The New Generation of Commercial Vans

A Growing and Maturing—Yet Largely Forgotten—Market Segment

Gary Witzenburg
Nov 29, 2016
Photographers: Manufacturer
We've all ridden in those nasty, noisy, concrete-suspended old airport (or church, or school) multi-row passenger vans, probably truck-framed Chevy Expresses and Ford E-Series. Those are still available, but they've been largely supplanted by a growing list of much better, much more sophisticated, much less unpleasant, newer-design commercial and passenger vans of all sizes from a variety of makers, ranging from Ford to Ram to Chevrolet to Nissan to Mercedes-Benz.
We recently had the opportunity to move some furniture about 90 miles in a borrowed ’16 Ford Transit-250 MR cargo van—a trip involving a mix of city, urban, and freeway driving—and found it far better than expected in every way. Yes, it was big, with two (comfortable) front seats ahead of a cavernous cargo bay topped by a medium-high roof. Yet, it was surprisingly civilized, easy to handle, pleasantly peppy (thanks to its turbocharged, direct-injected 3.5L V-6), and not terribly challenging to park and maneuver, thanks to its standard rearview camera—one of the best features ever! It was also easy to load and unload through its split-rear and dual-manual sliding side doors. Our only gripe was a bit of road noise echoing around inside, especially when unloaded at freeway speeds. It stickered at 43K and delivered 17 mpg.
Photo 2/9   |   Ford Transit Drive Commercial Front
This got us thinking about some of the other newer-design commercial vans of all sizes, mostly for business but some passenger-equipped, that have turned up on the U.S. market in recent years. Well before that new fullsize Transit series, Ford launched a much smaller line of Transit Connect compact vans a few years back. Americanized versions of its popular European four-cylinder four-wheel-drive van series, they're now all over the place in mostly small-business livery, though a seven-passenger version is available. Both large and small Transit series lead their segments in sales, and the 23-mpg Transit Connect starts around 26K.
Also sharing North American versions of their international commercial vans are Italian-American Fiat-Chrysler and Japanese automaker Nissan. The former, marketed here as Ram ProMaster City vans, are direct competitors of Ford's Transit Connect and are close in size, price, capability, and fuel efficiency (though the passenger version seats only five). The latter—the four-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Nissan NV200 Compact Cargo van—competes with the Transit Connect and ProMaster City, though there's no passenger version yet, and Chevrolet sells a version of it as the City Express.
Photo 3/9   |   Ford Transit Drive Commercial Rear
German luxury maker Mercedes-Benz has offered fullsize Sprinter passenger and cargo vans in North America for many years, and just last year jumped into the garageable-van fray with a series of Euro-based Metris midsize vans. Powered by a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder driving its rear wheels, it is a bit larger (M-B says "right-size") and somewhat pricier than the compact Transit Connect, ProMaster City, and NV200 yet delivers about the same fuel economy. The Metris Worker cargo van starts around 26K, the eight-passenger version at 30K.
Of course, all of these can be (and typically are) custom-fit inside with pretty much anything a business or recreational customer needs for work and/or play. And they sure are huge improvements over those clunky old commercial vans that once dominated this market!

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