Get in gear

A fresh assortment of both full-size and compact vans offers a wider range of choices to small businesses and recreational vehicle buyers.

By Jim Gorzelany
CTW Features

With the economy enjoying a welcome recovery, automakers are once again paying attention to their fleets of commercial vans after years of dormancy. New models are hitting the market in rapid succession, with both large and compact models available to both businesses and recreational vehicle converters that deliver far better fuel economy and improved ride and handling qualities than yesterday’s full-size dinosaurs.

“Just as the U.S. new vehicle market continues to fragment into dozens of segments and hundreds upon hundreds of models, the commercial van segment is splitting into two distinct categories, each with a wide range of models,” says Tom Libby, an advisor with the research firm R.L. Polk & Co. in Southfield, Mich.

Ford delivered the first entry in the budding compact van segment for the 2010 model year with its Transit Connect commercial vehicle, a version of which had proven popular in Europe for its nimbleness in crowded urban environments and its economical operating costs. Redesigned with sleeker styling for 2014, it comes in both cargo configurations and passenger oriented Wagon versions with a choice of two wheelbase lengths. Power comes from a standard 2.5- liter four-cylinder engine or an optional turbocharged 1.6-liter version that’s estimated to deliver more than 30 mpg on the highway. Available features include Ford’s Sync handsfree multimedia control system.

Nissan entered the commercial vehicle market for the first time in the U.S. with a full-size NV van for 2012. The cargo version comes in standard- and high-roof models, with the latter offering enough room for a person to be able to stand up inside. An NVP passenger version can be configured to transport up to 12 passengers depending on the configuration. Both come powered by a choice of a 4.0-liter 261-horsepower V6 or 5.6-liter 317-horsepower V8.

Nissan followed up with the compact NV 200 in the spring of 2013 that features unique 60/40-split forward opening doors for flexible cargo access. It comes powered by a 2.0- liter 131-horsepower four-cylinder engine that delivers an estimated 24/25-mpg city/highway fuel economy. The passenger compartment is work-friendly, with a large center console that can hold a laptop and hanging file folders and a passenger seat that can fold flat for use as a mobile desk or lunch table. General Motors plans to sell its own version of the NV 200 for the 2015 model year with specific exterior styling cues, to be branded as the Chevrolet City Express.

What’s more, this fall will see the debut of two all-new European-favored full-size vans from Ford and Chrysler’s Ram truck division that will compete with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

The 2014 Ford Transit will be a larger alternative to the compact Transit Connect that will be available in standard and high-roofed cargo and livery versions, and should eventually replace the current E-Series models. A trio of six-cylinder engine choices will include a 3.7-liter V6, the stronger 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 that’s otherwise offered in Ford’s F- 150 pickup and a new fuel-efficient 3.2-liter diesel V6. The cargo version is designed to easily accommodate racks, bins, shelving and other storage and hauling solutions, while the largest passenger version can carry up to 15 people.

Meanwhile, the 2014 ProMaster will be the Ram brand’s first major entry into the commercial segment (it also sells a version of the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan without rear seats or rear side windows as the Ram Cargo Van). The tall-roofed ProMaster traces its roots to Europe, where it’s branded as the Fiat Ducato. It will come powered by either the 3.6-liter 280-horsepower “Pentastar” V6 that’s featured in most Chrysler Group models or a new 3.0-liter 174-horsepower four-cylinder diesel engine that promises strong acceleration and frugal fuel economy. It will be available in two roof heights, three wheelbases, and four body lengths.

Within a year Chrysler reportedly plans to add a compact commercial van to the Ram lineup, again based on a Fiat model, to be called the Ram Promaster City.

© CTW Features