More than skin deep

To casual observers, not much may stand out when commercial-grade pickups and vans roll by as they deliver products and services throughout the U.S. and Canada. Yes, many have surely snapped to when they see the Freightliner- and Mercedes-Benz-badged Sprinter that arrived here a few years back. Others have had their heads turned by the recently arrived Ford Transit Connect van, also of European origin.

To casual observers, not much may stand out when commercial-grade pickups and vans roll by as they deliver products and services throughout the U.S. and Canada. Yes, many have surely snapped to when they see the Freightliner- and Mercedes-Benz-badged Sprinter “eurovans” that arrived here a few years back. Others have had their heads turned by the recently arrived Ford Transit Connect van, also of European origin. Still others, no doubt, will not miss the Nissan NV van, designed specifically for this market, that's being rolled out right now.

Despite the press and the eyeballs those three vans grab, the meat of the light-duty truck market — roughly spanning GVW Classes 1c-3 — remain the classic American full-size van and pickup models sold by Detroit's Big Three: Ford, General Motors (GM), and Ram (formerly Dodge) Trucks, a business unit of the now Fiat-owned Chrysler LLC.

Add in Germany's Daimler, which markets the Sprinter via its Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) operation, and Japan's Nissan, which engineered its new NV van as a purely North American product, and there are now five major suppliers of commercial vans and pickups. These world-class manufacturers know an awful lot must stand out about their trucks besides shiny sheet metal if they're to attract and hold onto sales from demanding North American commercial truck buyers.

“For half-ton pickups, our research tells us buyers are most concerned with, in order from first to third, reliability, value for the money, and durability,” points out Joe Benson, head of commercial marketing for Ram Truck. “For three-quarter and one-ton pickups, owners are saying they're concerned with towing capability followed by a tie for engine performance and reliability.”

Eric Guenther, Ford general marketing manager-North American fleet, lease & remarketing operations, says the “most significant request from all commercial customers is fuel economy along with the availability of alternative fuel power in specific segments.” From there, he relates, buyers look at total cost of ownership along with safety. Those concerns are followed by quality and reliability, and residual value, which is “especially key for all the light trucks managed through leasing companies.”

Joyce Mattman, GM Fleet and Commercial director of commercial product and specialty vehicles, says light-truck buyers “need fuel economy, but they also look closely at the utility of the vehicle and its payload.”

According to Joe Castelli, vice president of commercial vehicles & fleet for Nissan North America Inc. (NNA), the all-new NV is “one of the most researched projects ever in the history of Nissan.”

Peter Bedrosian, NNA senior manager of product planning, cites key elements of the NV design that grew out of Nissan's extensive market research to include pickup-truck-like “packaging, a bold exterior and innovative interior space, as well as an all-new commercial-duty chassis and a user-friendly cargo area with built-in business solutions.”

Mike Hobson, NNA director of light commercial & fleet vehicles, contends “buyers who shied away from vans [because they either did not like driving them or found serviceability an issue] may be brought back” by the innovative features of the NV design.

NO MORE DOGHOUSE

Hobson notes a major feature of the NV cab is the absence of an engine doghouse, thanks to the NV's conventional truck layout with out-front engine design. This frees up space under the instrument panel and between the seats while providing easy under-hood access for routine engine service.

The NV lineup consists of three models: the NV1500, the NV2500HD, and the NV3500HD. The two HD-designated models are available in both “standard” and “high roof” versions. High roof models allow “stand-up walkthrough/work cargo area capability,” notes Bedrosian, who adds the roofs are high enough to allow a person 6 ft. 3 in. tall to stand up while in the cargo area.

Cargo-area floor length is 120 in. and the maximum cargo floor width is 70.2 in. NV standard roof models have a maximum 55.8-in. cargo area height while the NV high roof models have a maximum 76.9-in. cargo area height.

Depending on model, NV vans are powered by either a 4.0L V6 or 5.6L V8 engine, both mated to a 5-spd. automatic transmission provided standard. Bedrosian notes the mpg gain by switching from the V8 to the V6 is roughly 10 to 15%.

The Sprinter range consists of the cargo van, passenger van, minibus, cab chassis and the newest model, the crew van. According to Claus Tritt, general manager of commercial vans for Daimler Vans USA, the crew van seats five with remaining interior room set up for cargo. He points out that with its second row seating, the van can haul an “entire work crew to the job site and back, plus all their tools and materials.”

As are the other Sprinter models, the crew van is powered by a 3.0L V6 diesel that Tritt says delivers 30% better fuel economy than a comparable gasoline engine. The powerplant boasts 188 hp. and 325 lbs.-ft. of torque. The four-valve-per-cylinder Mercedes BlueTec diesel features centrally located piezo-electric injectors, CDI direct injection, a variable-nozzle turbocharger, and exhaust gas recirculation.

“We offer a proven fuel-efficient diesel engine, not only for fuel efficiency, which impacts a buyer's operating costs, but also to have 10,000-mi. service intervals, triple the competition. That translates to more time on the road, making money for a business,” says Tritt.

“The Sprinter offers the ability to stand upright in the back, with interior standing height at 6 ft. 4 in. It also has best-in-class cargo capacity of up to 547 sq. ft., payload capacity of up to 5,375 lbs., and the cargo van model features a side-door opening that's 4 ft. 3 in. wide and 6 ft. high and has the industry's lowest step-in height at 19.9 in,” Tritt says.

The newest eurovan is the Transit Connect, which originally debuted as a Ford of Europe product. “The Transit Connect has been very well received in the market,” says Ford's Guenther. “And the emphasis is not just on functionality and applicability for these buyers. It's also outstanding fuel economy.”

SMALL-BUSINESS FOCUSED

Guenther says Ford brought the Transit Connect here for several reasons. “Many small-business users had been forced to buy more truck than they needed or had to settle for a repurposed vehicle not designed for commercial use. But this is a purpose-built truck focused on what small-business buyers need.”

He notes that Ford has seen no cannibalization of its GVW Class 2-4 E-Series full-size van sales due to the Class 1c Transit Connect and the van “does not compete with the much larger Sprinter.” An all-electric version of the Transit Connect, which Ford has been working on with Azure Dynamics, is slated to launch this month, Guenther adds.

They may have the spotlight now, but the Sprinter and Transit Connect may not be the only European-based vans on the road much longer. Benson says that Ram Truck is “continuing to work with our partners at Fiat to explore the business case for bringing one or more of their popular European vans to North America in the next few years.”

Although the Nissan NV was designed for the North American truck market, according to NNA's Hobson, Nissan has put its Japan and Europe market NV200 — a smaller van than the NV — “under study” for possible adaption to the U.S. market. He notes the NV200 competes overseas in the same vehicle segment as the Ford Transit Connect and that the OEM is also looking at offering an electric NV200 here as well.

GM's Mattman was less committal about smaller vans coming here from the company's overseas operation, but she did allow the OEM is “always looking at opportunities” and adds that was the very reason it launched its HHR compact panel van a few years back. “The HHR has a GVWR of 4,240 lbs. and can haul a payload of 900 lbs., which often is perfect for small service companies.”

Ram Truck's Benson says big news from the OEM “is the Ram 1500 Tradesman, a value-priced option package that starts with the popular Ram 1500 ST trim package and adds useful features such as a standard Hemi engine with 5-spd. automatic transmission that balances power with fuel efficiency. Hemi-equipped Ram 1500s are rated at 390 hp./407 lbs.-ft. of torque and 20 mpg highway [for the] 4×2.”

The entire line of Ram heavy-duty pickups has received what Benson calls a “23% performance upgrade,” thanks to the “unsurpassed 800 lbs.-ft. of torque” of the Cummins turbodiesel engines mated to automatic transmissions.

On the van side, Ram Truck has just debuted its cargo van (C/V), which Benson says features “a list of best-in class attributes, including a Class 1c leading 1,800-lb. cargo payload and towing capability of up to 3,600 lbs.” It has maximum GCWR of 8,750 lbs., a 20-gal. fuel tank, and gets 25 mpg highway.

Benson describes the C/V as the “first minivan-based cargo van” and says it “utilizes the convenience features and city-friendly dimensions that have made Chrysler Group minivans segment leaders while maximizing cargo, convenience and capability attributes” for small businesses and commercial fleets.

“Despite the importance of fuel economy,” GM's Mattman says, “very few van buyers have a budget to buy a lot of alternative-fuel vehicles.” Nonetheless, she says GM heard loud and clear that “buyers want natural gas — both CNG and LPG — capability that is a factory option and so is covered by a GM warranty and having our engineering behind it.”

ADDING ALTERNATIVE POWER

The upshot is GM is now integrating CNG fueling capability into its vans now and will have LPG power available later this year. Mattman notes the OEM is “also looking at what other vehicles we can bring these options to.”

She notes that GMC and Chevy vans are now offered with a choice of gasoline, diesel or CNG engines, and cutaway models also offer diesel engines.

As for pickups, Mattman points out they can be powered by gasoline or diesel engines and that GM offers the only hybrid electric pickups in the market. She adds that the hybrids are offered to both consumer and commercial customers, but it has been the commercial buyers who have latched onto this.”

“We're seeing great acceptance of our latest GMC and Chevrolet HD pickups and the customers who historically buy vans are coming back,” adds Brian Bowden, director of commercial dealer operations for GM Fleet and Commercial, “[Right now] we're up 38% in pickup/van sales.”

According to Ford's Guenther, various alternative fuel options, including CNG, LNG and LPG (propane) have been brought to market for the OEM's light-duty commercial line. He notes there are so many alt-fuel options now that Ford has published a buyer's guide for them that details engine power choices by vehicle and upfitter.

Guenther also points out that Ford is offering two new fuel-efficient engines in its F-Series Super Duty pickups — a 6.2L gas and a 6.7L diesel — and the new F-150 pickup boasts four new fuel-efficient gasoline engine choices.

Zeroing in a bit more on the F-150, Guenther says that with the gradual disappearance of compact pickup trucks like Ford's own Ranger from OEM vehicle lines, the company has had to work to show current commercial users of those trucks that they may want to consider moving to an F-150 or even the Transit Connect. “The commercial light-truck market is evolving dramatically and so are its products,” adds Guenther.

That's reason enough for fleet owners who depend on these trucks to take a close look at everything from each OEM that's new beneath the sheet metal.

TAGS: Equipment
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