Vans: New choices, old standbys

Ah, the light-duty van, a ubiquitous sight across much of rural and metropolitan America alike. Long a dogged workhorse for tradesmen and national fleet operations, the van has changed little in terms of size and capability for decades. Until now, that is. Vans today are undergoing a metamorphosis, if you will. Whereas in the past only a few models existed to meet a slew of owner needs, more variety

Ah, the light-duty van, a ubiquitous sight across much of rural and metropolitan America alike. Long a dogged workhorse for tradesmen and national fleet operations, the van has changed little in terms of size and capability for decades. Until now, that is.

Vans today are undergoing a metamorphosis, if you will. Whereas in the past only a few models existed to meet a slew of owner needs, more variety is now available. Smaller, more fuel-efficient variations are now being widely adopted, and along with that comes a wider selection of power options: diesel, gasoline, natural gas, propane, and even electricity.

New van designs are being introduced as well. This “new thinking” is exemplified by managers such as David Wade. The supply chain and fleet group director for ADT Security Services, Wade recently gave the final go-ahead to replace half of ADT's North American fleet with Ford Motor Co.'s new Transit Connect compact van — purchasing an initial 1,500 units with plans to add another 1,500 over the next six months.

“The Transit Connect seems to work well for ADT residential and small business installers and service technicians, especially those in congested, urban areas,” Wade explains. “It is much easier to maneuver and park than a larger commercial van, and it offers ample cargo-carrying capacity for supplying our residential and small business customers.”

But the biggest reason for ADT's Transit pick is the estimated millions in fuel savings annually once ADT's entire fleet is changed out, he notes. “Replacing larger, inefficient vehicles is part of our company-wide program to save expenses,” Wade says. “Our larger commercial vans [representing 95% of ADT's total fleet right now] run up an annual fuel bill of $30 million. But the Transit Connect offers significant fuel economy improvements, with a rating of 22 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway; so replacing 3,000 large vans with the Transit Connect would save us approximately $5.3 million per year.”

NEWBIES ON THE BLOCK

While Ford's Transit Connect isn't new per se — it's been a staple of Europe's light commercial van market for some time — it's certainly new to the North American market; and it's not alone either. Though a global player in the commercial vehicle market for decades, Nissan is now wading into the U.S./Canada commercial vehicle market with its all-new NV full-size van. The result of five years worth of research, Nissan says the van brings more capability to this particular style of truck.

“We've taken a fresh look at every aspect of the CV business, including styling, powertrain, interiors, cost of operation and ownership, dealership sales and service operations, and, most importantly, real-world customer needs,” says Joe Castelli, vp-commercial vehicles and fleet for Nissan Commercial Vehicles. “These new [NV models] reflect the comfort, style and smart functionality that will enable business owners to accomplish more throughout their day.”

The first production models in the lineup are the 2011 Nissan NV1500, NV2500 HD and NV3500 HD full-size vans. They will be available with a choice of 4.0-liter V6 or 5.6-liter V8 engines and in two body styles: standard roof (all models) and high roof (NV2500 HD and NV3500 HD only). The high roof models provide stand-up/walk-through/work cargo area capability.

“Looking at the CV market in recent years, there's been a migration of van users to light-duty pickups due to the lack of comfort, image and dependability of the current outdated van platforms,” explains Castelli. “Yet many of these truck owners admit they need a van for weather protection, security and the convenience of a tall roof van to carry large items or equipment.”

The NV's cargo area provides a 120.7-in. floor length and 70.3-in. maximum cargo floor width. Standard roof models offer a maximum 55.4-in. cargo area height and the high roof a maximum 76.5 in. of height, which is enough for most users to move about the cargo area while standing up straight.

Along with wide door openings, the NV offers room between the wheelhouse to accommodate standard plywood, drywall sheets or pallets. There are also a range of cargo area tie-down rings and ample cargo area lighting, Nissan says.

The NV can accommodate aftermarket outfitting and modifications. For example, the roof rack-mounting brackets are designed for installing various rack systems without piercing holes in the roof, which can lead to corrosion and water leaks; while an “upfitter pre-wiring” package allows for easier access into the electrical system.

The NV also offers a full-length cargo area inner panel to protect the outer walls from dents and dings from the inside, and there are multiple weld-nut attachment points for shelving and racks, again requiring no sheet metal drilling. In addition, the NV's nearly vertical sidewalls maximize the usable cargo space, accommodating common aftermarket storage systems, as well as a bulkhead behind the driver.

The newly reborn Chrysler Group LLC is planning to take a big swing at light-duty vans within the U.S. commercial truck market over the next several years by adding two new European commercial van models from its controlling partner, Italy's Fiat SpA.

Chrysler has sliced its truck products off from the rest of the Dodge lineup, placing them into a separate “Ram Trucks” division headed by president & CEO Fred Diaz. He says his division plans to introduce both large and small commercial truck models, including vans, imported from Fiat by 2012. This effort is expected to help foment a 50% increase in commercial sales growth for Chrysler, from 280,000 units in 2009 to 415,000 units by 2014.

Ram Trucks' large commercial van will be based on the Fiat Ducato, which is built and sold in Europe and Mexico under both the Fiat and Peugeot nameplates, and is similar in vehicle type to the short-wheelbase versions of the Daimler-produced Sprinter van.

To compete with Ford's Transit Connect, Ram Trucks also plans to add Fiat's European-built Doblo light van to its product offerings in 2012; however, it's still unclear whether the truck's current diesel engine would be retained for the U.S. market, or whether Chrysler will follow Ford's lead and replace it with a small gasoline engine. There are plans to also offer an electric version of the Doblo.

TRIED AND TRUE

Despite these kinds of attributes, however, OEMs are not ditching their tried-and-true models in favor of smaller, more fuel-efficient newbies. For example, Ford plans to offer its new fuel-efficient EcoBoost engines as an option for its larger E-Series van platform, along with engine prep packages that allow conversion to compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG, the most common variant being propane).

“Advanced gas engines, including EcoBoost, along with cleaner, alternative fuel vehicles and advanced hybrid and electric technologies are an important part of Ford's fleet lineup,” notes Mark Fields, Ford's president of The Americas. “Today, customers have so many different needs that there is no ‘one-product-fits-all’ solution for them.”

General Motors will also be offering its Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana cargo vans with both CNG or LPG options, starting with the 2011 model year. “We're listening to our fleet customers and dealers about offering options that help them achieve their business objectives,” says Brian Small, general manager of GM's fleet and commercial operations. “The industry commitment to expand the CNG and LPG infrastructure in key fleet markets was an enabler to allowing us to introduce these options now.”

All models of both vans, including the natural gas options, carry a 100,000-mi./5-yr. transferable powertrain limited warranty. An extended wheelbase increases the cargo space of both models from 225.1 to 261.6 cu. ft. The Vortec 4.8L V6 is standard on both models, providing 280 hp. and 296 lbs.-ft. of torque.

The Express and Savana cargo models also come with a Hydra-Matic 6L90 6-spd. automatic transmission and revised rear axles to help improve low-rpm torque, highway fuel economy and overall drivability. A Duramax 6.6L turbodiesel engine option has been revised to include B20 capability, allowing the use of a blended fuel made from 20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel while maintaining warranty coverage.

Additional heating of the fuel circuit was added to reduce the chance of fuel gelling or waxing, which could plug filters. The Duramax 6.6L diesel particulate system features a downstream injector that supplies fuel for the regeneration process, greatly reducing potential oil dilution while improving fuel economy.

“As we look at the global energy and environmental picture today and consider the future of the automobile, one fact stands out above all others: Going forward, the auto industry can no longer rely on oil to supply 98% of the world's automotive energy requirements,” notes Robert Lutz, GM's former vice chairman.

“Around the globe, there are a number of very promising solutions to the energy and environmental challenges we all face, such as improvements to the internal combustion engine; broad-scale application of hybrid technology; development of advanced biofuels like non-food-based cellulosic ethanol; and, further into the future, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles,” he explains. “While there are huge challenges confronting the industry in the energy and environmental area, there are huge opportunities as well.”

REFINING FOR THE FUTURE

The Mercedes Sprinter and other van models considered to be “older” are being updated to meet more disparate fleet needs. Lower prices, more power and a new model are part of the changes to the Sprinter, which was moved back under the Mercedes-Benz brand in North America this year. First introduced in Europe by Mercedes in 1995, the Sprinter now features four distinct models: shuttle van, cargo van, passenger van and chassis cab.

Originally introduced to North America as a Freightliner model in 2001, the European-designed and built Sprinter was also sold under the Dodge brand starting in 2003 as part of Daimler AG's ownership stake in Chrysler. With Daimler's sale of Chrysler, that distribution agreement lapsed at the end of 2009, so the Sprinter line once again became part of the Mercedes-Benz USA division, offering American truck buyers both Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner versions.

Another key to the Sprinter's popularity, the company says, is a lower price. In early 2010, Mercedes cut the prices on 2010 Sprinter models by 5.3 to 6.3% compared to 2009 units. That price cut came despite adding selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology to meet new U.S. diesel emissions requirements that took effect Jan. 1.

The switch to SCR, which all Daimler groups market under the BlueTec brand name, has also delivered a substantial power boost to the Sprinter's V6 diesel. Specs for 2010 models show the cleaner diesel producing 188 hp. at 3,800 rpm and a peak torque of 325 lbs.-ft. from 1,400 to 2,400 rpm. For 2009, those numbers were 154 hp. and 285 lbs.-ft. at the same rpm numbers.

Yet Sprinter also retains a bevy of features to make it a safer ride, too, such as stability and rollover control, ABS antilock brakes, brake assist and traction control. Driver and front passenger seats are equipped with standard multi-stage front air bags, with side curtain and torso air bag options available. Other options include Bi-Xenon headlights, a tire pressure monitoring system, and a Parktronic parking aid, Mercedes says.

All Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner Sprinters are equipped with 5-spd. automatic transmissions, four-wheel disc brakes, independent strut suspension with coil springs in front, and a solid axle with leaf springs at the rear. Several choices of springs, shock absorbers and stabilizer bars provide just the right suspension for each version of the Sprinter van, no matter its market niche.

GETTING CHARGED

The biggest changes ahead for vans, though, are “hybridization” and “electrification.” For example, the IDEA is a new aerodynamically shaped plug-in hybrid vehicle delivery van concept developed by Bright Automotive, which aims to have its prototype ready for production in the first quarter of 2013.

Each IDEA van should save the typical commercial or government fleet 18¢ per mile, reduce gasoline use by 1,500 gal. per year, and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 16 tons per year, the company says.

Paul Bishop, manager of Bright's development test lab, said the driving concept behind the IDEA is to combine off-the-shelf standard components — a standard 4-cyl. gasoline engine, electric motor, and battery pack — with new designs such as an aerodynamic all-aluminum body with a drag coefficient of just 0.3, along with the use of carbon fiber and recycled materials to further reduce vehicle tare weight. “The target weight of our van concept is about 3,200 lbs. That's almost half of what a standard van this size weighs,” Bishop explains. “Even with the battery pack adding 200 to 300 lbs. to the vehicle, we can still offer payload capacity of 2,000 lbs.”

The IDEA is powered by a 13 kWh battery pack, which allows the van to operate for 40 mi. in electric-only mode before switching to “standard hybrid” mode. In hybrid mode, the gasoline and electric motor work together to achieve a minimum of 36 mpg when the vehicle is empty, compared to the standard 8 to 12 mpg most vans in this class achieve, Bishop notes.

Ford is launching an all-electric version of the Transit Connect, says Duane Grider, design leader for the vehicle. “It represents not only the first vehicle in [Ford's] electrification strategy, but also the globalization of Ford's product lineup and an innovative entry into a relatively fresh segment, the small urban delivery van,” he explains. “The key is that it has the same cargo volume capacity and similar performance characteristics as the gas-powered vehicle.”

Azure Dynamics Corp. is upfitting the Transit Connect with an all-electric powertrain. Azure is also offering an electric-gasoline hybrid modification to Ford's Econoline van — an example of the collaboration required going forward in the light-duty van space, says Ford vp Paul Mascarenas.

“Delivering practical electric vehicles requires cooperation between vehicle manufacturers and organizations with very specific expertise and capabilities. It also requires collaboration with utility companies and others who must provide the infrastructure these types of vehicles require,” he notes.

“In the long term, alternative energy sources will become increasingly important, but in the foreseeable future, most passenger cars and light trucks will continue to use petroleum-based fuels,” Mascarenas explains. “This is proven, affordable technology supported by an immense infrastructure. Our challenge is to make it vastly more efficient.”

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