Ford effectively created the "small cargo van" market in the U.S. by launching the Transit Connect, but the competition isn't going to sit around and let Dearborn take over the growing market. Nissan plans to jump in next year with a global van of its own, the new NV200.

The announcement shouldn't exactly come as a surprise. Nissan first started rolling out its commercial vehicle aspirations in 2009. While most media outlets were fixated on the big, Titan-based full-size product developed explicitly for North America, officials were indicating there was a possibility the small NV200/Vanette, which was concurrently launching in overseas markets, could find its way stateside in the future. That possibility grew even stronger last year, when a modified version of the NV200 was selected by New York City as its chosen successor to the venerable Ford Crown Victoria taxi.

Unlike its larger siblings, the NV200 lives up to the compact van moniker Nissan uses within its press materials. In fact, it's actually built upon a modified version of Nissan's B-segment architecture, which underpins other Nissan small cars like the Juke, Cube, and Versa hatchback. NV200s still utilize MacPherson-type struts up front, although the torsion beam rear suspension is ditched in favor of leaf springs in order to boost payload to an estimated 1500 pounds.

North American NV200s are relatively compact, but they will be slightly larger than those sold in other corners of the globe. For instance, the 115.2-inch wheelbase is about 2.6 inches longer than in other markets. Overall length, which measures in at 186.2 inches, is about 7.9 inches longer than before. That stretch pays dividends not only for the NV200's livery aspirations, but also for commercial clients. Nissan says there's roughly 123 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats; though exact cargo dimensions have yet to be announced, the automaker says there's enough space between the wheel wells to lay a standardized 40-by-48-inch cargo pallet.

Although NV200s are offered with a wide variety of engine choices (including a few frugal diesel options), those sold in our market will be locked down to a single powerplant and transmission. Power comes courtesy of a sixteen-valve, DOHC 2.0-liter I-4, similar to that offered in most Sentra models. Nissan's preliminary specifications suggest the engine may be slightly detuned to about 135 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque. As is the case in so many of Nissan's B-segment offerings, that power is sent to the front wheels by way of a continuously-variable transmission.

Nissan's larger NV vans drew praise for a functional cargo area and a renewed focus on the driver, and it appears the NV200 may follow in their footsteps. Dual sliding side doors are standard, as are 40/60 split-opening rear doors that open as far as 180 degrees. Integrated mounting points in the body structure facilitate installing shelves and racks, while floor-mounted tie-downs provide anchor points for securing cargo. Nissan touts the functionality of a low load floor; if similar to European-spec NV200 models, expect liftover to be around 20 inches.

Up front, the driver is treated to an upright seating position, along with a six-way, manually adjustable bucket seat (the passenger seat is only adjustable in four ways). A tall center console provides two cup holders, storage for a laptop and hanging file folders, a pen/pencil tray, and -- if so equipped -- a second 12-volt power outlet. The passenger seat can fold flat to serve as a work surface, and also hides a pull-out storage bin beneath its cushion. Power windows; anti-lock brakes; and front, side, and side curtain airbags are standard on all models. The upgraded SV trim adds niceties like keyless entry, cruise control, a rear cargo floor mat, and wheelcovers. Depending on the trim level, buyers can add optional extras including body-colored bumpers, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, a navigation system, XM satellite ratio, and a back-up camera.

Nissan's correct in suggesting the compact cargo van market -- in North America, at least -- is a relatively new segment that's growing fairly quickly, but it's far from the lone contender in the market. Ford's Transit Connect, which arrived on our shores in 2009, is currently one of the only players in the segment, but Chrysler's Ram brand did recently announce it would sell a version of the Fiat Doblo -- a similar-sized commercial vanlet -- by 2013 at the very latest.

Though the NV200 may soon be afloat in a sea of similar competitors, expect what you see here to remain but the tip of the iceberg. The taxi-ready variant is expected to hit city streets by 2014, and Nissan's also hinted that an electric version, powered by the same driveline used in the electric Leaf hatchback, could likely go into production in the near future. For now, the cargo van is just the first step in Nissan's big plan for small vans. Expect production to begin in Cuernavaca, Mexico, later this year with deliveries beginning in early 2013.