Work Vans: Shape Shifting

Mercedes Benz Sprinter (Photo: Jil McIntosh)

Mercedes Benz Sprinter (Photo: Jil McIntosh)

New shapes and versatile models suddenly appear to replace the old van standards, and there’s more coming…

A new wave of vans has arrived in North America. Inspired by van offerings in other world markets, it represents the biggest change ever in the North American fleet van market. In fact it’s more than a wave — it’s a tsunami!

“Manufacturers were wise to see what was working in other places,” says Peter Nogalo, Marketing Manager, ARI Canada.

Nogalo notes that unlike traditional North American vans, which were originally designed to straddle both the commercial and passenger car segments, these new vans from Asia and Europe come from designs prioritized more for commercial use.

“Fleets have really benefited from this development,” adds Nogalo. “It’s almost like having a custom made vehicle.”

Something had to happen, of course. The traditional North American body-on-frame van is living on borrowed time, incapable of being updated much longer, while getting less and less useful to their customers, and to their respective automakers (slower sales, higher per-unit production costs, increasingly bigger hits to CAFE ratings, etc.). While GM will still go to market in 2015 with the Express and Savanna, Ford will now only offer heavy-duty versions of its body on frame E series.

The main benefits of these new designs, of course, are more fuel efficiency through lighter platforms and more efficient powertrains — and greater flexibility and utility, by going tall instead of long, and by offering several wheelbase and roof height versions to fit every application. These vehicles are also easier to outfit and load, and they drive better.

Following is a snap shot of some of these newly arrived wonders, and those to come in the near future…

But before you get too excited about all the newness, we’re reminded by Charlie Johns, Truck Manager for Canada at ARI, that fleets love to base vehicle purchases on their total cost of ownership numbers, and those are difficult to ascertain when a vehicle has yet to turn a wheel on a Canadian road.

“It will take a year or two of service to get some data on them, to determine which of these vans offer the lowest total cost of ownership,” he says.

2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and Citan 

The Sprinter is the van that started the new wave. For 2014, a new base powertrain was introduced — the new 2.1-litre diesel (161 hp, 265 “torques”) mated to a new 7-speed automatic transmission. The 3.0-litre V6 diesel and its five-speed automatic returns as the up-level option. For 2015, the Sprinter is further endowed with AWD (late availability), and several advanced safety features, including blind spot warning and lane keeping assist.

At some point, Sprinter will get a smaller sibling currently sold in other markets as the Citan. Citan is a front-drive based panel van, designed and currently built through a joint project with Daimler and the Renault-Nissan alliance. Its twin is the Renault Kangoo.

Ford Transit (Photo: Ford)

Ford Transit (Photo: Ford)

2015 Ford Transit

The Ford Transit Connect has made inroads in the small panel van market, and now welcomes a full-size sibling, simply called Transit, to replace Ford’s iconic E series van offerings. The rear-drive Transit was designed in Europe, but our version is specific to North America.

It is available in two wheelbases, three lengths, three rooflines, cargo or passenger spec, and in all the duties (light, medium, heavy). Also look for a variety of regular and turbo-charged engine offerings, including a new five-cylinder diesel.

Ram ProMaster City (Photo: GM)

Ram ProMaster City (Photo: GM)

2015 Ram ProMaster and ProMaster City

Chrysler gets back in the full-size van game, with the front-drive Ram ProMaster, which is based on the Fiat Ducato. Two powertrains: the standard 3.6-litre V6 hooked up to a six-speed automatic; and the four-cylinder 3.0-litre EcoDiesel, with 174 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque (at just 1,400 rpm), mated to a six-speed “automated manual.”

The latter is a manual at heart, but with gear and clutch functions done automatically, via an electro-hydraulic system. Chrysler says the combination of front drive and unibody contraction gives ProMaster many advantages, such as high payload capacity for its size and weight, a very low load floor (no drive axles or differentials), great fuel economy, and more car-like road manners.

Its high headlights are safe from fender benders, and when the front fender is bent, it can be replaced in one of three sections, so a full front fascia replacement is not always necessary.

Arriving in early 2015, is ProMaster City, also Fiat based and also front-wheel drive. The compact van will be motivated by the 178-hp 2.4-litre “Tigershark” I4 connected to a nine-speed automatic, and will be available in both cargo and passenger configurations. It competes in one of the industry’s newest segments — small, tall vans — which includes Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200, and Chevrolet City Express.

Chevrolet City Express (Photo: GM)

Chevrolet City Express (Photo: GM)

2015 Chevrolet City Express

Chevrolet now offers its own version of the Nissan NV200, with similar specs, powertrain, and configurations, though unlike NV200, Express can be had with a (tinted) rear window. Express also offers different tie-down hooks, and more lighting in the cargo area. Express is built alongside NV200 in a Nissan facility in Mexico.

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