A few months ago we got the chance to road-test the new Ram Cargo Van from Chrysler. Basically, it's a stripped and modified minivan platform with some clever changes to make it a good fit for fleet buyers or small businesses looking to downsize from a full-size van.
Overall we like the little van and think it has a strong value quotient, but it would be a better option for many if another engine choice were available, maybe with a longer wheelbase, and it seems that many businesses like having a taller roof option.
Still, at a base price around $22,000 (ours with all the options was over $26,000), this cargo van offers plenty of value. In fact, the six-speed automatic transmission makes the V-6 a solid fuel-sipper. During our test drive in Southern California, we averaged just over 21 mpg on our combined route, which included some good elevation changes into the mountains. On a recent trip to Detroit, we got about 24 mpg. It makes sense we'd get better overall gas mileage in the Detroit area, which is much less hilly. (The posted speed limits on freeway and city streets are more reasonable, too.)
On this most recent trip, we also wanted to see how well the Cargo Van performs when loaded. If Ram is going to dip into the work-truck segment with a converted minivan, we wanted to find out if it can hold up to more traditional trucklike duty cycles.
Our first stop was at Home Depot, where, after checking the doorjamb label, we calculated we could carry about 1,600 pounds of payload. Our test unit weighed 4,250 pounds, and the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating is 6,050 pounds, leaving us with about 1,800 pounds of payload. Subtract about 200 pounds out for the driver, and that leaves us with 40 bags of rock salt to haul.
We evenly distributed the load across the van's bed area, putting most of the weight over the rear axle, just like you would want to do with a pickup truck.
Our driving route offered a good mix of city and highway driving. In the end, we covered over 300 miles at maximum payload and discovered quite a few interesting details.
To begin, this is not a truck. It won't drive like a truck empty, so there is no reason to believe it should drive like a truck when loaded. In fact, just as you'd expect with any car, the more load you carry, the less comfortable the vehicle feels.
We had to be very careful — moving and shifting the bags several times — about where the load was being carried and how evenly it was distributed from left to right and front to back. You can expect the steering to feel light or heavy or to pull right or left simply by how much weight you have over the rear or driver's side of the vehicle. It took us several stops to get the balance right for a good, neutral steering feel under load, and that meant putting a few bags of rock salt in the passenger seats with us up front and a few on the floor. We also had to make sure that not too much weight was behind the rear axle, and more bags than we expected needed to sit in the exact center of the wheelbase. This was where the van felt best: loaded in the middle, distributing weight evenly across all four wheels.
The Cargo Van’s ride quality at maximum payload was impressive, even over bad roads. At no time, except through a few nasty pot holes, did we feel ourselves getting into the bump stops. And even when we did, it was not punishing or jolting -- but quite progressive.
On the nitpicky side, it would have been nice to have manual access to the backup camera, maybe a dedicated switch. That way, we could get more rear visibility whenever we need it instead of only when the transmission is in Reverse. Many RVs have the backup camera on all the time to give drivers better visibility in traffic, and with all the windows blacked out in our test unit, manual access to the backup camera would have helped us feel a tad more comfortable.
We also would have liked a switch to let us adjust the headlights down a bit when driving at night; our heavy load did tend to make oncoming traffic think our brights were on. Finally, the tap-left tap-right dash-mounted transmission shifter is nice, but it would have been nicer to have a tow/haul button — in addition to the Econ button — to allow the transmission to hold and grab a gear a little longer and a little sooner.
Our city fuel economy with 1,600 pounds of payload (and a well-fed driver) was an impressive 21 mpg, and it is worth noting we weren't hustling the van around town or trying any hyper-miling tricks; that's a real-world number. On the highway, cruising comfortably between 65 mph and 70 mph, we averaged 24.7 mpg. That gave us a combined gas mileage of 22.9 mpg and a range of 450 miles at maximum payload. Not bad.
Overall, we like the strategy Ram is using: taking a pretty good platform, making a few changes to the springs and shocks, and turning it into a light-duty cargo hauler. But make no mistake — this is still 90 percent minivan, and it may require you to shift your "work truck" mind-set.
Still, there is a plush interior, good performance and efficiency from the engine, and decent ride quality from the chassis. All of that is impressive for $22,000, plus you get more payload capacity than 95-percent of midsize pickups and a good many fullsize half-tons.
Whether the Ram C/V will get more popular will likely depend on whether Chrysler decides to offer more variations of the little van to compete better with the Ford Transit Connect, which remains the leader in the growing segment.
The cargo area is huge, with more than 145 cubic feet of storage area. The floor is about 6.5 feet long and 4 feet wide. The floor width at the sliding doors is a full 5 feet. You won't be able to close the rear tailgate to carry 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood, but they will lay flat. The cage separator is a great idea, and we suggest opting for the three lockable floor storage doors if you have the choice. (They use the flip-and-fold and rear seat floor cutouts in the normal minivans).
We got some good squish out of our tires when fully loaded. These are at maximum load (36 pounds per square inch) and still have quite a bit of deflection left. When empty, the tires were quite good at gripping the road in the rain, but you should expect to hear some resonant "booming" from inside the big, hollow cargo area as the tires run over rough roads.
It took us a while to find the right balance of laod distribution with our 40 bags of rock salt. We initially put most of the weight over the rear axle, but that made the steering quite loose and floaty, so we loaded the front passenger seat with bags and brought the majority of the load to the center of the vehicle. Much better.
The rear springs have been upgraded on the Ram Cargo Van. Even at full payload capacity (about 1,600 pounds), the rear springs are not on the bump stops. In fact, these bump stops are longer, stronger and more progressive than a normal minivan stop. We went over some pretty bad roads and never felt any jarring hits.