Before we dive in, let’s get one thing straight. This is not, I repeat NOT a review of the 2014 RAM ProMaster cargo van. Instead I managed to get my hands on a Euro spec Fiat Ducato van for a few days. The Ducato is the basis for the ProMaster, but the ProMaster is more than just a Fiat with a RAM on it. Fiat’s Americanized cargo van might just be the biggest shakeup to the domestic commercial vehicle segment in our lifetime. Why? Front wheel drive, that’s why. Intrigued?
The American commercial market is very different from most of the world. In America, our vans are based on pickup trucks, usually a generation (or two or three) behind the consumer product. The benefit is a stable platform that’s been tested. The downsides are: a large and heavy ladder frame undercarriage causing a high center of gravity, thirsty V8 engines, old 4-speed automatics, engines located under a “dog house” between the front seats, poor fuel economy and a general lack of innovation. Even the newcomer to this segment, the Nissan NV, follows the same formula with a chassis and drivetrain very loosely based on the Titan.
In Europe things are different. Even if manufacturers had large trucks to base vans on, fuel economy is a huge deal. Because of this Europe is a sea of large unibody vans sporting small diesel engines, manual transmissions and [comparatively] aerodynamic shapes. How small? The Ford Transit sports a 100HP 2.2L diesel and a 6-speed manual. In America the only diesel cargo van on sale at the moment is the Chevy Express with a massive 6.6L V8 engine.
Form follows function. Fiat boasts the squarest, boxiest cargo area on the market, not a claim you would hear at a “normal” press conference. Up front the awkward nose is a nod to practicality. Because the Ducato is front-wheel-drive, Fiat located the transverse engines under the hood, not between the seats like you see in GM and Ford vans. Crash structures and radiators are located in the black plastic section of the nose while headlamps are positioned above the usual fender-bender zone. Fiat claims the three-piece front bumper cover reduces minor accident repair costs.
As with other entries, glass is optional. Base vans come with a windshield and two front windows. If you pay, you can get rear barn-doors with glass and partially or fully-glazed van sides. Somewhat unique is an optional driver’s side sliding door. Much like the Mercedes Sprinter and Nissan NV cargo vans, rear doors swing nearly 270 degrees and lock in place almost parallel to the side of the van.
I have been told some of the Ducato’s unique seat options will make it across the Atlantic. The standard driver’s seat is height-adjustable with lumbar support. There is also an optional suspension seat (think city-bus) and three-abreast seating. Our Euro model was distinctly lacking in the cupholder department, an omission that will be remedied for America.
Starting several inches lower than the passenger cab of the Ducato is the cargo area. Yes, several inches lower. That’s because the gas tank and battery are under the passenger compartment floor. Despite this the cab is about the same height as an Express or E-150.
The load floor is 7 inches closer to the ground than any American van. That’s what FWD does for you. Without the driveshaft to worry about, Fiat tucks the suspension and exhaust close to the load rails in the chassis making the floor of the Ducato much “thinner” than the competition. Don’t let that fool you, the Ducato’s load capacity is 3,472lbs, which positions it between the Chevrolet Express 2500′s 3,095lb capacity and the 3500′s 4,394lb maximum payload. When the Ducato becomes a naturalized American, payload increases and ranges from 3,922-4,417 lbs in the regular van configuration to 5,189 in the chassis cab and cut-away models.
Based on pickups, American vans are branded 1500, 2500 and 3500. In Europe these naming conventions don’t exist. When purchasing a Ducato, you first decide if you want a cargo box or if you want a chassis cab or cut away. Huh? How does that work in a unibody van? Easy. Unibody is becoming a generic descriptor and in the purest sense of the word the Ducato is not a true unibody vehicle. Instead it’s more of a hybrid having fully-boxed steel load rails. When the cargo box is put on top, the two are welded together to increase strength, but the Ducato doesn’t need the body to haul cargo. Next you select between three wheelbases and two roof heights. If you choose the longest wheelbase you have the option to extend the body an extra 14 inches. Each wheelbase has a range of payloads which you can select somewhat independently of drivetrains.
Because Fiat didn’t have a parts bin to raid for axles and chassis components, the Ducato was designed from the ground up to maximize cargo room. That meant pushing the rear wheels out as far as possible giving the Ducato 4-6 inches more room between the wheel wells than the competition. Fiat combined the low load floor with a standard cargo box that is nearly a foot taller inside than GM or Ford while maintaining roughly the same exterior dimensions. Opt for the factory high roof and you get 72 inches of floor-to-ceiling height. Because the high-roof version starts 7-inches closer to the ground, the Ducato is 7 inches shorter overall than the high-roof NV. This made the difference between fitting through a drive-thru and parking and walking in for my burger. Yes, I am that lazy.
The picture above shows the optional bulkhead between cargo and passenger compartments. If that was not in place, you would see the passenger area is 7 inches higher than the cargo area making it unlikely that liquids from your cargo would slosh around your feet. When in place, the bulkhead allows the cabin A/C to more effectively cool the driver, makes for a quieter ride and keeps your cargo from smacking your head. Speaking of liquids, the Ducato sports a double-sealed load floor to prevent liquids from rusting the welds from the inside out, a common problem with the Mercedes Sprinter. If you’re counting cubes, the Ducato shifts between 283 and 530 depending on the body. The E-Series ranges from 237 cubes to 278 while Nissan’s NV swallows 234 to 323.
In most countries the Ducato sports an all-diesel, all-Iveco engine lineup ranging from a 2.3L 110 HP four-cylinder to the 3.0L 177 HP four-cylinder we will be getting in America in the ProMaster. (Iveco is Fiat’s commercial engine subsidiary.) Hauling is more about torque than HP and that’s where these oil burners shine. The base 2.3L engine delivers 221 lb-ft and the 3.0L engine cranks out a GM 4.8L V8 matching 295 lb-ft. Some markets have an optional Iveco compressed natural gas mill, but I’m not holding my breath for an American version. Exclusive to the US/Canadian market will be the 3.6L Pentastar V6 tuned to 280 HP and 260 lb-ft of twist.
Motivating 7,000-10,000lbs with 177 ponies may sound like a disaster, but you should remember that horsepower wars are a recent affectation and 295 lb-ft is enough to motivate the Ducato without a problem. The base engine sends that power to the ground via a 6-speed manual transmission. Yes, manual. No, I don’t think that’s a good idea for American commercial drivers because I have seen them drive. Thankfully Fiat offers an “automatic robotised gearbox” on the other diesel engines and that’s the only transmission on the American-bound diesel.
What is a “robotised” gearbox? This is not an automatic transmission. This is not a dual clutch gearbox and it is NOT an automatic transmission with a “manual mode”, it is a manual transmission with an automatic mode. You won’t find any planetary gears or a torque converter. Instead you’ll find dog clutches, syncromesh and shafts. The reason is simple: torque converters and planetary gearsets are less efficient. Fear not, the computer controls the clutch and the shifting. Anecdotal evidence from a friend in the UK that runs a commercial repair garage indicates you should expect at least 100,000 miles out of the clutch even with heavy loads since the computer is more skilled at slipping the friction material than you are. Worried? The ProMaster’s gasoline V6 will have a regular old automatic with a torque converter and planetary gearsets if you can’t handle change.
I’m no stranger to commercial vehicles. I do fleet consulting on the side and I built my own home with my own two hands. Since I’m also a cheap bastard, everything that is my home arrived in a truck, van or trailer that I drove up and over a 2,200ft mountain pass, on gravel roads, in home improvement parking lots and unloaded myself before carrying said items down the hill to the building site. Some day if this construction nightmare is ever complete, I may write about it. What does this have to do with the Ducato? Easy, I had promised some friends we would have a patio party by the end of July. Except I didn’t have a patio yet. To complete the job I needed 26,400lbs of pavers and 22,000lbs of retaining wall blocks. A perfect test for the Ducato. The cheapest way to get the items was to pick them up at the store. To get the quantity I needed, I had to visit every location from Daly City to Watsonville multiple times.
Basalite puts pavers and wall products on 48×40 pallets, the most common size in North America, and loads them to between 3,000 and 3,3300lbs. Loading pallets in the Ducato was a breeze thanks to a generous 56-inches between the rear wheel wells, four more than the Ford. The forklift operators obviously need this extra width because despite being told repeatedly to move the pallet left or right they would invariably place it one millimeter from a wheel well. If you are brave enough, you can also insert a standard 48×48 pallet in the side door of the Ducato, although I don’t recommend it because the opening is 49 inches wide and I don’t trust forklift drivers that much. Still, it is possible which is more than can be said of the GM/Ford vans.
After overloading the Ducato with 4,200lbs of cargo (something that is supposedly within the design specs of the ProMaster) I noticed the curious button in the picture above. I incorrectly assumed that pressing the button would drill into the earth to provide a stable platform for catapulting the load overhead. What the “UP Connected” button actually does is tell the robotic manual you have something heavy in the back. This causes the transmission to hold lower gears longer, downshift automatically when going downhill (engine braking) and most importantly, severely delay upshifts from 1 to 2. Why is that critical? Let’s look at the overall 1st and 2nd gear ratios on the MT40 robotic manual. 1st: 19:1 2nd: 10.7:1 (including the final drive ratio of 4.56:1.) 19:1 is a very low first gear (the ProMaster’s gasoline and automatic transmission will be around 15:1 in first) which means the Ducato had no problems starting on steep inclines despite having to slip the clutch. That was a relief because I would be lying if I didn’t say I was worried. However, there were a few problems.
The van we got our hands on did not have “hill hold assist” so you start rolling back when you lift off the brake. Again, this is a manual transmission, so it behaves just like one. This problem was easily remedied by using two feet and holding the brake gently while taking off. The second problem was less of a problem than I assumed it would be. With 9,000lbs of total vehicle weight climbing up a steep gravel road, I had expected the FWD Ducato to have traction issues. Despite this model lacking the electronic locking front differential offered in Europe, the FWD Fiat scrabbled its way up the hill with less drama than I feared given its Euro-spec crazy-small 215/70R15 tires. The third problem, and the only one that truly annoyed is caused by the huge delta between first and second gears and the leisurely rate at which the transmission shifts. Going up a steep incline, as the engine approached 3,500 RPM in 1st gear (about 15MPH), the transmission would shift into neutral halting forward progress. At this point one of two things would happen. Either the Ducato would slow down rapidly enough for the transmission to change its mind and re-engage first gear, OR it would engage second gear briefly, decide 10:1 wasn’t really low enough, then shift back to first. The only remedy is to anticipate the incline, command the gear manually and keep an eye on the tach to be sure you don’t hit 4,500RPM (about 25MPH). If you do, the transmission will shift into 2nd rather than let you hang out at a “high” RPM. Also, keep in mind that manual transmissions don’t have “Park” and this robotic unit is no different. Fiat does not program the unit to shift into any gear when stopped either, making that parking brake essential.
So we have a ginormous Euro van with a funky transmission. What’s the benefit? If you can get past the transmission, the diesel is a gem. The Ducato had no problems maintaining highway speeds on mountain roadways with a full payload. The four-cylinder diesel is also quieter and more refined than you might expect and the fuel economy is nothing short of amazing. Over 850 miles the Ducato averaged 29.6 imperial MPG which translates to 24.6 US MPG. Keep in mind the Ducato had 3,300lbs of cargo in the back and the van climbed from sea-level to 2,200 feet every trip. These are impressive numbers. Based on local gasoline and diesel prices of 3.99 and 4.10 per gallon respectively, the pay back time for the diesel’s expected $4,000 premium would be just over 2 years at 20,000 miles a year. That’s without factoring in the increased reliability of a diesel engine, longer transmission fluid lifetime in the robotic unit and lengthy engine oil replacement cycles.
Although not normally a consideration with a cargo van, the Ducato the most civilized ride in this segment. It’s also the easiest to parallel park thanks to an incredibly small 36.3-foot turning circle in the short wheelbase model, smaller than many mid-size sedans. The largest Ducato carries nearly twice the cargo as Chevy’s extended express while being more maneuverable with a 46.8 foot turning circle compared to the 54.6 for the Express. That’s the difference between making a U-turn or a 3-point turn downtown.
Driving the Ducato gave us the best insight so far into the upcoming ProMaster, a van that redefines American cargo hauling. Whether or not the ProMaster will be a success remains to be seen. In this notoriously stagnant market, the Ducato’s (and therefore the ProMaster) biggest feature is that robotic manual and the resulting fuel economy. But will fleet buyers accept the inherent compromises? Although Ford has delayed the highly anticipated T-Series, we can’t discount its impact on this segment. Part of that has to do with Ford’s sales domination, but plenty has to do with the T-Series itself. With a broader range of options, a RWD chassis that fleet buyers are comfortable with, a twin-turbo V6 and their 3.2L diesel 5-cylinder diesel the T-Series covers all the Ducato’s bases except for that low load floor and possibly fuel economy. Even so the Ducato is an interesting and attractive alternative, especially to those old GM vans. Be sure to check back with us in a few months when we get our hands on the 2014 ProMaster for comparison.