JACK OF ALL TRADES

Okay, so you can't actually open a can with a van. But think about it. There really isn't a whole lot the Swiss Army Knife of vehicles can't help a business accomplish

Okay, so you can't actually open a can with a van. But think about it. There really isn't a whole lot the Swiss Army Knife of vehicles can't help a business accomplish, be it hauling light freight or serving as a rolling toolbox for a multitude of vocational tasks.

As the trio of OEMs now selling cargo vans — Ford, GMC/Chevrolet and Dodge — will tell you, they engineer these trucks with the commercial buyer foremost in mind.

And this model year appears to be the first in a while with so many new or redesigned models. While the GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express vans were last redesigned just three years ago, this model year the Ford E-Series presents its first redesign since 1992 and the Dodge Sprinter (which is also marketed by Freightliner) that arrived here from Europe in 2003 now boasts a next-generation design.

Power is a particularly intriguing spec choice this year, in part due to forces beyond the control of even the most passionate van marketer.

One on hand, the previously diesel-only Sprinter can now be had also with a gas engine, and GMC/Chevy vans continue to offer gas and diesel power.

On the other hand, Ford — which had been offering a diesel-powered van for years — at press time was stating that only gas engines would be available on its 2008 E-Series line, reportedly due to an unresolved legal issue with its diesel engine supplier, International Truck and Engine Corp.

POWER UP

The new '08 model year E-Series are distinguished by a bold “Super Duty-inspired” front end that sets the van apart from the preceding generation and improves engine performance with increased airflow, according to Joe Castelli, director of commercial truck marketing.

Cristi Brown, E-Series marketing manager, says straight out that a “diesel is not available to order on E-Series models due to a supplier issue.” However, she says the new E-Series is the only vehicle in its segment to offer a standard gas V-8. E-150 and E-250 cargo vans are powered by the 4.6-liter Triton V-8. In addition, and new for '08, the E-450 model comes with a 5.4-liter V-8. In addition, the E-350 can be ordered with a 6.8-liter Triton V-10, which Brown says “delivers a segment-leading 305 hp. and 420 ft.-lb. of torque.”

E-Series transmission choices include a 4-sp. automatic with overdrive mated to the 4.6-liter and 5.4-liter engines in cargo vans. On cutaways, the 5.4-liter and 6.8-liter engines are driven through a 5-sp. TorqShift automatic with tow/haul mode. Brown notes a power take-off provision is optional on 6.8-liter cutaways and stripped chassis with 158- and 176-in. wheelbases. According to Bill Bleau, General Motors' marketing manager for commercial vans, both GMC Savana and Chevy Express cargo vans offer a full complement of gas engines as well as a diesel powerplant. The Vortec gas jobs available standard or optionally depending on model are a V6 4.3-liter; V8 5.3-liter; V8 5.3-liter E85 FlexFuel; V8 4.8-liter, and V8 6.0-liter.

Optionally offered on 3500 models is the Isuzu-designed Duramax 6.6-liter turbodiesel, rated 250 hp. and 460 lb.-ft. torque, which Bleau calls the “class leader in horsepower and torque.” Transmissions on Savana/Express are 4-sp. automatics that are electronically controlled and feature overdrive and a tow/haul mode

DaimlerChrysler's Pamela Niekamp, senior manager, commercial vehicle marketing & product planning for Dodge, says the big engine news for the Dodge/Freightliner Sprinter is that it boasts an all-new V6 diesel as well as an optional V6 gasoline engine for the first time.

The Sprinter's new 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel produces 154 hp. and peak torque of 280 lb.-ft. It's fitted with a diesel particulate filter to meet '07 emissions regs but retains the previous model's 10,000-mi. oil change intervals and 30,000-mi. PM schedule, notes Niekamp. Available only in the U.S., the new gasoline engine option is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 254 Hp. and 250 lb.-ft. peak torque. Both engines are mated to a 5-sp. automatic transmission.

On top of plenty of power choices, what perhaps distinguishes today's cargo vans most from their predecessors is the number of standard and optional features available to make them suitable for a dizzying array of vocational tasks.

“My customers consider their E-Series vans to be their largest ‘toolbox,’ remarks Ford's Brown. “It's what they work out of.”

Brown says the E-Series has been engineered with numerous chassis and suspension upgrades that have boosted the maximum GVWR from 14,050 to 14,500 lb. In addition, the maximum front gross axle weight rating has increased from 4,600 lb. to 5,000 lb.

She says other key features include revised steering system and front and rear suspensions that improve driving dynamics and braking performance to help drivers navigate urban streets. There are also brakes with larger rotors and calipers along with improved pad material for enhanced stopping and longer service life; and a tire-pressure monitoring system standard on all single rear wheel models.

NO MORE PUCKS

Cargo security has been improved by an exclusive E-Guard double-lock design for side and rear doors that Brown says “adds cargo security straight from the factory,” eliminating the need for aftermarket “hockey puck” locks. There is also a new steel-reinforced license plate “bucket” that Brown says is nearly impossible to break through. Ford's SecuriLock passive anti-theft system is also on all models. This prevents the engine from being started unless a key coded to the vehicle is used.

Brown points out that Ford is offering three no-charge “ship-through” cargo upfit packages enabling vans to be delivered to a dealer fully equipped:

  • EconoCargo system protects cargo with high-density polyethylene panels; and because it is insulated, the interior retains heat and cold more efficiently.

  • Masterack work-bin system for securing tools and parts includes fully installed steel shelves, drawers and cabinets and full-width safety partition.

  • QuietFlex racks and bins system is made of composite material to provide “a quieter, more flexible storage solution.”

The German-designed Sprinter has been extensively retooled for the 2007 model year but remains very much distinguished by its tall “Eurovan” body. It now features a pronounced hood and more streamlined profile and most notably, it is longer, wider and taller.

According to DaimlerChrysler's Niekamp, the Sprinter stylish body packs increases in maximum width of 2 in; interior height of 11 in; exterior height of 13 in., door-opening height of 5 in; cargo area length of 19 in; vehicle length of 30 in; cargo volume of 127 cu ft; and towing capacity of 2,500 lb‥

The Sprinter now comes in three vehicle lengths — 233, 273 and 289 in. There are two wheelbases, 144 and 170 in. And there are three interior roof heights: 65-, 76 and a new 84-in high “Mega” option. Maximum cargo capacity is 600 cu. ft. and GVW ratings run from 8,550 to 11,030 lb. for both van and cab-chassis versions.

The Sprinter's roll-open side door, which can be ordered on either side, is now wide enough to handle a standard pallet and the rear doors open a full 270 degrees, notes Niekamp.

She says the list of standard features that makes Sprinter a driver's truck is long and includes integrated wide-angle side mirrors; halogen headlamps; power windows and locks, tilt-and-height adjustable steering wheel and CD radio.

“The Sprinter has been designed to be upfit-friendly,” says Niekamp, “and there are some 35 upfitters certified by DaimlerChrysler to provide aftermarket equipment. She notes that Sprinters can be ordered from the factory with the unique Cargo Protection system, which is designed to reduce the risk of accidents from shifting loads.

GM's Bleau says that the Pro Access Panel option introduced when the Savana/Express was redesigned in 2003 remains unique in the industry. “This package provides three panels, two on the driver side and one on the passenger side, that allow easy exterior access to the cargo area by remote keyless entry or by an interior manual release.

“The access panels save the operator from going in and out of the van multiple times on a service call,” Bleau points out. “When we run demos of it in use, we see it typically saving 60% of the time going back and forth for tools or materials.”

Side doors have also received a bit of attention from the General. Bleau points out that the standard passenger side cargo door is a 60/40 swing-out and a slider is optional. On the driver side, there is an optional industry-first 60/40 swing-out door available as well. “Having the two doors means an operator can place a work tool, such as a compressor, behind the front seat and then access it from either side.”

SAFETY BOOM

With vans being purchased by large firms that have no choice but to be safety-conscious or by small- business owners who personally know those they put behind the wheel, it's little wonder these vehicles are becoming home to more and more advanced safety features.

According to GM's Bleau, thanks to their recent redesign, Savana/Express models ensure stable handling, precise steering, superior ride and balance, and a “quiet, isolated driving experience.” He points out that a three-piece frame has fully boxed sections for strength and rigidity. Extended and tapered front frame rails improve crashworthiness and additional tubular frame cross members increase torsional stiffness.

Bleau says the standard four-wheel antilock disc brake system features Hydroboost. This system works with a high-volume brake master cylinder to provide increased stopping power but with an “easy, linear feel” on the brake pedal. Dynamic rear proportioning is used as well to help apply the correct amount of pressure to the rear wheels, depending on whether the van is loaded.

Ford's Brown says the '08 E-Series cargo van is equipped with an engine-only traction control (EOTC) system. The EOTC system uses the anti-lock braking system and engine torque to monitor wheel speed and vehicle speed to detect wheel spin and slip, she explains. When wheel spin or slip is detected, the electronic throttle control reduces engine torque to help retain traction.

But it's the Sprinter that's most strikingly raised the safety-performance bar for cargo vans. The new Sprinter is the first commercial light truck to feature DaimlerChrysler's new adaptive electronic stability program (AESP), which compensates automatically for changes in vehicle payload during braking and steering maneuvers.

The new stability system is integrated with an array of other new safety-related electronic and suspension systems, including roll-over mitigation, skid control, ABS, electronic brake distribution and emergency brake assist — all of which are standard, points out DaimlerChrysler's Niekamp.

Given all the leading-edge advances in safety, productivity and engine technology now finding their way into vans, it's clear OEMs are more directed than ever toward rolling out vehicles tailored to the mobile needs of commercial customers.

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