Small business is emerging — slowly — from the Dark Ages of the recession. With business ramping up, companies are fleeting up. The commercial van market is evolving with new model choices, beefier specs and better fuel economy to fit a range of vocational needs.
Does this mean the commercial van market is getting exciting? Let’s not go that far.
NV on the Nose
Launched in January 2011, the Nissan NV commercial van line represents Nissan’s first foray into North America’s commercial vehicle market.
The Nissan NV comes in 1/2-, 3/4- and 1-ton versions with a Standard Roof or High Roof. “The high-roof model brings a tremendous amount of useful space and stand-up functionality to the segment,” says Mike Hobson, director of Nissan’s light commercial vehicle (LCV) and fleet division.
While the style borrows heavily from the Nissan Titan, the NV is built on its own commercial chassis. The extended pickup-like nose means no engine doghouse in the cabin, which makes for pickup-like comfort and legroom. Indeed, “We are seeing pickup customers shopping and buying the NV,” Hobson says.
The standard gas engine is a 4.0-liter V-6 that produces 261 horsepower and 281 lb.-ft. of torque. An optional 5.6-liter V-8 generates 317 hp and 385 lb.-ft. of torque. No diesel engine is planned at this time.
Payloads range from 2,590 lbs. on the Standard Roof 1500 S (V-6) to 3,747 lbs. on the Standard Roof 3500 SV (V-8).
Some 274 newly appointed Nissan Commercial Vehicle dealers sell the NV, a network that will grow to 300 by 2012, according to Nissan. Nissan even partnered with a vinyl wrap company to allow NV buyers to create their own custom vehicle wrap design.
Mama’s Famous Van
For a while, Valecia Vanderlick’s Nissan Xterra worked just fine to deliver her six flavors of Mama’s Famous Barbecue Sauce to clients and shows. But as her metro Philadelphia-based business grew, she grew out of the truck.
During a service visit for her Xterra, she test drove a Nissan NV. “It’s very comfortable and drives like the Xterra,” she says.
With the added cargo room, she’s now able to store more in the NV and as a result makes fewer trips. In addition, Vanderlick can load a pallet into the NV, whereas she had to load her Xterra by hand. She even put the NV’s payload capacity to the test “with as much barbecue sauce in there as I can get,” she says. “But you would never know you’re in a commercial vehicle.”
She says the van climbs the eastern Pennsylvania hills with ease, yet still manages a fuel economy of 24 to 28 mpg on the highway and 17 mpg in the city — or about the same as her Xterra.
Vanderlick says the van’s unique style grabs attention at shows. And when driving the van outside company business, she makes sure to bring along extra barbecue sauce. “No one has seen this type of van before,” she says. “And whenever we stop, people want to know how our sauce tastes.”[PAGEBREAK]
Right-sized for the Job
While the Ford E-Series van continues to be America’s full-size workhorse, Ford brought the Ford Transit Connect line from Europe to offer an economical, right-sized van for small businesses.
Now in its third model year in North America, the compact van combines plenty of utility and capacity with car-like maneuverability and fuel efficiency. That includes a maximum cargo volume of 129.6 cubic feet and a surprising maximum payload capacity of 1,600 lbs. — rivaling some pickups.
New for 2012, Ford has made its AdvanceTrac electronic stability control system standard by updating the audio system for all trim levels, and it introduced three additional exterior colors for the XLT Premium Wagon.
The pure electric Ford Transit Electric is being sold now on a limited basis.
Transit Connect is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 136 horsepower and 128 lb.-ft. of torque, yielding between 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway (or 22/27 for the Wagon).
Connecting with Drivers
After putting some 30,000 miles on his Ford E-Series vans each year, “it was getting ridiculous with the gas use,” says John Todd, director of fleet services of NHS Human Services, a nonprofit provider of special needs services in the Mid-Atlantic States.
The company’s IT department, which wires new offices and group homes, runs routes on long highway stretches between cities and also in inner-city Philadelphia. Todd made the switch to Ford Transit Connects.
“The [better] gas mileage alone has saved us immensely,” says Todd. “We put a package together to show the board of directors the cost savings by switching to Transit Connects. They were completely amazed.”
Todd says the smaller vans achieve roughly double the fuel economy and incur half the maintenance expense of the E-Series.
The idea that Transit Connect’s four-cylinder engine is underpowered is “a fallacy,” Todd says, adding that moving to a smaller payload capacity was not an issue, and the drivers appreciate the van’s maneuverability and ease of parking in the city. “The guys were coming to work early to be the first to jump in the Transit Connects,” says Todd, mentioning one driver “who is 6’6” and not hitting his head.”
Though the company just purchased three more, Todd says his first three Transit Connects are still running strong with 200,000 to 250,000 miles. “As long as you do the standard maintenance, those little buggers will run forever,” he says. [PAGEBREAK]
Same Van, New Choices
The Chevy Express and GMC Savana van lines continue to take close to 45 percent of the full-size van market due to their extensive range of sizes, engine displacements, outputs and fuel choices.
The vans are available in 1/2-, 3/4- and 1-ton weight classes, in regular and long wheelbases, and in cargo, cutaway and passenger van versions. Fuel choices are the widest in class: gasoline, diesel, E85 ethanol, compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas and B20 biodiesel.
This year, StabiliTrak electronic stability control is now standard on all cargo and passenger van models, while the “G80” locking rear axle is available on all cargo and passenger models. The 3500 Series passenger van now features a 6.6L Duramax diesel engine option, in addition to previous availability on the cargo and cutaway models.
The vans also got connected this year, with greater OnStar availability, available XM Satellite Radio and Bluetooth and available dealer-installed WiFi.
It’s What Works
Lee Travis, owner of high-tech electrical service companies Wipliance and OBOT Electric, started buying full-size GMC Savana vans in 2006 when he started his business. Today, with a myriad of van choices to fit every application, Travis hasn’t felt the need to switch to another van model. That’s due in part to his strong relationship with his dealer, Brotherton Cadillac Buick GMC in Renton, Wash. More importantly, the tried-and-true Savana continues to satisfy his work demands.
Based in the Seattle area, the two growing companies run 10 vans, a mix of GMC Savana 1500 and 2500s. “The GMC vehicles have always been a good value in terms of the package that we get,” says Travis, referring to the programs and rebates he uses for ladder racks and bins. “We started looking at other vehicles, some that were better on fuel, but the price tag premium just didn’t justify it.”
While it helps that fuel economy has improved with newer versions of the GMC vans, a smaller van couldn’t haul the companies’ generators, heavy-duty lighting packages, equipment racks and televisions. “It just comes down to payload,” he says.
Travis also looked into pickup trucks with caps, but they didn’t provide enough height for his electrical components.
Travis is still running the vans he first bought more than five years ago. “I thought that we’d have each vehicle for four years and then put them out to pasture,” he says. “But all our vans are in such great condition that I haven’t sold one yet.”
The vans are branded with the companies’ logos in vinyl graphics. “Customers have called us and mentioned seeing the vans in their neighborhood,” Travis says. “The fleet obviously makes good billboards.”[PAGEBREAK]
No other light commercial van carries the Sprinter’s starting price tag —nor do they carry the status of the Mercedes-Benz badge. Sprinter’s unique customer base instead reaps value from the van’s superlatives: a cargo area that can accommodate a 6’3” electrician, carry up to 547 cubic feet of floral arrangements or support up to 5,375 lbs. of building materials and still achieve the fuel economy of many midsize sedans.
Last year, sales of the Sprinter Van line reverted from Dodge to Mercedes-Benz dealerships, while it continues to be sold by Freightliner, a division of Daimler AG. As of August, the van was available at 100 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van dealerships and 56 Freightliner Sprinter Van dealerships.
The Sprinter is available in Cargo Van, Crew Van, Passenger Van, MiniBus and Cab Chassis models, as well as three GVWRs, three lengths and two roof heights.
All Sprinter Vans are equipped with a 3.0-liter V-6 “BlueTEC” clean diesel, which gets 30 percent better fuel economy than a comparable gasoline engine, according to Mercedes-Benz.
Pink Van, Green City
Kim Foren of Geranium Lake Flowers in Portland, Ore., had been running standard cargo vans but wanted “something a little sexier, just a little bit cooler” for her nationally recognized floral business.
For Foren, the Mercedes Sprinter fits in perfectly with her business model and her city’s green credentials. “I chose the Sprinter because it was tall and I could run it on biodiesel,” she says, “and it’s built by Mercedes.”
As well, “We are in the lifestyle business, and the Sprinter brand is more aligned with our business than [other van brands],” she says.
Foren says the van’s height is perfect for her six-foot tall flower arrangements and even Christmas trees. “I can put a ton of stuff and stack so much in there,” she says.
Though her workforce is “mostly female art student types without a lot of driving experience,” Foren says they handle the van just fine and find it easy to park with the short wheelbase. Her fuel economy can average as high as 30 mpg.
The Sprinter costs more upfront, but Foren believes the van will become more cost-effective in the long run as she expects it to last longer than her previous vans. [PAGEBREAK]
A Van for All Reasons
“Part of the reason we made Ram its own brand was to focus on commercial customers and deliver a product that meets their needs,” says Bob Hegbloom, director of Ram Truck Brand Product Marketing.
Based on that premise, enter the 2012 Ram Cargo Van, a small utility vehicle that wears a serious work badge. Debuting this fall, the new Ram C/V is a Class 1 commercial vehicle that can carry up to 1,800 pounds in cargo payload, supported by a commercial-tuned ride and heavy-duty, load-leveling suspension.
The Ram C/V delivers 144.4 cubic feet of interior storage and is wide enough to accommodate four 4’x8’ sheets of building materials. What’s more, Ram C/V can tow (up to 3,600 lbs.), while its small van competitor does not, Hegbloom points out.
The Ram C/V runs on Chrysler’s omnipresent 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine, which delivers 283 hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. With a 20-gallon fuel tank and an estimated 25 mpg on the highway, fillup intervals are extended. The Ram C/V also allows drivers to change the transaxle shift schedule with a flip of a switch to maximize fuel economy.
To serve vocational applications such as florists, catering companies, electrical contractors, plumbers, locksmiths and more, the manufacturer upgraded two key areas: flooring and privacy panels.
The corrugated plastic floor was replaced with a flat, structural aluminum load floor. A floor option provides access to load floor tie-downs and three in-floor storage areas in place of the stow-and-go seats.
The Ram C/V features solid sliding doors and rear quarter windows, as well as backlight privacy panels in place of clear glass windows. Buyers can opt for one of several combinations of solid and glass backlight panels.
Not to be outdone with the tech goodies, Ram C/V has options such as a media center with 30 GB hard drive and 6.5-inch touch-screen display, audio jack inputs, remote USB port, navigation system, back-up camera, Sirius Satellite Radio and a Bluetooth hands-free kit.
Hegbloom says upfit cash will be available for options such as shelving, bins and ladder racks. Upfitters such as Midway Specialty Vehicles already have packages in place.