The van segment is going through the biggest metamorphosis in its history. European van designs, which have evolved more rapidly and offer certain advantages (more variations in length, height, engine/fuel choices, and even FWD) have been adapted for the NA market. The pioneering Mercedes Sprinter gets a refresh for 2014, including a new four cylinder diesel along with the V6 diesel. The 2014 Ram ProMaster, which is strictly FWD, has just arrived. And the 2015 Ford Transit will be here next year.
There’s lots of hi-tech design and engineering in these Euro-vans, compared to the almost antediluvian American vans that have been built for decades with only modest changes. That of course has made them a tried and proven commodity. Now only the Chevy/GMC vans will soldier on. Is GM going to get left behind, or will it have the last laugh?
Since I’m in the early stages of making a decision about buying a large van to convert to a camper, I’m going to focus mostly on that particular aspect, but I’m sure some of you will pipe in with comments about these vans’ pros and cons in more commercial settings too.
I bought our ’77 Dodge Chinook in 2002 for $1200. I’ve put in maybe another $800 in cash and a bit of labor, and we’ve racked up some 40k miles all over the West and twice into Baja. But it’s getting tired, it has no cab A/C, is very noisy, etc. Every trip becomes an exercise in improvising little fixes, and worrying about what will come next, like on our last big trip to Glacier. Call us crazy, but we are planning to take it for one more big trip this winter down to sunny Arizona, New Mexico and California, but then it may be heading for the retirement home, or a new owner.
We’ll take a quick look at all of the Euro vans, as the GM vans are all-too well known to us. The one that interests me the most personally is the Ram ProMaster. That’s not because it’s another Chrysler product, but because of its FWD configuration. That is highly ideal for a camper/motor home, since it allows a lower floor height, among other things.
For those unaccustomed to the idea of a FWD truck/van, Europe has been at it for a long time, since 1940s at least, with the legendary Citroen H Van (CC here).
And the FWD Fiat Ducato, built by the Sevel joint venture between Fiat and PSA (Peugeot/Citroen) has become the dominant platform for camper and motor homes in Europe since 1981, with about two-thirds of that market. This is a gen1 Ducato. And don’t even think of questioning the Ducato’s proven toughness and reliability because of its French-Italo heritage. They have a great rep in Europe.
The ProMaster as of course substantially revised from the gen3 European Ducato for the NA market. The biggest change is the standard gas engine, the 3.6 L Pentastar V6, rated at 280 hp, and teamed up to the 68TEA six speed automatic. Essentially, it’s the same power train as used in the Chrysler minivans, but the transmission is beefed up, has better cooling, and of course lower gearing. An Iveco 3.0 L diesel four (180 hp) with a “robotized manual” transmission will join it later, along with a $4000 extra cost.
Undoubtedly, the diesel will get excellent mileage; possibly deep into the twenties. That might worth considering for high-mileage fleet use, but for personal use as a combination hauler-camper, I would stick to the gas drive train. There are no EPA numbers for this size vehicle, but Alex Dykes, in his excellent review of the ProMaster at TTAC, averaged 17 mpg. That is better than I might have expected, and plenty good enough for me (the old Dodge gets 11mpg).
The ProMaster comes in three wheelbases (118″, 136″ and 159″), and in low roof, high roof, and extended body (159″ wb only), and as vans and cut-away chassis/cabs.
The ProMaster is expected to be very popular in the van-camper (Class B) and Class C (cab-over sleeper) industry. Winnebago has already announced two, the van-based Travato,
As well as the Class C Trend. And the hot rumor is that Germany’s Hymer, a dominant and innovative RV manufacturer from Germany is heading to the US, to take advantage of its vast Ducato experience. The Hymers are all very clever in terms of their space utilization and other details.
The problem is that the price of these commercial rigs is a turn-off. And often the configuration and materials are not to our liking. The MSRP of the Travato van from Winnebago is over $80k! The van itself is about $35k. That’s just way too much for turning it into a livable space. We have a very clear idea of what we want, which is quite minimalistic, so we’re seriously considering a DIY approach, possibly with buying pre-fab components and such. With a bit of care and time, the result, like this home-built Ducato in England, can be very nice. And I certainly have all the tools. Now I just need to finish the house I’m building!
I also will configure it like the Travato with the bed that folds up along the rear wall, so I can still use the van to haul long lumber, pipes and other materials, as well as my tools when I’m working on one of my other houses. A multi-purpose van.
I’ve been MM’ing over a Sprinter van since they arrived in 2002 or so. But I couldn’t justify the expense, and have become a bit queasy about their inconsistent rep on maintenance expenses, reliability and parts prices. The first few years seem to have a pretty good rep, before they had to modify the diesel engine for tighter US emission regs.
The NA gen2 version Sprinter that arrived in 2007 grew in its dimensions, got a V6 engine, and the price went up even higher. The 2014 refresh gets a new front end that is more in keeping with Mercedes current styling, and has a new base engine. It’s all of 2.1 liters, a twin-turbo four diesel that makes 161 hp and 265 ft.lbs of torque, and is matched to a seven-speed transmission. The optional 188 hp V6 diesel with 325 ft.lbs. torque is mated to the older five-speed transmission. MSRPs run some 20% higher than similar-sized ProMasters. I think the Sprinter is going to be a bit challenged, especially when the Ford Transit gears up too. How much is the star on the grille worth?
The Ford Transit is also a big seller in Europe, especially so in the UK. Over there, the Transit can be had in both RWD and FWD versions, which allows it to be configured for its optimal use.
For those needing to tow heavy loads, or for the truck/dump versions that are so popular in Europe instead of our pickups, RWD is the way to go. But for the smaller-mid sized delivery vans and such, the FWD version offers a lower floor and lighter weight, as with the ProMaster. And if the choice between FWD and RWD is too difficult, the European Transit is also available in all-wheel drive.
The 2015 Transit for NA will be RWD only, and come in two wheelbase lengths (130 and 148 inches), and three body lengths as well as three roof heights. Standard engine will be the 3.7 V6, and the Eco-Boost 3.5 V6 is optional. No word yet on whether a diesel will eventually be offered.
Presumably pricing will comparable to the ProMaster (roughly $28-37k MSRP), with fleet prices undoubtedly lower. The biggest difference between the two will of course be the RWD vs. FWD issue. The Transit will offer superior towing capacity (the ProMaster tops out at 5000lbs), and its traction will of course improve under heavy loads.
I don’t consider the traction issue to be significant, except of course when it is, like a steep hill with loose gravel or snow. I’ve taken the Chinook on some roads that would normally be considered 4WD, and its dual rear wheels and short wheelbase (129″) allowed it do get through a couple of places I would not take a ProMaster on. But I think my days of trying to push the limits like that are probably best left behind.
The Chevy is going to get short-shrift in this comparison. It just doesn’t come in the high-roof and extended body version that makes for enough space for a conversion, without an after-market fiberglass roof or such. The 4.8 L V8 is an appealing engine in terms a balance between economy and power, but the Pentastar V6 comes very close to matching it in power, and will likely yield better fuel mileage, at least as installed in the ProMaster. But the Chevy’s low price and proven technology and well-known operational costs, will undoubtedly continue to make it a popular choice for basic fleet use, especially when the Econoline bows out.
I suppose I’ve more than tipped my hand here, but I’m willing to give the Transit a bit more consideration. But if I had to pull the trigger today, it would be for a ProMaster, not unlike this Ducato conversion in New Zealand. I just need to add some big DODGE letters on the hood.