On the automotive excitement scale, compact cargo vans probably rank just above hearses on most enthusiast lists, unless you're a goth hipster gearhead. But the configuration that's been popular for decades in Europe has made major headway in the U.S. market, with Ford's Transit Connect leading the way in 2009. Until recently, Ford's enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the small van market in the U.S. But Ford will have a formidable and purpose-built new rival in the form of the 2013 Nissan NV200.

Despite being nearly a decade old by the time it made the trans-Atlantic journey, the tidily packaged Ford found a lot of fans in the U.S. who didn't need the bulk or want the thirst of the Econoline or other larger alternatives. Sensing an opportunity, Nissan launched its Light Commercial Vehicle division in the U.S. in 2011, kicking things off with the full-size NV1500, 2500 and 3500-series vans, melding some characteristics of domestic full-size vans, like an engine-forward hoodline and V-8 power, with the high-roof option of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. The NV200 is Nissan's second chapter in its LCV book in the U.S. market.

At first glance, the NV200 doesn't exactly scream driving passion, and, truthfully, it's no GT-R or Juke Nismo. Its narrow, tall body and modest 185-width tires promise about as much driving excitement as a golf cart. But once you're situated behind the wheel, you can appreciate the deliberate design and engineering that went into the compact workhorse to make it a rational and even compelling choice for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

We attended a launch event in San Diego, California, for the new van. Unlike the multitude of configurations, wheelbases, seating, and even engine options that will be available on the 2014 Ford Transit Connect, the NV200 has one powertrain, one wheelbase, and one configuration, the only option being full sheetmetal rear barn doors or rear glass. Aside from that, you can get navigation and Bluetooth hands-free calling as part of the SV Technology Package. Bluetooth is available a la carte, as is cruise control on the base S trim. Even with the optional high-zoot touchscreen audio head unit, there are only two door-mounted speakers.

With an interior characterized as much by painted sheetmetal as anything else, we approached the NV200's total package with a healthy dose of skepticism. But once we got in and on the road, the totality of the modest van's goodness shone through. As you'd probably expect of a 3255-pound vehicle motivated by a 131-hp, 139-lb-ft engine, acceleration is not exactly giggle-inducing; but neither is it glacially slow. The MR20DE 2.0-liter engine, borrowed from the last-generation Sentra, paired with Nissan's proven CVT, gets the NV200 out of the way of traffic, across intersections, and onto freeways with deliberate purpose. Confident is not the precise adjective we'd use to describe the NV's highway merging, as we put the pedal to the metal on metered on-ramps, but it got us up to 70 mph quick enough.

Looking like it's driving around on four space-saver spares, we weren't expecting much from the NV200's handling, and it probably wouldn't be our first choice for track day or autocross. But the modest meats never put up a howl on on-ramps, or going around corners. Granted, we weren't driving it in full-hoon mode, but the NV200's handling is much more stable and confidence-inspiring than outward appearances would suggest.

Based on past experience with bare-bones cargo vans, we expected the interior of the NV200 to be a veritable echo chamber of metallic squeaks and rattles on the road. To our surprise, there were almost no untoward noises coming from the cargo hold, even over less-than-smooth pavement. And the two-speaker sound system was plenty loud for news and talk radio, and even music. Sure, the bass won't rattle your mettle, and at max volume, there might be a little distortion, but the minimalistic audio system performed admirably under a variety of driving conditions, including windows-down on the freeway.

The standout hit feature on the NV200, as far as we're concerned, are the stress-free seats. In nearly two hours of driving, we didn't get a hint of discomfort or fatigue. The seats are six-way adjustable, with a ratchet-action rear height adjustment pioneered by Volkswagen. The only complaint is with height fixed at the front of the seat, at maximum height, it did feel like the seat was tipped forward slightly.

Nissan representatives were matter of fact about the NV200 at the event, almost apologetic. Certainly, in the greater scheme of autodom, the NV200 is nothing spectacular. But viewed within the context of its target market, the NV200 is ideally suited to small businesses and entrepreneurs looking for a practical, economical helpmate. For delivering a purposeful, practical option for those buyers, this Nissan needs no apologies.


2013 Nissan NV200
BASE PRICE $20,835-$21,825
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 2-pass, 6-door van
ENGINE 2.0L/131-hp/139-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable automatic
CURB WEIGHT 3255 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 115.2 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 186.3 x 68.1 x 73.7 in
0-60 MPH 11.0 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 23 / 25 mpg (est)
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 147 / 135 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.81 lb/mi
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently