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The New Vans

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

If, for reasons of work or recreation, you've wondered as to when Ford or Chevy might replace their aging Econoline and Express full-size vans, we share your sense of wonder. With the basic platforms and architectures seemingly dating back to the 1970s, the work and recreational needs of 21st Century America would seem to insist on something more contemporary and substantive. For those waiting, your answer – a result of competitive pressure from overseas – is close at hand.

The first volley was fired by DaimlerChrysler. Seeing a very real need to retire its Ram Van, its commercial team brought in its Euro-specific cargo and passenger vans – dubbed Sprinters – and sold them through both Dodge dealers and its commercial truck subsidiary, Freightliner. The Sprinter's introduction to the US was roughly analogous to the jet engine's intro to commercial aviation; suddenly, everyone had forgotten what the propeller was for! Whether it was for FedEx, UPS or a hotel shuttle, businesses were sold on the Sprinter's contemporary footprint, sure-footed handling and turbo diesel powertrain. There was, of course, a price difference (roughly $10K when comparing apples to apples), but the differential was easily justified with the Sprinter's greater comfort, efficiency and security.

Most recently, the commercial product team at Nissan saw an opportunity to build a two-box van, the NV (Nissan Van), in their Canton, Mississippi truck plant; a good thing, in that their Titan hasn't achieved its hoped-for production volumes. And with its pronounced front clip (comprising front fascia, hood and fenders), there's little to disguise the NV from its pickup roots beyond a cavernous box sitting immediately behind the driver and front passenger. And that box comes in two heights: high and higher. The 'higher' option allows you to accommodate all sorts of things – we tried a hot water heater with notable success, while our friends with motorcycle stores were pleased that you could load a bike without having to reduce yourself to about 4'2". At the bike shop the general opinion was 'two thumbs up' by those riders still able to manipulate their thumbs.

On the road, the NV is less truckish than its profile might suggest. But the raised roof, so handy when wanting to stand a hot water heater upright, serves as a fairly effective governor at speeds above 65. Without a load the rear gets fairly jumpy, but in our second test of real-world capability seventy-five squares of Home Depot-sourced sod made the big box ride just about right.

At Mercedes they're even more aggressive. At a press preview fairly close to the truck's stateside introduction they had media drive the Sprinter on an autocross track, with nary a door handle damaged in the process. Good stuff, and not something you'd want to try with dad's Econoline.

Thankfully, the van story isn't all about big boxes. Ford Motor Company has moved aggressively into the compact commercial segment with its Transit Connect. A two-box profile resting on a 114-inch wheelbase and stretching roughly 15 feet in length, the Transit Connect is perfect for the in-town delivery or – when dressed in civilian 'wagon' guise – the out-of-town adventure. There isn't, to be sure, any pretense of off-road capability, but for hiking, biking or the kayak, there are few better base camps than the Transit Connect's 118 cubic feet of cargo volume. And due to its success with commercial users, all sorts of storage systems are now available. If someone's built it, someone else has figured out a way to efficiently stow it.

In addition to the commercial and passenger variants already offered, Ford has also introduced a Taxi Package. That offshoot, formally introduced to the public at last year's Chicago Auto Show, was a finalist for designation as New York City's new official cab, but ultimately lost out to another Nissan van.

With the DaimlerChrysler partnership dissolved, and Fiat now having a controlling interest in Chrysler and its truck-based operations, the likelihood of Fiat commercial vehicles coming to the US with the Ram brand is growing. And if they come it will probably be as a broad range of offerings, covering both the big, heavy duty categories and the small, more urban friendly segments. Their addition will provide an even more options for the end user, whether he or she is a butcher, baker or ka-yaker.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The New Vans - Autotrader