I don’t think I’m unique in moving from place to place when I was a student, taking all my gear with me first in the trunk of a car, and then in a rented van. At the time, it was simple enough to go out with a friend or two, rent a Dodge B-Van (or a Chevy or Ford, but usually it was a Dodge), with a heavily torque-based 318 cubic inch V8, load all my stuff, and resettle somewhere else.
Today, thanks to a new generation of vans, it’s easier and cheaper than it was then (depending on how far you’re moving). U-Haul, in particular, has an eye-grabbing $20/day rate; though adding $10 for insurance and nearly 60 cents per mile can take the shine off it, I was able to help my daughter change apartments for around $40, taking two trips (mostly because we didn’t pack the van efficiently, given the heat and humidity of the day).
There’s no question but that today’s vans are easier to drive; the V6 engines are more powerful, with a more sensible horsepower/torque ratio, not to mention more fuel-efficient. The vans are narrower but taller, with wider door openings and doors that wrap around (you can open them so they swing to the sides and are out of the way), not to mention that most wonderful of inventions, the side sliding door.
No ProMaster for me this time — but this is what they look like now
In the past, I’ve rented ProMasters from a storage unit company and from Enterprise (the latter, because it was over a 100 mile trip, which would have been nasty at 60 cents per mile). I liked the ProMasters for their responsiveness, incredible visibility, utility, relatively low load floor, and, mostly, their handling — they’re more like coupes than big vans. The front wheel drive helps them to feel light, and to have good snow traction. I don’t really like the ProMaster stripped-down interior much, the seats aren’t quite right for my body, and they both seem to have more rattles and wind noise than they should; the sealing must be an issue as they age.
This time, though, it was Chevrolet’s turn, with their big Express van.
The only full-size, front-drive commercial vans I know of are the Ram ProMaster and its original, a Fiat Commercial van. The Chevy, therefore, used rear wheel drive. I don’t know that it made much of a difference in this drive, which included city streets, both paved and questionably paved, and a brief highway run. Certainly, the Chevy is tuned to feel more like the old fashioned big American vans, with heavier steering and a more conventional cab. It didn’t feel quite as light and didn’t handle quite as well, but it handled more than well enough, and the ride-when-unladen was smoother than in the Ram.
The Chevy interior is definitely nicer-looking than the Ram’s, with a good complement of gauges surrounded by shiny chrome rings. The seats seemed more comfortable, though that’s definitely a matter of personal preference. The 100 mph speedometer is a bit of an affectation; the manual shifter was a little difficult to access (it had a tiny up/down switch on the top of the shifter handle) but worked well.
The engine provided decent power and pep regardless of the load (though we didn’t get anywhere near the advertised capacity, so it’s not a fair test). It was good to see a real temperature gauge on the dashboard. In these days, I’m not sure the voltage gauge is really needed; I’d rather see the transmission fluid temperature. A primitive digital display under the PRNDL does let you see another line of information that you can select, such as the distance left to the next oil change.
The backup camera is next to the license plate, a reasonable place for it. It was good to have real locks on both sides and the rear.
It was mildly clever of Chevrolet to put a tiny backup camera into the rear view mirror to avoid having a touch-screen radio (as Ram does), but the picture is pretty small.
As with the Ram, you get a generously sized side mirror with both a curved surface and a flat surface, so you can see more while keeping your perspective. These fold flat against the vehicle in case you need to park on a busy street.
The ride was relatively gentle, and traction was good even on some rather terrible streets; the ProMaster may be a more fun drive, but both are more than good enough for any normal use of a commercial van. Climbing steep hills was no problem. Gas mileage was hard to judge from our short run, but it did not seem to be particularly good.
As for loading cargo, an empty interior is pretty much an empty interior, as long as you have plenty of opportunities for upfitters, fitting shelves, etc. The Chevy was a little higher off the ground than the Ram, but not by much. The openings are roughly the same size. It was harder to shut the Chevy sliding door, due to the use of a “one-way” handle that easily opens the door but doesn’t shut it quite as easily; there was also more rolling resistance. On the road, the Chevy betrayed no wind-seal noises or rattles, but our test truck was also much younger than the ProMasters I’ve driven in rental fleets. Body integrity did seem better in the Chevy than in older ProMasters; on the other hand, a Ram guy told me that they’d been addressing issues, so may that’s been fixed by now.
There really doesn’t seem to be a bad choice of vans these days, other than perhaps the rather pricey Sprinter. All have their reliability issues, according to friends who work with fleets of vans from different makers; all have their high points and drawbacks. In the end it may come down to what you value — in snowbound areas the ProMaster might be best, for example — and perhaps your relationship with your local dealer.
The author of books on the Dodge Viper, Jeep pickups and wagons, and Chrysler minivans (as well as a kid’s book about early Jeeps), David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.com and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form.