LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

Chrysler's back in the van game, but fwd is a question

Automotive News | July 14, 2013 - 12:01 am EST

Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler for Automotive News.
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The first Ram ProMaster full-sized commercial van rolled off its Mexican assembly line this week.

Under a giant red banner with "Unidad #1" (Unit #1) on it, the embodiment of Chrysler Group's plans to return to the commercial van segment for the first time in three years stopped just long enough for a few pictures.

The ProMaster is a slightly retooled Fiat Ducato van brought over from Europe, where it has been used as a delivery and work vehicle since 1981.

Chrysler dealers seem excited to have a commercial van for the first time since the departure of the Sprinter in 2010. Since then dealers have had to make due with the Ram C/V, a makeshift commercial van made from the bones of the automaker's minivans, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. The C/V was a stopgap, and frankly it looked like a stopgap, while Ram prepared to bring the ProMaster and a smaller ProMaster City, based on the Fiat Doblo, across the Atlantic.

Ram brand boss Reid Bigland said Chrysler has doubled to 800 the number of dealerships in the United States that will offer the ProMaster and specialize in servicing commercial customers, what Chrysler calls its BusinessLink dealerships.

The ProMaster represents a big departure from other vehicles in the segment -- either already here or coming from Ford, General Motors, and Nissan. Unlike those vehicles, the ProMaster has front-wheel drive.

The front-drive setup gives the ProMaster a lower load floor and, as a result, more headroom for users to stand up in the back. But it also gives commercial customers a reason to doubt how the ProMaster will perform in the field.

Like anything unfamiliar, regardless of its merits, commercial buyers will need convincing that the advantages of front-wheel drive -- better fuel economy and cargo space -- will outweigh the questions — like whether a heavy load in the back will affect handling.

If dealers are wise, they'll start priming the pump with potential commercial buyers early as they wait for the ProMasters to arrive this fall, and then get their butts behind the ProMaster's bulbous nose as quickly as possible.

The Ram ProMaster is a slightly retooled Fiat Ducato van brought over from Europe, where it has been used as a delivery and work vehicle since 1981.

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