Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there were basically three types of cargo vans: a Chevy, a Ford and a Dodge. None of the three were especially appealing, and each of them had mediocre driving dynamics and aging designs, save for the Chevy, which was completely overhauled in 1996. Car companies paid little attention to the cargo van world, and shoppers viewed full-size vans as necessary evils: vehicles you had to buy for your job that came with the lowest expectations possible.
And then, all of a sudden, everything changed. Within the last few years, a host of new cargo vans debuted — from Mercedes-Benz, from Ford, from Nissan and from Chrysler, all of which offered new designs and new features. So where did these vans come from? And are they any good? Here’s our take.
The New Vans
After years with basically nothing to report, the cargo van world is now on fire. It all started off with the Sprinter, badged as both a Dodge and then a Freightliner (and now a Mercedes-Benz), which came to the U.S. in 2003. After a long lull, the Ford Transit Connect debuted for 2010, followed by the full-size Nissan NV in 2010. Eventually, Nissan came out with a smaller van — dubbed the NV200 — which was also turned into a Chevy variant, called the City Express. Then came the full-size RAM ProMaster, the smaller RAM ProMaster City, a new full-size Ford Transit to replace the brand’s aging E-Series and a smaller Mercedes-Benz dubbed the Metris.
After decades of only three vans from three manufacturers, there are now 12 cargo van models on the market from six different automakers: the Nissan NV and NV200, the Chevy Express and City Express, the Ford Transit and Transit Connect, the RAM ProMaster and ProMaster City, the GMC Savana, and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Metris. Chrysler also sells a cargo version of its Dodge Grand Caravan as the RAM C/V.
In general, the new vans are surprisingly impressive. The city-friendly van segment, for instance, is one that didn’t exist before the Ford Transit Connect debuted in 2010, and now it has challengers from Nissan, Chevy and RAM. We like that segment because it gives a new van option to drivers in large cities who don’t want to cruise around in a giant, full-sized vehicle.
Meanwhile, the full-size van segment has also made some major changes. Our favorite is roof height. Pioneered by the Sprinter in 2003, most modern cargo vans now offer varying roof heights, in addition to traditionally variable features like wheelbase, engine size and payload capacity. The result is that full-size cargo van models are now more configurable than ever. And while most vans still don’t offer excellent driving dynamics, cargo van models tend to be more efficient and better-equipped than ever before.
There is, however, one major exception: the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. Last redesigned for the 1996 model year, these two are the lone cargo van holdouts — the last of a dying breed of old school cargo vans revised before the recent cargo van renaissance. As a result, we’d only recommend these models as a last resort, as they offer limited configurations, a fixed roof height and truly old school features and driving dynamics.
Otherwise, the cargo van segment is experiencing a rare rebirth, and shoppers who need full-size vans for commercial purposes are enjoying all the benefits.