Nissan NV3500
By Jonny Lieberman

WE LIKE: Honest, utilitarian, refreshing. Nissan redefines the full-size van market.

WE DON'T LIKE: No diesel and appalling gas mileage. Perhaps too niche for its own good.

As long as I've been alive, there's been a full-size van non-aggression pact in effect among the Big Three. It's as if Ford said to Chevy, "We won't spend any money on research and development, and you won't have to either." Think I'm kidding? The same trailer hitch that fits a new Ford E-Series also fits one from 1975. Dodge, under Daimler's "tutelage," dropped its full-size van altogether in 2003 after over 30 years of production without much innovation. The seriously better Mercedes-Benz Sprinter replaced the B-Series Ram Van on paper, but a huge asking price put the diesel German van into another class altogether. Nissan saw a hole in the marketplace and took its best shot. With a howitzer.

When we finally get to sit down and discuss the candidates of any of the Year competition, one of the phrases most frequently bandied about is "moving the needle." As in: Yes, that Ram could tow Teddy Roosevelt off of Mt. Rushmore, but I don't think it moves the needle in the HD segment. Meaning that the big Ram is just another torque-monster dually that with more grunt than you're ever likely to need. But it's not new; it's not novel. Ford and GM make trucks that can more or less do exactly the same thing. The segment's needle stays exactly where it is.

On the other hand, the Nissan NV rips the needle off the dial.

"This feels almost like a whole new category of vehicle," says Febbo of Nissan's first ever full-size van. Says Jurnecka, "This thing is shockingly good! It's quick and ridiculously nimble and easy to drive, despite its hugely intimidating stature." Adds Kiino, "Feels seriously smaller than it is [i.e., it feels like a full-size SUV as opposed to a gargantuan van]." Harwood brings up an interesting point about our tall-boy version: "Surprisingly easy to drive, though I worry I'd forget about the high roof in an instant. That could put some low-lying tree branches (or the NV's roof) in jeopardy."

We also appreciated just how well thought out the NV's ergonomics are. Says Kiino, "Nissan spent years developing the NV and it shows -- it really nailed the details: huge center console, outer vinyl strip on seats (less apt to wear), visor clips for paperwork, wide-opening rear doors with door-hold magnets." The 6-foot, 2-inch Febbo noted that he was able to stand up inside the vehicle, "So if I bought this to tow a race car, the NV could be a workshop." However, he might not want to haul anything too heavy. "The thing that really worries me is that the NV seems to have a higher load capacity [3500 pounds] than what can safely be tied down. The only attachment points are on the floor, and I have a bigger hook for my bathrobe."

I worry that people might lash items to the van's skeleton -- bypassing the tiedowns altogether -- and damage the structure. There are racks and shelves available, but at an extra cost to the NV's already high-ish list price.

The NV is fast, too. Or at least, that big, free-breathing 5.6-liter V-8 seems fast. "Good power and responsive tranny; I like the throttle blips," notes Kiino. "It feels like the fastest thing here," observes Febbo. I fully concur with them, as for such a towering vehicle, the NV came across as decidedly quick. The actual numbers tell a different story, as the high-roofed 3500 took 8.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. Only Torquemada, the diesel Ram with six tires, was slower. Why did it feel so fast? We're guessing a lack of sound insulation. Says the guy with the engineering degree [Febbo], "The perception of speed might just be the exhaust echoing around in the huge, empty cabin." Very true, and Kiino counters, "What do you expect with a big hollow tin box?" Harwood points out, "The panels on the inside of the cargo area seem cheap."

Which brings us to what we found most endearing about the NV: its honesty. Ford offers an F-150 variant for each of the Village People (XL, King Ranch, Harley-Davidson, Lariat), and we all felt the Laramie Longhorn's rubber barbed-wire floormats and tribal tattoo motifs were pandering, at best. The NV, on the other hand, is a large van that you use to haul stuff. It's not a lifestyle statement, or an ego-inflator, or a way of warning others that you're tough/anti-social. It's just a really well thought out, heavy-duty van. "So honest and utilitarian-feeling. I'm very impressed," says Jurnecka. In a world full of MBA-researched lifestyle vehicles, the NV's honesty shines through as a real virtue. However, as Febbo warns, "Yes, I like this thing. But do I really know what a plumber wants in a vehicle?"

More important, does Nissan? Sad to say, the name of this game will always be moving metal. While we all appreciated the NV's honesty and no-frills ways, will consumers? And will those same potential consumers want to spend their hard-earned money on something so freakish looking? Again, I can intellectually appreciate the exposed hinges and how the form follows function (by a mile if not more), but I'm not the target demo. And where's the diesel? Nissan is slow to admit, but for the NV to really be a competitive product it needs the economy that only a diesel motor can provide. The good news is that one's on the way, but when?

Bottom line: The NV is a wonderful work truck, but just a touch too specialized to bring home our award.

2012 Nissan NV
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, RWD, 2-pass, 3-door van
BASE PRICE $25,930
ENGINE 5.6L/317-hp/385-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 6223 lb (51/49%)
0-60 MPH 8.5, 11.7*, 18.6** sec
QUARTER MILE 16.5 sec @ 85.5 mph, 18.6 sec @ 76.3 mph*, 22.1 sec @ 64.9 mph**
30-70 MPH 7.4*, 12.2** sec
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 127, 140 ft*
MT FIGURE EIGHT 29.8 sec @ 0.53 g (avg)
ENERGY CONs, CITY/HWY 267 kW-hrs/100 mi (MT obs)
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.54 lb/mi (MT obs)
TOWING KEY *With 2758-lb payload, **With 7125-lb trailer