Rental Review: 2017 RAM 1500 Promaster Cargo 136″ WB Low Roof – U-Haul Traded In My Transit

(first posted 2/26/2017. This was just a couple of months before I bought our 2017 Promaster, which is now six years old and has served us impeccably. As in, not a single trip to the dealer ever (good thing, as our local Stellantis dealer doesn’t sell and service commercial vehicles like the PM), or any other issue. Just oil changes, and one new set of tires. Fuel mileage: 17-18 mpg average; 19-20 on a relaxed highway cruise. I’m very happy with it. PN)

Back in 2015, I wrote about my experience with a virtually new U-Haul Ford Transit 250 Van that I had occasion to rent for the day.  I fully expect that you remember how impressed I was with it and in case you don’t, I have conveniently included the link above for you.  This week, I again had such an opportunity.  However, when I pulled up to my local U-Haul affiliate, I realized that the Transits were gone and along with a row of new but old-style GMC Savana vans, they also had several RAM (the brand formerly known as the truck part of Dodge) Promasters.  And I now find myself authoring a series…

Well, this was perfect.  While I had zero intention of accepting one of the GMC’s (although I really should next time, in the name of research if nothing else) I was interested in giving the RAM a shot.  Superficially it heavily resembles the Transit and is the third of the “Euro-style” vans available in the U.S. market if one includes the Sprinter.

Surprisingly the actual rental process was improved from last time, the staff was friendlier and after the vehicle walk-around, I was shown on my rental contract a nifty little gauge that showed exactly how many gallons of gas I would need to add depending on what the fuel gauge displayed before returning the van in order to return the actual fuel level to 7/8, as it was when I checked it out.

Being the frugal (ok, cheap) renter that I am, in the past I would usually just add some gas, then turn the van on to check, then add more, and repeat a few times until it was approximately correct, God forbid I give them an extra gallon or so.  I don’t know why they don’t just insist that it be full every time, there is a gas station right next to the rental yard…

Anyway, driving to my first stop, I realized that this was a FWD van, but didn’t know what engine it had.  It turned out to have the Chrysler 3.6liter “Pentastar” V6, (280hp, 260 lb-ft torque) mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.  Acceleration was brisk, the shifts were smooth, and counter to what others on these pages had mentioned previously, the FWD was not an issue.  Maybe after I pick up a load.

One does get a sense of being in a cab-over style of vehicle although it is not at all one, the wheels are far forward and the engine is in front.  The floor does have easily removable panels for extra access to the oily bits, I kind of removed one while stopped at a light and was looking at the cover for the fuel pump.  However one sees very little of the hood and I didn’t even think about that huge proboscis of a front bumper until I reviewed these pictures tonight.  I guess it’s a good thing that it can be replaced in three sections, RAM touts this as an advantage.  This van had the 136″ wheelbase, which is the middle of three options.

I did notice that the driver seems to sit higher than in the Transit and way higher than in an older, “traditional” (U.S.-legacy-style) van.  At one point I was stopped behind a late 2000’s Dodge Ram Cargo Van and noticed that my eyes were right about in line with its roof, so I was effectively sitting about a foot higher off the ground.

The problem that I noted though was that the windshield was not that much higher than my eyes, so you end up craning your neck at lights if you are in the front row, and the decal that U-Haul had applied to the top of the windshield was intrusive.  In the interests of research I tried lowering the sun visor.  Don’t do it, it’s kind of like a blindfold, you might as well start texting.

I’m 6 foot, 1 inch with a 32 inch inseam, people taller than me (such as Paul N.) might have a bigger issue.  As it was, the gauges were half cut off by the wheel even when the tilt was all the way to to top (yes, it has a tilt wheel!).  The picture above was taken from a lower vantage point than my eyes.

As far as the rest of the cabin goes, the seats were superb with excellent back support and an infinite-backrest-angle adjustment knob (like an older VW), and a comfortable, grippy cloth surface.  The dashboard materials were not as nice as those of the Transit, the plastics were more of an industrial grade (which is mission-appropriate I suppose), but everything worked and there were no rattles or other apparent quality issues.

In fairness this van had less than 5000 miles on the odometer, so it was still very new.  The climate control knobs were obvious as to their function, were easy to adjust, and the radio worked well.  There was a USB port next to a 12v port on the dash, the locks were power as were the windows but curiously only featured express-down capability, to bring them back up you have to hold the button up the whole time.  Not too shabby for a U-Haul vehicle.  The shifter also had a manual shift option (slide to the left, then toggle up and down) but I did not bother with it.

At my first stop (Lowe’s) I needed to load 2800 pounds of pre-finished hardwood flooring.  The four (!) employees assigned to help load it tried to make it work with a forklift for about half an hour which was a problem as the load was too long for the pallet it was on, so they tried a few things that would frighten an OSHA inspector while I stayed well out of the way, then they gave up on that idea and just hand-loaded 40 cartons in about five minutes.

Leaving Lowe’s I was wondering how the load would affect the van and was pleasantly surprised to note that it did not seem to make much difference as far as acceleration went.  This van is plenty fast with this engine (and remember I am at 5000 feet altitude), if anything it’s better than the Transit was with its 3.7l V6.  The ride smoothed out a bit with the load but it rode acceptably both with and without a load.

Arriving at the house I am refurbishing, I noticed for the second time the main difficulty with this van, that being visibility.  It is very difficult to back up and be sure there is nothing behind you.  As with the Transit, I missed having a backup camera, instead my head was bobbing and weaving about like a bobble-head doll looking at both mirrors on either side (4 mirror surfaces, standard and convex on each side).  Trying to use the rear-view mirror with the holes cut in the safety cage makes your eyes go all googly.

Even going forward though the A-pillar is simply massive, when making a left turn it is VERY easy to not even see pedestrians crossing the street without making large head movements to see around the pillar.  The side window is also not very wide and does not afford a great view that way either.

I backed up to the front door and positioned myself to remove the cargo and take it inside.  This is when I realized the real benefit to FWD in a cargo application, that being the lower load height in the rear.  I looked it up later and sure enough, the cargo floor is about 8″ lower than that of the Transit.  Somehow I moved all forty of the 70lb boxes by myself in just over half an hour and then decided to start phase two of the project.

This involved heading to the house I actually live in and using my appliance dolly to load an extra washer and dryer that we recently replaced into the van and driving it to this house for temporary storage.  Again, the low floor made loading easier and it was no problem to place the machines in the van and drive them across town.

Upon arrival at the project house again I backed it up (carefully) to the garage and unloaded it and was now ready for phase three of the day, the dump run.  Usually I don’t do my dump run until my projects are almost complete but I had the van for the day so why not.  Here is where the load height really made a difference.

Filling up the cargo area with assorted debris including unwieldy rolls/bundles of carpet, crates of tile debris, lumber, random pieces of drywall with tile attached in many cases, an extremely heavy 1980’s microwave/hood, some countertops and much else was all made much easier by being able to take a medium size step up into the van.

Doing the same in the Transit was more difficult but in either case, having the (near) vertical walls made a huge difference as well, it was much more efficient to load stuff into.  If I actually owned one of these though, it would have to be a high-roof version, if I could stand completely upright, it would make for a very usable mobile workspace.

I totally understand that fleet managers and company bosses often don’t care about the people that have to drive their fleet vehicles, but if they could be made to understand the increase in worker productivity, satisfaction and possibly health benefits that could be realized in a comfortable cargo area (i.e. tall enough to stand in, and square enough to be more useful in carrying equipment and supplies), just maybe there are tangible payoffs beyond having and repeatedly purchasing the same type of van with known faults and easy (known) fixes for decades of use.

After loading it with debris, I took off for the county dump.  The check-in line was long so I had time to poke around the cab and was surprised to find the sticker in the glovebox!  My van, as equipped with the “U-Haul Equipment Group” carried a sticker price of $33,370, which did not include various later upfitter expenses such as the step bars on the sides and the cargo cage behind the seats and of course about a million stickers and labels.

This van was built in Mexico (as opposed to the U.S. for the Transit) and it appears that Chrysler of Forest City, Iowa was the selling dealer of record.  I wonder what kind of fleet discounts off the sticker price U-Haul has negotiated, I’m sure they pay nowhere near the listed price.

At the dump I encountered the one situation that seems to make people nervous about the front wheel drive aspect – recently they had started a new tier and had constructed a fairly steep dirt ramp leading up to it.  Going up it the front end seemed to go a little bit light but the wheel stayed straight and it held traction.  I suppose if worst came to worst (i.e. if it was wet and muddy) I could always have backed up it, but it was not an issue.

Frankly the FWD thing is NOT an issue whatsoever, driving it around the thing seems front heavy, and if anything around here with rain, snow, and ice I think the average person or contractor would be better off with a FWD van than a RWD one anyway.

Upon checking out I received my weigh-slip and realized that if I removed my own weight, the van itself weighs right around 5000lbs which is more than I would have guessed.  But I also realized that I had myself moved around 6800lbs that day (2800 lbs of flooring out of the van, about 300 lbs of appliances in and out, and then 1700 lbs of debris into the van and the same 1700 lbs of debris back out of the van at the dump).

In total I drove the van 31 miles before returning it.  While getting gas I managed to misread the handy gauge that U-Haul had supplied me with, and being cheap, I put in 1.5 gallons instead of 1.7 as I thought it requested.  Only when the gauge didn’t quite go back to the 7/8’s mark did I realize it actually wanted me to put 3.3 gallons in (I looked at the wrong hashmark).  The U-Haul guy didn’t seem bothered by it and let it slide but it probably needed at least two gallons, so let’s figure about 15mpg which is exactly what the Ford did two years ago.

Did I like it better than the Transit?  I’m a bit conflicted, it’s very close but not quite.  I think if it was a toss-up I’d take the Ford, but I would certainly not avoid the RAM.  If anything the cargo area (which is the whole point if we are being honest) is better (lower and even more square) and the powertrain is simply excellent.  The RAM’s sliding door is nicer than double doors on the side of the body as well, I remember the Transit doors trying to close on me several times on a slight incline.  However, the front cabin materials and layout are a bit better in the Ford and visibility while driving is also better in the Ford.  I don’t think you could go wrong with either though, especially as a rental!