Trucks or Vans - Which Are Better for Work?
Unconventional Choice Could Be the Smarter One
The pickup truck has long been seen as the prototypical work vehicle in the United States. Nothing says "rugged individualism" and "can-do" like a truck -- or so the mystique goes. However, when viewed through the more pragmatic lens of practicality, the traditional truck has some new competition from an unlikely source: cargo vans.
For some buyers, the awkward styling and proportions and the stigma that goes along with vans is enough to keep them off the shopping list. But for those commercial buyers that want to protect their tools and cargo from both foul weather and prying eyes, one of the new fullsize cargo vans could be the perfect fit for many businesses. We talked to representatives from several of the leading commercial van makers to get their perspective on the market.
A big change seen across the van market was a move to offering higher-roof models, allowing a six-foot-tall person to stand upright in the van. Mercedes-Benz was the pioneer of the Euro-style tall-van, the Sprinter, first through its partnership with Chrysler in the early-to-mid 2000s, and later through its own stand-alone commercial outlets or Freightliner channels. But today, there are multiple competitors on the market, each with its own unique proposition and packaging.
Best of Both Worlds
The Nissan NV line of fullsize vans offers a unique combination of attributes and packaging of both vans and pickups and was designed from the outset with North American customers in mind. Peter Bedrosian, with Nissan Product Planning, shared some of the insights the company received when researching the market and getting feedback from fullsize van customers. "We did a lot of research in the commercial space before we launched the fullsize NV vans. We had small businesses and fleets moving out of vans into pickups. The van segment was very stagnant. Buyers were looking for creature comforts and amenities, but they missed the utility of the cargo space and the all-weather and theft protection of a van," he said.
The NV fullsize vans have a unique profile for a van, with a long, prominent hood, as opposed to the shorter hood more typical of vans. Bedrosian said that design decision was a result of feedback from customers. "We asked them, 'What would you change if you could have anything?' They said, 'Why is the engine sitting in my lap?' Traditional vans had limited legroom and foot room. The feedback to us was to push the engine forward into the engine compartment. We like to think of the fullsize NV vans as more like a "panel pickup" than a panel van. They're really like a pickup from the B-pillar forward," he said.
Big in Trucks, Big in Vans
Poised to be a major player in the commercial-van segment is the Ford Transit, replacing the long-running E-series vans in the U.S. market. Although at first glance, it would seem Ford is simply copying Mercedes' formula with the Sprinter, the Transit has been a staple of European commercial fleets for nearly 50 years, so it's more a matter of the company rationalizing its global resources to meet a growing segment in the U.S.
Minyang Jiang, brand manager for Ford vans, says she expects the fullsize Transit to have a broader appeal than the E-Series due to the greater versatility afforded by its larger interior volume and more practical packaging. "A lot of smaller business owners who want to be able to use their work vehicles as a mobile workshop have been buying vehicles with higher roof heights. We see those professionals being more interested in Transit. Delivery companies, private contractors, and those in construction and maintenance are a few examples of customers who can really benefit from the increased cargo capacity of the Transit (compared to the E-Series)."
Although Ford has the best-selling truck in the U.S. with the F-Series, Jiang says she sees some F-Series buyers potentially considering the Transit for its cargo security and protection. "We do see the possibility of some truck buyers who would prefer more cargo space in a closed, secured area considering a van," she said. In addition to the greater cargo security, vans have the ability to stack a taller payload in the cargo area. According to Jiang, this could have real practical benefits for contractors or business owners. "The increased cargo space is going to be a great customer benefit – the largest Transit carries up to 487 cubic feet of cargo, and for some of our customers, that can mean fewer trips, more items carried per trip, and improved fuel costs."
Chrysler's Ram brand, another prominent player in fullsize trucks, also has an entry in the van segment with its new Fiat-based ProMaster. Joe Benson, Head of Ram Commercial Trucks, says more traditional truck customers are considering vans, but some still prefer to drive pickups for the image it conveys. "It comes down to personal preference. A lot of the times, a van would make more sense for their job, but they still drive a pickup," he said. "You're starting to see a shift toward greater acceptance of vans, because they're more capable of being a mobile office. The new ones are more fuel-efficient and more viable as a mobile office or workshop, since you can stand up in them. A lot of the vans actually have a better payload rating than comparable half-tons."
For pragmatic, business-minded customers, the functional benefits of a van over a pickup can often overcome any prejudice about the image. "Guys want to drive trucks, but when you talk to them about potential efficiencies for their business, it really gets their attention. The market for commercial vans has grown year-over-year, and it's forecast to continue to grow," Benson said.
Worth the Price
Any discussion of the commercial van segment would be incomplete without acknowledging the originator of the modern-day large van market in the U.S., the Sprinter. Originally sold as a Dodge during the time of the DaimlerChrysler alliance, the Sprinter continues to be sold in the U.S. under the Mercedes-Benz Commercial and Freightliner brands. Mercedes-Benz acknowledges the premium price point of the Sprinter relative to its competitors, but makes the case that "you get what you pay for" with a proven track-record, excellent resale value, and top-notch customer service. In certain markets, some Mercedes-Benz commercial dealers even offer overnight service to minimize downtime for business customers.
"Since the Sprinter is a work tool, total cost of ownership is huge regarding operating costs, as well as total vehicle values," said Christian Bokich, product and technology communications specialist for Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. "It's very highly rated by both ALG and Vincentric for overall value."
The Sprinter sold a modest 21,816 units through Mercedes-Benz channels in 2013, but Bokich said the company is not in a sales volume race with other manufacturers, but is focused on delivering the best experience to its commercial customers through service and quality. He pointed out that the Sprinter has been chosen by FedEx, UPS, and DHL after closely analyzing operating costs and determining the higher up-front purchase cost is more than offset by its economical operation, facilitated by standard diesel engines. An even more economical four-cylinder diesel engine option was added to the Sprinter lineup for the 2014 model year. Combined with a seven-speed automatic, the four-cylinder provides comparable performance to the larger V-6 diesel with better fuel economy.
Even though a van might not be the first or obvious choice for your business, if your line of work requires or values cargo security and all-weather protection, mobile workshop capability, or the ability to carry large or bulky payloads, a van could prove to be a more practical choice than a pickup.