Pros: Maximum utility from a platform designed in this century; secure storage; stand-up headroom in the High Roof version; some semblance of comfort and composure from a pure UV

Cons: Modest power with V6, considering 300 cubic feet of storage space; was an Etch-a-Sketch used for the final rendering?

After decades in production, the Ford Econoline and Chevrolet Express vans finally have some credible competition. Mercedes-Benz and Dodge have imported Mercedes' commercial Sprinter, but its combination of European spec and manufacture put it out of financial reach for many in the commercial and fleet industries. Ford has made inroads into the commercial van arena with the Transit Connect, but its dimensions are too small for many seeking a work platform for heavy-duty needs.

Introduced in the 2011 model year, the NV is assembled at the same Canton, Mississippi, plant that builds the Titan truck and the Armada SUV. With a clean-sheet approach to its design and specification, everything was on the table, including overall design, powertrains, interiors, customer needs and dealership practices. The result was a lineup of three platforms (1500, 2500 and 3500), a choice of two engines and both high- and low-roof variants.

Sharing its basic underpinnings with the Titan pickup, the new truck can be delivered to the commercial customer with the assurance that the truck is both tough and offers demonstrated reliability. While both Ford and Chevrolet struggle to replace their existing large vans, the new kid on the block looks increasingly attractive.

Affordability is a huge factor in the commercial van category. In determining selling price, Nissan's marketers were fully cognizant of the competition and priced the NV accordingly. The standard-roof S model has a base price of under $25,000 plus destination; the top-end model is the V8-powered SV at just over $30,000. Pricing for the passenger van begins under $32,000, but the price can climb above $37,000 in V8-only SL trim.

Comfort & Utility

The commercial van category is all about utility. With that as a given, don't look to the NV for significant doses of comfort. Nissan's passenger van may seat 12 people in four rows, but this isn't first class accommodation. It can, however, be assumed that the NV's Titan underpinnings will remain more composed than those under Ford's Econoline van or Chevrolet's Express. And note that, within its 12-passenger van, Nissan provides some 324 seating configurations.

One of the driving factors of Nissan's research was delivering to the driver/operator a comfort level at least as good as he or she would receive in a pickup. The front doors are wide for easier ingress and egress, and once inside you'll find supportive four-way manual or eight-way power adjustable seats, an optional center console for storage and the complete absence of an engine cover within the passenger compartment.

If you're loading cargo rather than people, both standard and high-roof models provide outstanding capability. Access is enhanced by wide-opening rear doors, and once inside you'll enjoy more than 234 cubic feet of storage in the regular model and 323 cubic feet in the high-roof version. For storage, Nissan provides a flat-wall design, reinforced mounting points for shelving and a load width of more than 54 inches between the wheel wells. Motorcycle dealers love this van, and the conversion industry is sure to follow.

Technology

There has always been something intrinsically simple about a work truck, and despite its relative newness, the NV holds on to that simplicity. Buyers will be pleased by the availability of an MP3, radio data system, optional USB port and up to six speakers (four are standard in the base S passenger model). Bluetooth is optional on the mid-level SV and standard on the SL. Those trim levels also get a five-inch touch navigation system with an integrated rear-view mirror, satellite radio and pre-wiring for telematics.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The NV comes with a choice of two well-regarded Nissan powertrains, a 4.0-liter V6 and a 5.6-liter V8. Neither is taxed in Nissan's pickups and SUVs the way they are in the NV. The NV is substantially heavier than Nissan's pickup line, and because it has all the aerodynamic attributes of a barn door, it is considerably more difficult to push through the air. But if most of your time is spent in stop-and-go, delivery-type or carpool-type driving, the 261-horsepower V6 with its 281 lb-ft of torque might serve you well. If you spend a lot of time on the interstate, or if you intend to keep the NV filled to the max with people and/or things, we'd advise opting for the 5.6-liter V8. It provides a small bump in horsepower to 317 hp, but torque is elevated dramatically to 385 lb-ft.

Even with the smaller V6, don't regard this as economical transportation. Given that the NV lineup has a gross combined vehicle weight of more than 8,500 pounds, the EPA doesn't provide economy figures. But if you take the Titan pickup's 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway and deduct 10 percent for poorer aerodynamics, you should be fairly close with either the V6 or the V8. This truck begs for the introduction of a light-duty diesel.

Safety

Active safety, which is your ability to avoid an accident, is enhanced by a relatively low center of gravity in commercial van terms. Should you collide with something, Nissan's advanced airbag system with dual-stage front airbags is there to protect. Side impact airbags for front-seat passengers and roof-mounted supplemental curtain airbags are standard on the passenger van and optional on the cargo version.

Driving Impressions

Unlike many commercial vans, which make the driver and front passenger skew their legs and feet to straddle the truck's engine cover, the NV's ergonomics are much closer to those of a pickup. The engine and transmission are located ahead of the firewall and A-pillar, creating a much more conventional position in which to operate the vehicle.

Once behind the wheel, you'll find that the driving dynamics make the NV feel much more like a pickup than like a domestic commercial van. That is, unless you've opted for the high-roof version and high winds are buffeting the vehicle-in which case you'll know you're in a commercial van, with lots of noise and all of the other negatives that piloting a big box at highway speeds will entail. None of the above is problematic, but for the first-time owner or user, piloting the NV does require a modified skill set for safe driving.

Other Trucks to Consider

Ford and Chevrolet soldier on with trucks dating back to the Carter administration that haven't even had a serious freshening in several model years. Word is that Ford's full-size Transit will follow the smaller Transit Connect to the United States, but we'll believe it when we finally see it. With the dissolution of Chrysler's tie-in with Mercedes, you won't find the Sprinter at Dodge showrooms, but it is still sold at Mercedes-Benz dealerships. And Chrysler is rumored to replace its version of the Sprinter with commercial vehicles supplied by FIAT within the next 12 to 18 months. But right here and now, the market is dominated by Ford and Chevrolet. Replacements can't come too soon.

AutoTrader Recommends

For fleet limo service, you'd be hard pressed to improve on the NV passenger van. After all, it has seating for 12, easy access in and out and plenty of cargo area, even with four rows of seats. If you're carrying only cargo, the standard-roof NV is more than adequate, especially when equipped with the Titan's 5.6-liter V8. We'd resist the urge to load it up, preferring a middle-of-the-road approach.

author photo

David Boldt began his automotive career in BMW and Saab showrooms in the 1980s, and he moved to automotive journallismin 1993. David has written for a varity of regional and national publications, and prior to joining AutoTrader, he managed media relations for a Japanese OEM.

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