Van Wars

New Models and Features Battle for Customer Acceptance

If you were to make a movie about the recent machinations in the U.S. light commercial vehicle market, it might very well be called Invasion of the Vans. Both Ford and Chrysler are bringing new full-size commercial van models to the U.S. market that were developed on chassis that have seen long service overseas, especially Europe. And other OEMs, such as Nissan, are introducing smaller and more compact versions of their larger product offerings.

None of that surprises Claus Tritt, general manager of commercial vehicles for Mercedes-Benz. This is because the “van wars” now brewing in the U.S. market are a direct result of broader economic factors, which are affecting the bottom line of all sorts of businesses that rely on such models to get jobs done.

“The light commercial vehicle market is going to change in the U.S. for a lot of reasons, but primarily economic ones,” he explains. “That’s driven largely by a greater focus on fuel economy because the cost of fuel is going nowhere but up. At the same time, van users want more capability from their equipment, so it’s causing them to reassess what types of vehicles they buy and how they use them.”

Those demands are also changing the mix of options offered by manufacturers, Tritt says. “The old thinking meant we offered just one wheelbase and one roof height,” he explains. “The old thinking was all about horsepower and not torque, with little regard for fuel economy. But gone are the days when a van fleet manager could sleep comfortably at night knowing his equipment was getting 6 mpg.”

The Sprinter van built by Mercedes-Benz is a case in point. First produced back in 1995, the Sprinter has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years. In 2010, a crew van option was added to the Sprinter’s existing cargo van, passenger van, MiniBus and cab chassis family. The crew model offers a three-person second row seat that can carry an entire work crew to the job site and back, plus all their tools and materials. It’s powered by a 3L V6 diesel that gets 30% better fuel economy than a comparable gasoline engine.

The company recently displayed one of its Sprinter 3500 cab chassis models equipped with what it calls a “Maranda” service body to showcase how the van is being redesigned for light commercial vehicle users outside of the traditional van space.


Offering a 188-hp. diesel, 5-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, and maximum payload of 6,318 lbs., the Maranda version is expected to appeal to traditional work truck users operating pickups and even Class 3-4 light trucks in the U.S. by adding a service body with commercial payload capacity to the Sprinter’s more fuel-efficient chassis.

“The van isn’t a ‘can on wheels’ anymore,” Tritt stresses. “It’s everywhere now in the U.S., just like in Europe, because we can do so many things with it in terms of wheelbase options, roof heights, payload capacity, even towing capacity—all with potentially better fuel economy. That larger variety in vans is what’s critical now.” “If you want to play in the commercial truck market, you must have the breadth of product,” adds Bob Hegbloom, director- Ram Brand at Chrysler.

That’s why he believes Ram’s new full-size ProMaster van will help give Ram “legs” in the commercial van space. The ProMaster, which is based upon Fiat’s long-selling European Ducato platform but reconfigured for the North American market, is due to start production in the third quarter of this year at the Saltillo Van Assembly Plant in Saltillo, Mexico. It will come in three model designations (1500, 2500 and 3500) and 13 configurations, including two roof heights, three wheelbases, four body lengths, and a cutaway chassis.

With an eye towards boosting the vehicle’s attractiveness across a wide spectrum of light-duty fleets, Ram will offer two engine choices: A 3L inline 4-cyl. (I-4) EcoDiesel will crank out 174 hp. and generate peak torque of 295 lbs.-ft. at just 1,400 rpm, and the 3.6L Pentastar V6 will churn out 280 hp. and a peak torque of 260 lbs.-ft. There are also two transmission choices: a 62TE 6-speed automatic or an automated 6-speed manual controlled by software that responds to road conditions.

The van also boasts a payload capacity of up to 5,145 lbs. and a maximum towing capacity of up to 5,100 lbs. The vehicle’s gross combined weight rating for the 3.6L V6 is set at 11,500 lbs. and 12,500 lbs. for the 3L I-4 EcoDiesel. Fred Diaz, president and CEO, Ram Truck Brand, Chrysler Group, notes that the unibody frame architecture of the ProMaster makes it significantly lighter and offers other structural advantages for the fleet operator, including more stability and strength from front to rear; a reinforced plenum area for optimized engine packaging; and “truer” tuning of chassis systems and related hardware when compared to more common body-on-frame applications.

Safety is another area where van capability is being boosted.

For the Ram, the ProMaster will feature 35 active and passive safety and security features, such as trailer-sway control and optional ParkView backup camera and ParkSense with audible warning. These features will help drivers maneuver larger commercial vans in crowded and tight urban spaces, where they are expected to be deployed the majority of the time.


A feature found on other commercial vehicles— from pickups all the way up to Class 8 rigs—will be added as well: An electronic stability control (ESC) system will be standard on the ProMaster. With the four-channel ESC system, independent control is given to all four corners of the vehicle, and this assists the driver in maintaining control under wet, snow-covered or icy roads, tight turns, and evasive maneuvers.

In effect, the ESC system determines the driver’s intentions and optimizes overall vehicle control to keep the dynamic forces within select limits in any driving situation, with such control “nearly transparent” so control seems almost intuitive, says Diaz.

When it comes to fuel economy, however, the battle is on. Full-size commercial vans are expected to duke it out against each other and, in some respects, against pickups as well. Ford’s new full-size Transit van is going to be offered with a 3.5L EcoBoost V6 gasoline engine or a 3.2L Power Stroke 5-cyl. diesel, all mated to a Ford 6R80 6-speed automatic transmission. Alternative fuel options such as natural gas and propane will also be available.

The OEM says its 3.2L Power Stroke, which is currently manufactured in Ford’s Struandale Engine Plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, will be exported to its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, MO. This plant received a $1.1 billion investment last year to ready it for production of the Transit.


The full-size Transit is an example of how OEMs are enhancing van packages in comparison to previous models. It weighs about 200 lbs. less than the E-Series van it’s replacing and should provide up to a 25% improvement in fuel economy versus the E-Series line.

“The key is to offer the customer maximum flexibility so the vehicle best fits their business,” says Chris Brewer, global chief nameplate engineer for Ford’s Transit program. “With the Transit, they’ve got three body lengths and three roof heights to choose from; three engine options; a cutaway chassis option; and single and dual rear wheel options. Simply put, the Transit represents the equivalent of three new vehicle lines all rolled into one.”

Len Deluca, director for Ford’s commercial vehicles division, says the chassis cab and cutaway options for the Transit will both be offered in three wheelbases (138, 156 or 178 in.) and gross vehicle weight ratings from 9,000 to 10,360 lbs.

The chassis cab will feature an enclosed passenger compartment and bare frame ready to accept aftermarket body modules ranging from custom cargo delivery to utility body. By contrast, he explains that while the Transit cutaway is similar to the chassis cab, the rear of the passenger compartment is open so it can be paired with specialty body modules such as shuttle or school bus bodies. Alternative fuel options are going to be in the mix as well for the Transit, says Deluca, again to maximize flexibility for a wider range of customers.

Ford plans to offer businesses and commercial customers relief from constantly fluctuating petroleum fuel prices by providing a 3.7L V6 engine for the Transit with a CNG/LPG prep kit. “Since 2009, we’ve seen the number of [Ford] commercial vehicles sold with factory-prepped engines for CNG/LPG increase by more than 350%,” notes Jon Coleman, Ford Fleet Sustainability and Technology manager. “To expand power of choice for our commercial customers, we are offering CNG/LPG prepped engines in additional vehicle nameplates—from the Transit Connect compact van up to medium-duty F-650 models.”


Coleman adds that CNG conversion can drastically lower vehicle operating costs for fleet administrators, with CNG now selling for an average of $2.10/gal. Still, Ford notes that CNG/LPG engine prep from the factory isn’t cheap. The cost starts at about $325, after which the customer then chooses a partner to supply fuel tanks, fuel lines, and unique fuel injectors.

According to the automaker, total CNG/LPG conversions typically run from $9,500 to $12,500, depending on fuel tank capacity. Based on application and usage, Ford believes businesses can see payback for CNG/LPG systems in as little as 24 to 36 months. Offering a plethora of alternative fuel options is one sign that the commercial van market in the U.S. is undergoing “segment fragmentation,” in the words of Joe Castelli, vice president- commercial vehicles and fleet for Nissan North America.

“The cost of operation is key now, which is why you are seeing different van platforms, engine options, and the like,” he explains. He points to Nissan’s new NV200 compact cargo van as one example of the fragmentation now taking place in the van market.

“The compact market is running maybe 40,000 units a year compared to 225,000 for big vans,” Castelli says. “But [the NV200] is a vehicle that can get 24 mpg city/highway combined. It won’t work for every operator, but if someone can get away with a 700-lb. cargo capacity for their operation and thus can switch to a smaller yet more fuel-efficient cargo van, they will do it. It’s all about adding more arrows to our quiver in terms of van options.”

“The reason small vans like this are resonating so well is not only are North American cities becoming denser like in Europe, but fuel costs keep rising. And every time they do, businesses re-evaluate their vehicle purchase strategies,” notes Tim Stoehr, commercial truck marketing manager at Ford. And the NV200, ProMaster, Sprinter and Transit are just some of the models that will be waiting for those decisions to be made.

Tried and True

New designs and new options may be storming the U.S. van market these days, but one OEM believes its time-tested chassis still meets the two most basic demands among light commercial vehicle fleets: dependability and reliability.

“It’s nice to have a platform that’s been around for a while, one that truck equipment manufacturers know how to upfit and fleets know how to take care of,” says Joseph Langhauser, product manager-vans & mobility for the North American arm of General Motors.

“The next ‘evolution’ occurring right now for vans is that fleets are focused on finding the smallest fuel-efficient equation they can for their operations. They are looking to get that ‘mission-critical’ size for the best total cost of operation they can,” he explains. “That’s why we’re seeing this major shake-up in the industry with all of these new models.”

Langhauser believes that an acceleration speed of 0 to 60 isn’t as critical as it once was in the light commercial field, which is opening the door not only to smaller displacement engines but smaller vehicles as well. “We see some folks in the medium-duty space looking to see where they can shrink down in size to get better fuel economy, a lower greenhouse gas footprint, and more savings.”

He also thinks offering a traditional “body on frame” design with alternative fuel packages in the van space married to what he calls a “proven chassis” can appeal to a wide range of fleet customers. GM has been doing just this with its GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express models for several years.

“Customers are asking . . . how to lower their cost profile,” Langhauser says. “That’s why the ecosystem for vans has definitely fragmented and why so many different attributes are now in demand where these vehicles are concerned.”

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