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New Vans First Look: Suddenly, Big Changes Are Coming

Allyson Harwood
Jul 15, 2010
In the last few years, the van category is one of those vehicle niches that hasn't changed all that much. Yet within the last few months, a lot of news has come up in this segment. Dodge no longer has a full-size van (for now), and, not coincidentally, Mercedes-Benz introduced its Sprinter. There are new powertrain options from Ford and General Motors, a new model from Nissan, and more. Here are the highlights.
Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana
There were a few changes to these full-size vans in 2010. The 4.8-, 5.3-, and 6.0-liter engines are now E85 compatible and have variable valve timing. More recent, though, was the announcement that, starting in model-year 2011, there will be commercial vans that can use compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas. These vans will use a version of the 6.0-liter Vortec V-8 with hardened intake and exhaust seats, plus hardened exhaust valves to handle the alternative fuels. Both systems will also have dedicated fuel injection and fuel storage systems, meet EPA and CARB requirements, and retain the standard GM five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Fiat Doblo
If Ram wants a van that would compete with the Transit Connect, this would be a logical choice. There are two versions of the Doblo currently sold in Europe: the Cargo and the Combi (passenger). These vans are similar in size to the Ford Transit Connect. They're powered by diesel engines ranging from 1.4 to 2.0 liters. Models include Cargo, Cargo Maxi, Cargo High-Roof, and Maxi Platform Cab. The Cargo High Roof offers the most space on this small platform, with a cargo area nearly six feet long, 5.6 feet wide, and over five feet tall, with a cargo volume of over 141 cubic feet. The standard Cargo Maxi's cargo volume is approximately 120 cubic feet. (The Transit Connect's cargo volume is 135.3 cubic feet.) Its maximum payload capacity is about 2200 pounds. The Combi can carry five passengers and 1000 pounds of gear. If these vans do come here, you can expect engines and specifications will change.
Fiat Ducato
Larger than the Doblo, the Ducato Goods Transport would be a more logical replacement for the Sprinter. Like the Doblo, the Ducato is powered by a variety of diesel engines, which may or may not prove feasible to bring to the U.S. The Ducato's appearance is odd -- its high headlights and snout with an underbite arguably make it uglier than the Sprinter -- but there are three wheelbases, four lengths, three interior heights, five GVWs, seven cargo volumes (up to 600 cubic feet), and a payload of up to 4400 pounds. The passenger version, called the Ducato Passenger Transport in Europe, also comes with a choice of roof heights and wheelbases, and standard eight-passenger seating.
Ford Transit Connect Electric
A new, green version of the Transit Connect is coming, and, oddly, it has a link to Hummer. Starting with the 2011 model year an electric Transit Connect commercial van will be available. The vans will be shipped from the factory in Turkey to an AM General (the company that built Hummers) facility in Michigan, where Azure Dynamics' electric system will be installed.
Photo 10/31   |   2011 Ford Transit Connect Electric Front Three Quarters Passenger
The Transit Connect Electric can be charged via 120- or 240-volt AC. The port is just above the passenger-side rear wheelwell. Plugged into 240-volt power, it should take six to eight hours to charge the van -- longer with 120-volt -- for a driving range of 80 miles and a maximum speed of 75 mph. While this doesn't sound like much of a range, if the van is being used for deliveries, or along predictable routes, companies -- or even cities -- can get a lot done within that range. The van uses a motor controller and inverter, which converts the DC power from the liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack, to three-phase AC for the motor. The motor then converts that energy into torque. The transmission is a single-speed Borg-Warner, with a fixed-ratio gear reduction. Ford expects the electric van to accelerate much like the regular Transit Connect.
Photo 11/31   |   2011 Ford Electric Transic Connect Motor
The zero-emissions van also has plenty of "normal" attributes too. It still has features like air conditioning and power rack-and-pinion steering.
And it has a GVWR of 5005 pounds and an estimated maximum payload of 1000 pounds -- lower than that of the regular Transit Connect because of the added weight of the electric system -- and provides 135 cubic feet of cargo space. The Transit Connect Electric will be offered only as a cargo van, and goes on sale in late 2010.
Iveco Daily
Another full-size commercial and passenger van from within the Fiat family (and other potential Sprinter replacement), the Daily is powered by a choice of two common-rail diesel engines, backed by a five- or six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. It uses an independent front suspension with a transverse leaf spring and a parabolic semi-elliptical leaf-spring setup with air suspension in the rear. There are two interior heights, three wheelbases (118.1, 130.0, and 155.5 inches), and four lengths, plus a maximum loading volume of 600 cubic feet. It has ESP with Load Adaptive Control and v entilated disc brakes. Sliding side doors are available for both sides of the van. Max GVW is over 15,000 pounds.
Photo 18/31   |   Iveco Daily Front View
Mercedes-Benz R-Class
It might not be entirely fair to include the R-Class here, especially considering the company itself doesn't think the R-Class is a van (Mercedes calls it a crossover). But when it comes to using the vehicle, there is some actual function and practicality -- after all, how many other minivan-size vehicles come with a diesel option? Not even the workhorse Transit Connect can boast that.
Photo 19/31   |   2011 Mercedes Benz R Class Side
For 2011, the R-Class gets redesigned to look more like a crossover. Its turbodiesel engine is the same one found in the ML- and GL-Class SUVs, a 3.0-liter V-6 that puts out 210 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, and uses a seven-speed automatic. The R-Class doesn't have sliding side doors, which is a disadvantage when it comes to loading gear, but the max cargo length is 87.3 inches, volume behind the first row is 85 cubic feet, and payload is 1588 pounds. And it can tow 3500 pounds too.
Ram Vans
So, with the departure of the Sprinter from the Dodge lineup, what is the Chrysler Group going to offer in this size category? It sounds like any new commercial vans would be sold under the Ram brand (we doubt it'll be called the Ram Van again, but you never know) and the company is considering three different European vans to bring to the United States. Don't be surprised if two of the following three end up making it here:
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Not a lot has changed for the van itself -- but as of 2010, Sprinter buyers will go to a different dealership. The vans are now sold as either a Mercedes-Benz or a Freightliner, depending on region. And, from what we understand, when it comes to maintenance, whether it's a Freightliner or a Mercedes-Benz, owners can take their vans to either dealership. The Sprinter had been a Mercedes-Benz when it first went on sale here in 2001, then became a Dodge, replacing the Ram Van. Now that Mercedes and Dodge are no longer part of the same company, Mercedes' vans go back under that company's umbrella. They are built as kits in Germany with final assembly in South Carolina.
Photo 20/31   |   2010 Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van Front View
Its options remain the same, though: The Sprinter is sold as a 2500 passenger van (standard or high roof) or 2500/3500 cargo van (short or long wheelbase, standard or high roof, extended long wheelbase) forms. The 3500 models are dual-rear-wheel. All models have an independent front suspension with a transverse leaf spring. There is one engine: a 188-horsepower, 325-pound-foot 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6, much like the one Mercedes uses in its diesel sport/utilities. It uses AdBlue aftertreatment to make sure it adheres to 2010 diesel regulations. The engine is backed by a five-speed automatic.
Photo 21/31   |   2010 Sprinter Cargo Van Rear Interior View
The combination of long wheelbase, extended body, and high roof means the Sprinter boasts class-leading cargo volume in its class, up to 547 cubic feet worth, with a loading length of up to 185 inches. Cargo height is an impressive 76.4 inches -- looks like Nissan was benchmarking the Sprinter when it gave its NV a 76.5-inch cargo height. Payload is as much as 5375 pounds, and the Sprinter can tow up to 5000 pounds.
Photo 22/31   |   2010 Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van Rear View
Plenty of safety features are available here, including Adaptive ESP (stability control with load adaptive control, antilock brakes, acceleration skid control, rollover mitigation, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, and understeer control) and optional side and side-curtain airbags (dual front airbags are standard). A rearview camera is also available.
Photo 23/31   |   2010 Sprinter Cargo Van Interior View
Nissan NV
We don't have all the info yet about the new line of full-size vans from Nissan, but this represents the largest van it's selling here, its first full-size commercial van in the United States, and the first van model of any sort here from Nissan since the Quest was discontinued.
Photo 24/31   |   2011 Nissan NV
As you can see, the NV looks like a Titan van, right down to the front-end design. The vans are set to go on sale in spring 2011, with the first three models being the NV1500, NV2500 HD, and NV3500 HD. They will be built alongside the Titan in Nissan's plant in Canton, Mississippi. As of the 2011 model year, the Infiniti QX56 is no longer being built there, and the fate of the Nissan Armada -- currently built at the same plant--is in question, so it seems there is plenty of room to produce the new van there.
The van is built on a body-on-frame structure -- a version of the Titan's underpinnings -- but even though the pickup is offered in RWD or 4WD, as of now the NVs will be available only as rear-drive vans. Nissan hasn't released full specifications on the vans as of press time, but what we do know is that there is one wheelbase length, one width, and two heights. The wheelbase, 146.1 inches, falls almost directly between those of the short-wheelbase pickup (139.8 inches) and the long-wheelbase SE Crew Cab (159.5 inches). Overall length, at 240.9 inches (the only length announced so far), is about 3.5 inches shorter than the long-wheelbase Titan. Wheelbase and length are comparable to those of the E-Series, Express/Savana, and Sprinter. The NV1500 is available only with the standard roof, at a height of 83.9 inches; the NV2500 HD and NV3500 HD are offered as standard and high roof (about 21 inches higher. The high-roof models should have plenty of space for people to be able to stand up inside. (The tallest Sprinter is 110.8 inches tall.) Suspension is independent in front and uses a solid rear axle with leaf springs; there are anti-roll bars in the front and rear. Seventeen-inch wheels and 245/70R17 tires are standard, as are four-wheel disc brakes and four-wheel ABS. Dual front airbags are standard; side and side curtain airbags are options.
Photo 25/31   |   16 2011 Nissan NV Rear View
At this point, no diesel engine is available. Buyers can choose from a 4.0-liter V-6 -- much like the one in the Pathfinder, Xterra, and Frontier -- which we would expect to have around 260 horsepower, or the Titan's 5.6-liter V-8, likely to have around 300 horses. No official power ratings have been released. Both engines are backed by a five-speed automatic transmission. A nice byproduct of this van's Titan roots is that no part of the engine bay sits behind the A-pillar. This makes it easier to work on the engine, and adds more space in the footwells.
Inside, the layout seats two, and the passenger seat folds down. There is enough room for 120.7-inch cargo floor length and 70.3-inch cargo floor width, and there's 76.5 inches of standing space in the high-roof model. A center console is available, as are cupholders, an overhead console, Bluetooth, and a navigation system. We should have more information on the NV line as it gets closer to the spring 2011 on-sale date.



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