A New Era for Vans

One would think that the five trucks of Lakeside Pharmacy outside Atlanta would have little in common with the decidedly mammoth 88,000-unit fleet operated by its next door neighbor, United Parcel Service. Yet both are intimately involved with the same vehicle trend line: using smaller, lighter vans offering better fuel economy to deliver the goods their customers demand every day. With five full-time

One would think that the five trucks of Lakeside Pharmacy outside Atlanta would have little in common with the decidedly mammoth 88,000-unit fleet operated by its next door neighbor, United Parcel Service. Yet both are intimately involved with the same vehicle trend line: using smaller, lighter vans offering better fuel economy to deliver the goods their customers demand every day.

With five full-time drivers, Lakeside Pharmacy relies on its small trucks to make roughly 100 deliveries per day for prescriptions, medications and medical equipment across Forsyth County, GA, outside Atlanta, says Dr. Apollon Constantinides, Lakeside's owner. His vehicle of choice is now Ford Motor Co.'s new Transit Connect van, transplanted from Europe and tweaked for the North American market, because it meets all of his cost and operational needs.

“First is the gas mileage because prices are skyrocketing. Next is maneuverability and loading capacity, or in other words, how it meets our needs. Third is durability. Finally, I look for a vehicle that is stylish and will reflect our image,” he says. “We've always compromised on one or the other because no vehicle was fully engineered for our type of usage.”


With a 2.0-liter, 4-cyl. engine and automatic transmission helping to deliver fuel economy estimated at 19 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway, Lakeside can have it all with the Transit Connect. “It combines fuel efficiency with loading capacity — and its reliability has been proven in Europe,” says Constantinides.

UPS sees similar operational benefits from the 1,800 Sprinter vans it's been using since 2002, as well as a platform for field testing hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

“They work well on our longer routes because of their fuel economy, plus the longer periods between maintenance translate directly into lower operational costs for those routes,” says Ron Kirby, corporate automotive manager for UPS. The company used the Sprinter for seven years, primarily in its Western European ground fleet in seven countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland, prior to its introduction in the U.S.

The Sprinter, built by Germany's Daimler AG and sold by Chrysler under a contract forged when the two companies were one under the “DaimlerChrysler” nameplate, is seeing heavy demand for its diesel models, which average 20.2 mpg. The mpg results were confirmed through independent testing and validation performed by AMCI (Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc.), Oceanside, CA. Tests also noted that gasoline-powered models average 15.2 mpg.

UPS tested the 158-in.-long wheelbase, high-roof vans on high mileage, rural routes throughout the U.S. during a one-year pilot program to see if they'd be a good fit for the company's North American-style of operation. UPS drivers and mechanics all provided very positive reports, especially on maneuverability, handling and overall driving performance, along with extended maintenance intervals and exceptional fuel performance.

“We're definitely seeing a lot of downsizing among a variety of commercial fleets as they look for vehicles with higher cubic capacity, lower load floors, and better fuel economy,” says Patrick Dougherty, director of commercial vehicles for the Dodge division of Chrysler LLC. “Fuel economy is a huge factor today.”

“For the Transit Connect, we're talking about 40% better fuel economy compared to a full-sized van, with lower operating costs,” notes Dave Gutman, commercial truck sales and marketing manager for Ford.

“Yet, this van is built on a commercial chassis — it's been designed from the ground up in Europe as a commercial product — so its carrying capacity is 1,600 lbs.,” he adds. “It's hard working, very durable, and designed in an environment where gasoline and diesel cost $5 and up. That's making it very attractive to many large and small fleets alike throughout the U.S.”


Regardless of size, one thing is driving demand for today's commercial van platforms: they work harder than ever at a lower cost of operation. “More than ever before, consumers are making the bulk of their purchases from the Internet and smaller specialty businesses, which is increasing the volume of small-package deliveries,” says Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vp-global product development.

“That's why we feel the Transit Connect is ideally suited to meet those delivery needs because of its flexible package, compact size and fuel-efficient powertrain,” he says. “It will make the delivery process for small-business owners easier and more affordable.”

Steve Kimber, commercial vehicles director for Ford of Britain, says that a durable design coupled to load box functionality, high residual values, and maintenance intervals kept to a minimum helped Transit Connect break the mold and be a strong sales leader in Britain for six years. Sales in Britain were split: roughly one-third long wheelbase and two-thirds short wheelbase, with the long wheelbase offering 32% more cubic load space and 14% more load length than its “baby brother.”

“Ford is intensifying its efforts to leverage the best of our Ford product portfolio around the world,” Kuzak explains. “In Europe, this tough small van has carved out a niche for itself. We think the Transit Connect can make a real difference to customers here as well.”


One of the keys to making light-duty vans more attractive to commercial customers is increasing available options — everything from offering incentive packages for easily upfitting vans for specific market niches, to providing more “cab chassis” units to lower the cost of the overall unit for fleets.

For example, in June, Chrysler's Dodge announced a $1,000 allowance toward the purchase of an upfit body for installation on all Dodge Sprinter chassis cab models, a program that runs through January 2, 2009.

“In offering this upfit allowance, Dodge is continuing to do its part to lessen the expense of costly body installations for both its upfit partners and commercial customers,” says Pamela Niekamp, Dodge's senior manager-commercial vehicle marketing and product planning. The allowance applies to all upfits valued at more than $1,500, with participating upfitters required to be members of the National Truck Equipment Assn. (NTEA).

General Motors is now offering a cutaway version for 2009 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana 4500 commercial vans that are engineered to support the needs of three primary applications: school buses, shuttle buses and ambulances. This, says John Gaydash, director of marketing for GM fleet and commercial operations, makes them more flexible for end users.

The Express/Savana 4500's capability is supported by a new, stronger chassis that enables a 14,200-lb. GVW with lower mass for a payload rating of 9,100 lbs. It's available with a gasoline-powered V8 and GM's popular 6.6L Duramax turbodiesel V8, offering better fuel economy over larger engines.

“The 4500's more robust body structure is designed to handle the extreme duty cycle encountered by many cutaway vehicles,” Gaydash says. “That engineering allows them to do more with less. Due to the 4500's lower mass, we've got that higher payload of 9,100 lbs.”

Dougherty says the Sprinter is also being offered more widely in a cab-chassis configuration to help lower costs for the end user. “The cab-chassis gives the fleet's local upfitter more flexibility and makes the vehicle more price-competitive if we don't have to put the body on ourselves when it's shipped over here from Germany,” he says.


That's not to say fleets using the traditional “step van” are abandoning that model in droves. Far from it. While light-duty van makers are seeing many medium-duty fleets downsize their vehicle choice, step-van users like UPS, FedEx Corp. and others are sticking with this traditional chassis not only because it meets their needs but because they are also undergoing major improvements as well.

Jim Gavaghan, vp of sales, commercial and RV chassis, Workhorse Custom Chassis, now owned by Navistar, says his company's chassis got a power upgrade for the 2008 model year from 300 to 323 hp. at 4,600 rpm, and a torque boost from 360 lbs.-ft. to 373 lbs.-ft. at 4,400 rpm, to improve the vehicle's performance.

A spate of ergonomic changes helped make the step van an easier tool for fleets to use. These include large footwells that allow you to stretch your legs; a forward-mounted doghouse that creates more room to move; a new steering wheel with cruise control activation for easier driving; and the addition of a Driver Information Center to keep operators updated on vital engine and vehicle functions.


Workhorse also offers an integrated power take-off (PTO) that can drive a multitude of products, including an air compressor, generator or hydraulic pump, to increase the vehicle's versatility for utility and construction-related customers.

According to the company, these PTO-driven systems can be conveniently integrated right into the truck, enabling the PTO option to be spec'd with the chassis right from the dealer. This allows for a more professional integration and consistent installation.

Workhorse notes that a PTO-equipped step-van chassis can significantly reduce equipment, fuel and manpower costs. One can pull a tractor, trencher or other equipment to the job site where the built-in compressor and generator provide power to get the job done. This eliminates the cost associated with additional vehicles towing separate compressors, generators or power inverters to the job site.

“This is an excellent system to complement the versatility of the walk-in [or step van] truck,” says Gavaghan. “It allows utilities, construction firms and others to do an amazing amount of work with one vehicle.”

“We're definitely seeing a lot more ‘tire kickers’ for these kinds of vehicles,” says Joe Snyder, commercial vehicle product manager for step-van maker Freightliner Customer Chassis Corp. (FCCC). “Fleets are also trying different vehicle configurations to boost productivity. For example, we've got a bakery customer that's gone from a 10,000 lbs. GVW chassis to a 25,000 lbs. GVW model to increase their carrying capacity so one truck can make twice as many delivery stops. We've got two or three fleets testing this size of step van model.”


Productivity is the real key with step vans, says Snyder, because an operator can literally “walk in” to both the driver and cargo compartments more easily, enabling them to crank out 150 to 200 stops a day without fatigue or ergonomic impact on their bodies.

“Other than garbage packers, this is the only vehicle where you'll see stand-up, pedestal-style seats,” he says. “That design makes it easier on the driver, allowing them to do more in a set time span. That's why we've seen orders and interest from utility fleets spike more in the last three to five years than in the seven years before that.”

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