Front-wheel drive is what sets the all-new Ram ProMaster full-size commercial van apart from its competition. In a segment still choked with thirsty, rear-wheel-drive, ladder frame, pickup truck-based cargo vans, the American automaker is introducing something entirely new – well, new to our domestic market, as Europeans will recognize Ram's fresh entrant as a made-for-USA Fiat Ducato.

While the big ProMaster doesn't have a traditional body-on-frame chassis, it isn't a pure unibody either. Consider it a hybrid of both, with a unibody cab up front and a reinforced high-strength steel subframe in the rear. The platform employs double A-arms and MacPherson struts on the front axle, while the rear uses a simple tubular beam axle. Tires are 225/75R16 at all four corners. The steering is hydraulic rack-and-pinion (allowing an impressive 36-foot turning radius) and there are disc brakes with two-piston calipers all around. It is a solid, if unsophisticated, setup.

This game-changing van, which has already arrived in showrooms with a starting price of $28,630, is propelled by either a gasoline-powered 3.6-liter Pentastar six-cylinder (280 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque) or a new turbocharged 3.0-liter four-cylinder diesel (174 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque). Ram will offer a traditional six-speed automatic or a new six-speed automated single-clutch manual transmission that drops the hydraulic linkage to improve fuel economy – details are still emerging on this unique gearbox.

Positioning the entire powertrain, including the fuel tank, in the nose of the truck means the cargo floor can be very low – Ram boasts it is just 21 inches off the pavement. Operators will be able to stuff 530 cubic feet of cargo into the cavernous ProMaster, with a maximum payload weight of 5,145 pounds (the gross combined weight rating is 11,500 pounds for 3.6-liter and 12,500 pounds for the 3.0-liter).

Driving Notes
  • An initial walkaround of this Flame Red test vehicle (a 159-inch wheelbase, high-roof model) reveals a slew of commercial-friendly touches that improve convenience and help lower ownership costs. Easy-to-open sliding doors, both wide enough for pallets, are offered on each side. The cargo floor is available in several finishes (resin-finished wood, painted steel or rubber-coated steel) and there are up to 17 fold-away tie-down rings and an available cargo partition to keep loads secure. At the front of the cargo hold, directly above the cab, is a 'Mom's Attic' for additional storage.
  • The headlights are mounted high on the nose to limit fended-bender damage, and the bumpers are multi-piece so repairing marred sections won't require a complete replacement. It's a thoughtful series of touches that makes for an awkward-looking front end.
  • The driving position is commanding and very truck-like, meaning you sit up straight and lean forward toward the steering wheel. All of the controls are logically located, self-explanatory (manual fan speed, temperature control and distribution) and convenient to reach without stretching. With the seat all the way rearward (I'm six-foot, two-inches tall), the high-mounted shoulder belts fit awkwardly due to the relationship of the B-pillar – not as snugly as I like. Nevertheless, the view outward is excellent, and the large side mirrors and backup camera simplify low-speed maneuvers in forward and reverse.
  • It's hard to fault the on-road driving dynamics, especially compared to the others in the segment. The ProMaster drives like a big minivan – not a truck – which is a nice compliment. The front wheels are doing all of the work, and they have plenty of weight over them (even when empty), meaning the Ram feels stable and in contact with the road at all times. The steering is a bit slow, as expected, but the van is surprisingly agile and it doesn't feel top-heavy even when rushed around a few canyons.
  • I am a huge fan of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the ProMaster's most obvious competitor. Comparing the two, the Sprinter is more truck-like, while the Ram drives like a car-based van. The Sprinter is also slightly narrower, improving agility through traffic, but the Ram's width means more overall stability, which I found reassuring. While it likely won't pull many Gs on a skidpad (not that it matters a lot in the cargo-lugging universe), I'm going out on a limb and say the ProMaster is actually fun to drive.
  • Ram will offer its Mexican-assembled ProMaster in 14 different configurations, mixing and matching chassis (1500, 2500 and 3500), wheelbase (118-inch, 136-inch and 159-inch), roof (low or high) and body (cargo van, chassis cab, cutaway and window van). Unsurprisingly, the automaker has identified six competitors it plans to take on – Chevrolet Express, Ford E-Series, Ford Transit, GMC Savanna, Nissan NV Cargo and aforementioned Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. It'll take some full-load testing and long-term durability reports to know more, but I'd say they all have some serious worrying to do.
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