Considering what vehicles were heading up to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca recently -- a group that included supercars and sports cars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lotus, and Mercedes-Benz -- having to drive the van might seem like some sort of punishment. (No matter how cool a van is, it can't hold a candle to a Ferrari.) Not only was the 2012 Nissan NV3500 far from a penalty to drive, but some of the guys even volunteered to get out of the sports cars so they could hustle the big van over the twisty two-lane backroads that connect Northern and Southern California -- even if it was just out of curiosity.
Why was the van part of a supercar event? Because every track event, whether it's a race or a multi-vehicle track day, requires at least one support vehicle for gear, and there's nothing better than a full-size van. So when Motor Trend started putting together its Best Driver's Car track event in Northern California, the editorial staff looked for a van and chose the 2012 Nissan NV3500 V8 SV, with the high roof. This gave the guys plenty of space to carry extra sets of tires for the 11 cars that participated in the event.
Getting the 3500 instead of the 2500 means the van rides on 245/75R17 tires instead of the 245/70R17s, and uses heavier-duty springs. The beefier springs increase GVW -- 9900 pounds compared with the 2500's 9100 -- which in turn means more payload capacity. Our tester's capacity was 3677 pounds, and Nissan lists the range for the 2500 as 2756-2866 pounds. This Nissan also came with rear cargo-door glass, floormats, side and side-curtain airbags, tow package, and technology package (including satellite radio, nav system, and USB jack), which brought the total price to $35,255.
While the 44 tires we needed -- most of which were mounted on wheels -- would've easily fit in back of the NV, for safety reasons, we decided to stack the tires to no more than the height of the seats. The rest of the wheels and tires (about eight) went into a Ford Transit Connect, which served as another support vehicle. The high-performance rubber, plus snacks and drinks, photo equipment, and testing gear, were carried from the MT office in El Segundo, California, to the track near Monterey. Since the NV was following a caravan of high-performance sports cars, the goal was to stay with the group. No problem.
The NV did well on freeway stretches, and senior editor Jonny Lieberman noted, "This is a fast van. Fully loaded but with 317 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque, the big 5.6-liter V-8 NV had no trouble getting up to and maintaining triple-digit speeds. Wise? Definitely not, but the NV had to keep up with a pack of supercars, and haste won out. Unloaded, the NV3500 feels even quicker and never so much as hesitated when keeping up with freeway traffic."
But when the caravan made its way from the relatively straight freeway to canyon roads, the Nissan became more challenging to drive. "In terms of handling, the NV3500 High Roof behaves like a top-heavy, 9-foot-tall van," said Lieberman. "Stay away from curving roads and booming crosswinds. I nearly drove off a particularly twisty road. While I was going too fast, it wasn't that fast. Understeer doesn't even begin to describe the sensation. Terror is closer to what I felt. But I survived. Still, during normal driving conditions, the NV is fine if not totally unremarkable."
Overall, Lieberman was impressed with the ride. "It's better than you'd expect in a stripped-down commercial vehicle. Credit the long wheelbase but also the amount of work Nissan spent developing the Titan-derived chassis upon which the NV rides. Even on a long trip with every nook of cargo space filled, the NV never tired me out. I really appreciated the amount of space up in the cabin. There was plenty of room for drinks, food, walkie-talkies, computers, bags-basically everything. That made the long trip all the more enjoyable."
After the event at Laguna Seca, the NV followed the crew to the next portion of Best Driver's Car at the test facility in El Toro, California, where all of the sports cars were put through the Motor Trend test regimen. Once the van arrived at the track and all of the gear was emptied out, our test crew gave the van the same treatment. It reached 60 mph from a stop in 8.3 seconds, which makes it just as fast to 60 as a GM or Ford heavy-duty diesel pickup, and faster to 60 than a V-6-powered 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's also only 0.7 second slower than the Nissan Titan. The NV3500 finished the quarter mile in 16.4 seconds at 84.9 mph, also quite impressive for a van. It stopped from 60 mph in 130 feet.
Functionally, the Nissan's layout and dimensions made it easy to use the van for work, but Lieberman had some mixed opinions of the NV's interior. "I really liked that a 6-foot, 2-inch person can stand up inside the van. The amount of space inside is fantastic, though the load-in height is too high for very heavy objects. I also liked how the rear doors open up almost 270 degrees and easily stay open via little magnets. That feature is clever and useful. I do wish there were more cargo tie-up/tie-down points inside. We were hauling a whole vanful of heavy tires and were scared that if we lashed them to the NV's ribs we might hurt the metal. We like spartan, but the insides of the NV seems flimsy." A quick call to Nissan confirmed that the doors open 243 degrees, which is close to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter's 270.
Overall, the guys who drove the NV were impressed with the van's capability, usability, and surprising performance. There are some things the Sprinter offers that the NV doesn't -- namely, a diesel engine boasting superior fuel economy, a nicer interior, and a more varied lineup -- but the 3500 is plenty quick, comfortable, and with an as-tested price that's $1735 lower than even the Sprinter 2500 cargo van's base price (a similarly equipped Sprinter 3500 costs $8495 more), it's a great value.