) on the inside due to their tall roofs and almost infinitely configurable cabins.
They’re also much less expensive. All three of the above start around $23k or less.
And they use a lot less gas.
So, it’s no wonder people who’ve noticed these useful — and cheap — vehicles are buying them in growing numbers and as an alternative to traditional (and no longer very mini) vans and expensive — and even more thirsty — SUVs.
WHAT IT IS
The ProMaster City is a compact-sized/tall-roofed van that can be ordered to haul cargo and tools — or people — or both.
Like its main rivals — the Ford Transit Connect and the Nissan NV200 — the ProMaster is built on a car-type, front-wheel-drive chassis and is powered by a small, four-cylinder engine to deliver adequate A to B power and very good gas mileage.
All three can be ordered with spartan, bare-bones interiors (just a driver and front seat passenger seat with an empty metal box behind them to do what you want with) or with a second (and even a third) row of seats (and side windows) and be transformed into a jitney bus, minivan or even a small-scale RV.
Base price for the ProMaster City is $23,130 vs. $22,330 for the the Ford Transit, $20,720 for the Nissan NV, which is the least expensive of the lot.
On the other end of the scale, the ProMaster’s price tops out at $25,655 for a Tradesman SLT trim — vs. $29,185 for Titanium-trimmed Transit.
The Nissan NV is still the least expensive, even in top of the line SV trim — just $21,700.
It’s also the most “commercial” of the three — offering fewer amenities and a more UPS experience overall.
The ProMaster is the newest of the Small Three — at least, in the U.S. market. In Europe — home market for Fiat (which owns Chrysler and so, Ram trucks) the same basic vehicle is sold as the Doblo.
Highest payload rating of the three (1,883 lbs.).
Most cargo capacity of the three (131.7 cubic feet).
Strongest standard engine; standard nine-speed automatic transmission.
Independent/coil spring rear gives better ride/handling than leaf-sprung NV200.
Utilitarian — but not Soviet.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Ford Transit’s nicer, feels less Soviet.
Nissan NV200’s cheaper.
Nine speed automatic surges sometimes.
UNDER THE HOOD
Thirty-something years ago, the first-generation of minivans — the ’84 Dodge Caravan being the archetype — were propelled by get-the-job-done four cylinder engines driving the front wheels.
It was sufficient — and that was plenty.
Same deal here.
The PM and its rivals all come standard with four cylinder engines, all but one of them (the Ford Transit’s optional turbo four) being simple, boilerplate units meant to get you from A to B. Not necessarily quickly, but definitely efficiently.
Pop the PM’s hood and there it is: A transverse-mounted (this is a front-wheel-drive, car-based ride, remember — not a truck-based SUV) 2.4 liter unit that produces 178 hp. It’s not a lot of engine for a vehicle with a curb weight of 3,512 lbs. empty. But it gets the job done.
If, that is, the job is defined as capability — and relative to its rivals. The PM can haul more deadweight inside its cargo area; up to 1,833 pounds vs. 1,710 for the Ford and just 1,480 lbs. for the Nissan. The PM can also pull up to 2,000 lbs. — as much as the Transit Connect and 100 percent more than the Nissan NV200, which isn’t rated to tow anything at all.
The NV is the most under-engined of the bunch. Just 2.0 liters and a puny 131 hp to haul its 3,260 lbs. around. Asking that already over-taxed engine to pull something in addition to that would be Abu Ghraib level mechanical abuse and probably a warranty nightmare for Nissan, too.
However, the NV200 does deliver best-in-class city mileage: 24 MPG vs. 21 for the PM and the Transit Connect. Once moving at above stop-and-go speeds, however, both the Ford and the PM pull away, posting 29 MPG on the highway (vs. 26 for Nissan) which helps them score higher average numbers.
Acceleration is what you’d expect — adequate. Actually, it’s pretty good for a vehicle like this. One that weighs about the same as a current Camry sedan but has the aerodynamic slipperiness of two Camrys stacked on top of one another. The PM can make 60 MPH in just under 10 seconds, which for the record is quicker than a current Prius hybrid and in the same ballpark as many current-year compact economy cars.
And you can’t haul your motorcycle inside any of those.
The Ram’s 2.4 engine is paired up with a nine-speed automatic — vs. the six-speed automatic in the Ford and the CVT automatic in the Nissan. Fiat — which owns Chrysler (which owns Ram) — has been seeding this new box throughout the corporation’s offerings, including the new Chrysler 200 sedan and Jeep Cherokee, among others. This additional gearing is advantageous in terms of leverage — getting the vehicle up to speed with less energy (i.e., gasoline) required.
It is one of the reasons for the PM’s strong highway MPG number.
ON THE ROAD
You don’t expect a pig to sing, so when it happens, it’s pretty impressive — even if it’s a little off-key.
The PM is like that in that it actually drives — even handles — not half-badly. Once you’re in it, it feels pretty much like a medium-small crossover wagon.
Better, in some ways.
The view ahead and to your immediate right and left, for instance, is exceptionally good because of the very large (and very tall) glass used for the windshield and door glass.
It’s not so great to your rear, of course — due to the “tunnel vision” of that big empty box behind you and the big “I” beam in between the rear glass. If you order rear glass. It’s not included with the base Cargo trim. Neither are windows for the sliding side doors. They’re also extra. But the side mirrors are big — and feature double mirrors, like an RV has — and for the same reasons. You learn to use — and rely — on them.
Relative to its rivals — and to cars, generally — the PM sits very low to the ground: 5.1 inches of clearance vs. 6.5 for the NV200 and 6.3 for the Ford. This confers two meaningful advantages. First, the center of mass is closer to the road and this noticeably decreases the top-heavy feeling that would otherwise almost certainly be an issue for a vehicle that stands 74 inches off the pavement (vs. 72.8 for the Ford and 73.7 for the Nissan). I’ve driven all three extensively in my home turf of rural SW Virginia — up in the Blue Ridge Mountains — where wind buffeting is an everyday thing. The PM is the least unsettled by sudden gusts of the three, despite being the tallest of the three — perhaps because it’s got less air gap under its skirts and that helps it maintain its footing.
It also makes it feel less industrial getting in and out. Step in height (21.5 inches) is car-like, not van (or truck) like.
Also not-industrial is the PM’s dashboard and general layout. Very car-crossover like.
Like the Transit’s.
Unlike the Nissan NV’s, which is very much a commercial space.
The PM’s standard nine-speed automatic keeps cruise RPM really low, too. At 60 on level terrain the engine will be turning just under 2,000 revs, which helps save fuel and also makes the thing feel (and sound) less busy. The top three gears are invisible in that you don’t really notice the transitions up and down — and even when you attempt to manually go up and down via “+” and “-” tapping of the gear selector, the computer mostly keeps you in whatever gear it decides is right for the situation. It won’t go up to 8th or 9th in manual mode, for example, if your speed isn’t high enough (to avoid lugging the engine) even though the display says you’ve moved to 8th or 9th.
One thing that Fiat-Chrysler needs to fine-tune a little is the transmission’s tendency to impart a sensation that the vehicle is surging forward when going downhill. It jumps up a gear or two — when probably it ought to hold the gear it’s in, or even drop down one to provide an engine braking effect rather than an accelerating-without-touching-the-gas-pedal effect. I’ve noticed this same issue in other Fiat-Chryslers with the nine-speed box.
It’s a little unnerving until you get used to it and realize it’s “normal.”
The engine is a strong point — literally. It makes sufficient power (vs. the Nissan’s marginal power). The Ford is good on this score, too — but the PM noses ahead because of its greater cargo-hauling capacity.
The PM’s longer-than-rivals wheelbase (122.4 inches vs. 120.6 for the Ford and 115.2 for the NV200) is an inherent stability-enhancer and its independent rear suspension delivers an impressively smooth, controlled ride. Also noteworthy is the PM’s much tighter turning circle relative to its rivals: 36.3 feet vs. the Transit’s 40 feet.
The Nissan’s 36.7 feet is comparably tight but the rest of the vehicle is much clunkier and clumsier feeling. It’s the go-to one if you want the least expensive one of the bunch, but it’s a case of getting exactly what you pay for.
AT THE CURB
Let’s put things in perspective — in proportion.
A 1984 Dodge Caravan was 175.9 inches long and rode on a 112.1 inch wheelbase. The 2015 Chrysler Town & Country — linear descendant of the ’84 Caravan — is 202.8 inches long and rides on a 121.2 inch wheelbase.
It is huge — and it is expensive.
Thirsty, too (17 city, 25 highway).
Now the PM.
It’s only seven inches longer than the ’84 Caravan — and 15.3 inches shorter overall than the ’15 Town and Country. It’s also 6.6 inches narrow through the hips (72.1 inches vs. 78.7 for the ’15 T&C). The ’84 Caravan was, interestingly also just 72 inches wide — virtually the same as the ’15 PM.
Point being, the dimensions of this van are — with the exception of height — very close to those of the original/first-generation minivans. It is much more svelte than the dimensions of modern minivans like the T&C — which really ought to be called vans at this point… not minivans.
Another commonality — already touched on — is the simple/functional/space-efficient layout. Despite it being a smaller package on the outside, the PM has nearly as much room inside as the much larger-on-the-outside T&C: 131.7 cubic feet vs. 143.8 for the not-so-mini van. And the PM arguably has more usable real estate because of its tall roof, low load height, dual outward swinging (and 60/40) rear doors (vs. the minivan’s one-piece upward folding liftgate). And, of course, the fact that it can be ordered with just two seats (driver and front seat passenger).
Apples to apples-wise, the PM’s got more cargo capacity than the Transit (128.6 cubic feet) and the Nissan NV (122.7 cubic feet). But the main point is any of these is more in keeping with the idea behind the first-wave minivans of the early-mid 1980s than the current crop of not-so-mini (or cheap) vans.
The PM is less commercial in demeanor, design, cabin layout and general feel than the very bare-bones Nissan NV but not quite as — well, luxurious may not be the right word — but something along those lines, relative to the Ford. Which can be ordered with stuff like a peppy turbocharged engine, adaptive headlights, heated leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, a full-length panorama sunroof and a longer-wheelbase version with three rows of seats (PM offers just the one wheelbase and one or two-row seating layout).
But, the PM can be ordered with a good stereo (with USB connector and very tactile knob inputs that have just the right amount of drag built into them to make precise, incremental adjustments every time) and a touch-screen GPS LCD screen.
It may not offer heated leather seats like the Transit, but the heater is excellent. Cranked to the hottest setting, it lets out air that feels almost warm enough to melt the plastic vents. That’s the ticket on an 18 degree day in a vehicle with a lot of interior volume (and much of it not insulated, if you order the basic Tradesman (cargo-hauling) trim.
The Ford is good on that score, too. But the Nissan NV doesn’t cut it. Dress warm.
One very cool — because useful — design aspect of the PM that is unique to the PM is the width between the rear wheel-well humps inside the box. It measures 48 inches, which just happens to be exactly the clearance you’d need if you wanted to slide a pallet in there. And with 51.8 inches of vertical (floor to ceiling) space, you can transport a motorcycle inside — out of the weather. And — trust me on this — it’s a lot easier to roll a bike into something like the PM than it is to push it up into a standard-sized van… much less a pick-up truck (and then your bike’s out in the weather, too).
The optional second-row is a tumble-forward/fold design similar in concept to what you’d find in a standard minivan like the current T&C. They’re easier to move out of the way than either the Ford or Nissan’s optional second row.
One thing none of the vehicles in this segment have that they really ought to at least offer is a diesel engine option. Not only for MPG reasons but also to give ’em more grunt — more pulling and hauling capability.
And — guess what? Fiat offers not one or even two but four diesels in the essentially identical European-spec. Doblo (read here and weep). Euro buyers can select a 1.3 liter or 1.6 liter or either of two 2.0 liter oil-burners.
Equipped with the 1.3 “Multijet” diesel engine, the Doblo delivers 56.5 MPG on average.
But not for us — because U.S. regulatory rigmarole, especially regarding particulate emissions, is so expensive, so difficult to comply with, that most European manufacturers no longer even make the attempt.
Meanwhile, the politicos in DC bray about fuel efficiency… .
THE BOTTOM LINE
Any of these is a good choice for an economical to buy and operate hauler of stuff and of people. The PM’s the best choice, though, if you need to haul the most stuff (and fewer people).