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Cargo Van Roundup

It's all about the slow economy

September 2008, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Tom Berg, Senior Equipment Editor, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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Shockingly high fuel prices, along with the mortgage crisis and deflation of the housing-price bubble, have sapped Americans' ability to buy, buy, buy, and the adjustment has affected all the industries that purchase and use trucks, especially construction. But wait - this is an election year, and Congress and the White House cooperated to pass the much publicized Economic Stimulus Package, which contains much more than those rebate checks people got from the IRS.

Substantial tax incentives for capital expenditures, including money spent on trucks, are also part of the package, replacing the old Investment Tax Credit. Buyers can expense up to $250,000 (up from $128,000) for up to $800,000 worth of equipment that qualifies under IRS Section 179, and expense it all this year. "Moveable assets" used for business, including most commercial trucks, qualify. There are many details, which tax consultants should have, but the tax breaks make it a really good time to buy, if you have the money.

Is this why Ford Commercial Truck, which has been promoting the stimulus incentives through its dealers, saw an uptick in sales of its E-Series cargo vans and cutaway chassis in July? Sales were up 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively, over last year, offering a glimmer of hope. Overall industry sales of these trucks have been down 18 to 20 percent compared to 2007, which in turn was down about 8.6 percent from 2006.

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Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline and $4.60-a-gallon diesel fuel - higher, of course, in California and some other places - is causing conservation by consumers, which is now helping to bring down those prices. But prices are still high enough to probably continue the swing back to compact cars for consumers and drive interest among truckers in fuel-saving equipment. Manufacturers are responding by pushing development of alternative power plants for commercial trucks and the start of a trend away from big-displacement engines and toward smaller ones.

Ford and General Motors have made their smaller gasoline V-8s, which are standard in half-ton vans, available in 3/4-ton models. This is in response to customers' demands for better fuel economy, the builders say. For some time GM and Ford have been working on smaller diesels meant for half-ton pickups and SUVs, and GM says it's actively pursuing alternative-fuel systems. GM is still bullish on ethanol and more of its engines can now run on E85, even if it's still not widely available and once-enthusiastic backers, including members of Congress who voted for tax incentives, seem to be taking a second, more critical look at the fuel. But those future powertrains might go into heavier vehicles than originally envisioned.

GM's 2-Mode Hybrid system, now available in midrange and full-size SUVs and 1500-series pickups, might be beefed up for use in 3/4-ton trucks, one source says. And the 2-Mode or maybe a bigger hybrid system might be made available in 1-ton and heavier trucks. Six-speed Hydra-matics, now used in luxury SUVs instead of 4-speeds, will soon migrate to pickups, and from GM's big 6-liter V-8 to smaller gasoline engines.

The 6-speeds' greater ratio coverage makes smaller engines, whether gasoline or diesel, more usable in heavier trucks. The result should be better fuel economy. For now, GM still makes its 6-liter Vortec and 6.6-liter Duramax diesel standard and optional in various light commercial trucks. Those engines have gotten many high-tech upgrades in recent years, and for now remain the main powerplants for work-oriented trucks.

Ford several years ago made its 5-speed TorqShift automatic transmission standard in all its light commercial models, down to the 4.6-liter gasoline V-8. Thus any given engine can do more work and get better fuel economy than when it ran through a 4-speed automatic. Ford is keeping mum on future powertrains, but is touting the advances given to its popular E-Series vans (see roundup descriptions).

NEW PC-BASED OPTIONS

Ford has charged into electronics with its packages of Work Solutions software that run on a personal computer built into the dashboard of its 2009 E Series. These options were announced earlier this year and enter production in September. The idea is to replace a tradesman's laptop PC, which can bounce around the cab and get stolen, with something that's hidden and always available. Files on a home or office PC can be remotely accessed, so there's no need to drag along the laptop.

The in-dash PC is operated by a screen-display keyboard. Its usefulness, though, depends on the tradesman's ability to work with it and input information regularly. Ford says dealers will have training packages to help individuals and fleet managers learn about the systems.

Ford's E Series is the longtime leader in this segment, and now claims 55 percent of sales. General Motors' Chevrolet and GMC G- and H-series vans account for 39 percent, and Dodge Truck's Sprinter, also sold as a Freightliner by some of that builder's dealers, account for the rest. Ford and GM full-bodied cargo vans are directly comparable, as are their cutaway cab-chassis versions.

The European designed and built (by Mercedes-Benz) Sprinter has a relatively small powertrain, including a 3-liter diesel and a 5-speed automatic transmission, making it more fuel efficient. It's larger in size, so can carry higher volumes of cargo, but it can't tow as much as the domestic vans (and Ford says one-fifth of its E Series customers tow a trailer at least once a month).

Although billed as an alternative to domestic vans when first introduced to America, the Sprinter is now marketed as a premium truck and costs about $10,000 more than a domestic van. That, along with the domestics' long-running usefulness and ever-evolving features, keep them far in the sales lead. Twenty of them are sold for every one Sprinter.

However, Sprinter sales climb each year, even in this economic downturn. Dodge says that in July, its Sprinter sales were up 21 percent over 2007. Sprinter last year got major revisions to styling and powertrains, including a new 3-liter V-6 diesel that replaced an inline-5, and, for the first time in North America, a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6. Dodge never expected to sell many of the gasoline engines and customers bought even fewer, so that engine was dropped for 2009. Ford and GM continue to watch how the Sprinter's doing, and eventually could start bringing in their own large cargo vans from Europe.

On the light-truck side, GM offers a "panel" version of its Chevrolet HHR compact crossover SUV, which Ford will answer next summer with its European-made Transit Connect. Ford says the small, diesel-powered Transit van will be aimed at caterers, florists, and other businesses that haul light commodities in small quantities. GM has dropped its car-based Uplander passenger and cargo minivans, but has substituted cab-chassis versions of its Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon mid-size pickups using specialty bodies.

WALK-IN VANS

Ford also competes in the walk-in van segment, an entirely separate category with annual sales of 15,000 to 20,000. It's led by Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., a unit of Daimler Trucks North America, while Workhorse Custom Chassis is gaining strength through its ownership by Navistar International. These are light-medium and medium-duty chassis fitted with aluminum bodies from MorganOlson and Utilimaster, and many customers typically run them for 15 or more years.

Engine-wise, Ford sells only gasoline power in its stripped E-350 and E-450 chassis, FCCC sells only diesels (now from Cummins) in its MT models, and Workhorse sells both gasoline (from General Motors) and diesel (from International) in its WT models. FCCC previously used Mercedes-Benz diesels, including 4-cylinder versions for hybrids, but dropped them for emissions certification reasons in 2007.

Diesel-electric hybrid-drive systems (from Eaton Corp.) made their debut in 2005 in FCCC chassis. They were first bought by FedEx Express, which still orders them, as does United Parcel Service.

Azure Dynamics is assembling a small group of gasoline-electric hybrids from Ford E-450 stripped chassis for use by FedEx Express in California, where gasoline engines are easier to certify as low- and ultra-low-emissions vehicles. The Cummins ISB used in FCCC chassis has been certified for continuous idling in California, freeing drivers from shutting them off (though package-delivery fleets insist on it anyway).

NATURAL GAS AND HYBRIDS

Natural gas is an increasingly viable fuel for local fleets, which can get hefty tax credits and grants from federal and state sources. For instance, federal tax credits of up to $32,000 each can be had for buying certain natural gas powered trucks, and Texas is among the states which help fleets buy gas-fired trucks and buses.

Government money helps offset the stiff upcharges for the extra equipment, while low prices of the fuel itself (which varies by locale) adds to the business case for them. Of course, the trucks have to meet operational needs, and owners must get access to nearby fueling stations that dispense either compressed or liquefied gas. More stations are becoming available, says FCCC, which offers a CNG chassis among its MT series.

Storage of natural gas aboard trucks is a challenge because tanks are bulky and, for cryogenically liquefied gas, somewhat expensive. FCCC hangs CNG tanks along frame rails. Even more challenging is packaging hybrid components, including the expensive lithium-ion batteries. These are placed in a tray at frame level along the right side of the chassis. Special provisions must also be made for the electric motor-generator placed behind the transmission, a box for electronics and a cooling fan for it. But FCCC and others have managed it.

For now, federal tax credits are available for certain hybrid-drives and alternative fuels. What if a customer bought a Class 7 hybrid with a natural gas engine? Could he get both types of credits, which would be $6,000 to $12,000 for the hybrid and as much as $32,000 for the alternative fuel system? That "free money" might pay half or more of the cost of the truck. But now there'd be even more to package aboard the chassis and build into its body. It could be done, but it might not be fun to work on later.

Meanwhile, in a nod to history, Workhorse and its Navistar International parent revived the old Metro name used by International Harvester for its once-popular medium-duty steel-bodied walk-in vans (and Metro Mite light-duty vans). Workhorses with integrated bodies are now called MetroStar, with the Star suffix tying in with names given to other International medium duty and heavy duty models.

WORKHORSE CUSTOM CHASSIS

Started in 1999 as a spin-off of General Motors' P-series Step Van operations, Workhorse is now owned by Navistar International. It has since designed its own Class 3 to 6 chassis using wide-track steer axles, modern four-wheel disc brakes and other advances. Workhorse offers both GM gasoline V-8 engines and Navistar V-6 diesels. The W-42 Gas, with GM Vortec 4800 or 6000 engines and 4-speed Hydra-matic transmissions, covers GVWs from 9,400 to 16,000 pounds. The W-42 Diesel, with Navistar's MaxxForce 5 and 5-speed Allison 1000-series automatic, is rated from 14,500 to 16,000 pounds. The W-62 Gas (shown) uses GM's Vortec 8100 V-8 and an Allison 1000, and has GVWRs of 19,500 to 23,500 pounds, said to be the heaviest gasoline-powered chassis available; the W-62 Diesel has the same GVW ratings and uses the MaxxForce 5-Allison powertrain. Workhorse also produces chassis for motor homes and buses.

SMALL VANS

Styled like an early 1950s Chevy panel truck, the HHR Panel is derived from the HHR compact SUV. Both are based on Chevrolet’s Cobalt compact car, with a 4-cylinder gasoline engine. Starting next summer, Ford will compete in this light-delivery segment with its European Transit Connect van, equipped with a 4-cylinder direct-injected diesel.

International Harvester’s old Metro van, shown posing about 1950 in an upscale Milwaukee neighborhood, inspired the new MetroStar name for Workhorses built with integrated bodies. Photo is from files of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY

A complete revision to the popular E Series van began last year when it got a Super Duty-style nose, remote-locking doors, and chassis enhancements to increase weight-carrying ability and improve handling. For 2009, Super Duty styling goes inside with a new cockpit and instruments, while an available integrated trailer-brake controller aids towing. Optional electronic features called Ford Work Solutions are built in to make the vans into rolling offices. They include an in-dash computer with wireless keyboard that allows a tradesman to access home or office files, print out invoices, etc., thus replacing a laptop PC. Tool Link can keep a running tool inventory, and Crew Chief lets managers monitor employees' driving behavior and captures fuel use and performance operating data. Automotively, customers' concerns over fuel costs have caused Ford to make the 4.6-liter gasoline V-8 available in the E-250; it's standard in the E-150. For more power and torque, there are the 5.4 V-8 and 6.8 V-10, and the 6-liter Power Stroke V-8 diesel from Navistar. All engines are mated to Ford's TorqShift 5-speed automatic transmissions. Ford also offers cutaways that can take tall van and specialty bodies, and E-350 and E-450 stripped chassis for fitment with walk-in van bodies.

GENERAL MOTORS

Updates to the previously redesigned Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana include available 17-inch wheels and tires, GVW ratings of 7,300 pounds on 1500 models, standard tire-pressure monitoring on all single-rear-wheel models, a 125-amp alternator standard on trucks with the Vortec 5300, and LED lights on cutaway chassis. The 1500 series is standard with a 4.3-liter V-6 and available with the 5.3-liter V-8; 2500s get the 4.8-, 5.3- or 6-liter V-8s; and 2500s and 3500s can be had with the 6-liter gasoline or 6.6-liter Duramax V-8 diesel. All use 4L60, 4L80 or 4L85 4-speed Hydra-matics. The 4500-series cutaway chassis has a reinforced frame and beefier suspensions, axles and brakes, for more payload (9,100 pounds) and gross weight (14,200 pounds). Chevrolet also offers a Panel version of the HHR compact crossover SUV with blanked rear doors and seatless flat floor with tie-downs and covered stowage bins where rear-seat legroom would otherwise be. Cab-chassis versions of the mid-size Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, equipped with specialty bodies from aftermarket builders, substitute for the now-dropped Uplander minivan.

DODGE

The Euro-style Sprinter, built by Mercedes-Benz in Germany and sold by Dodge Business Link commercial-truck dealers and some Freightliner dealers, was extensively redesigned last year with new front-end styling and interior appointments, plus new V-6 diesel and gasoline engines. Slower-than-expected sales of the 3.5-liter gas engine has caused Dodge to drop it, making the 3-liter diesel the only available engine; it comes only with a 5-speed automatic. For 2009 there's a $1,000 upfitter allowance for commercial Chassis Cab versions of the Sprinter. The allowance applies to all upfits valued at more than $1,500; participating upfitters must be members of the National Truck Equipment Association. Dodge also offers a Cargo Van version of the Grand Caravan, which also got a complete makeover last year. Among its features are dual power sliding doors for ease of loading and unloading, Stow 'n Go body and tubs, and provisions for upfitted equipment.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY

E-350 and E-450 stripped chassis come only with gasoline engines, either the standard 5.4-liter gasoline V-8, which can be certified for federal and California Low Emissions status, or 6.8-liter gasoline V-10. Both come with a TorqShift 5-speed automatic transmission. Wheelbases are 138, 148 and 176 inches. The standard 37-gallon gas tank can be replaced with an optional 55-gallon tank, and there are various suspension options. Ford does not offer a factory-built hybrid, but makes chassis available to specialists for installation of hybrid drive systems. FedEx Express has ordered some with Azure Dynamics electric hybrid drives for use in California, where the gasoline engines are considered cleaner burning than diesels.

FREIGHTLINER

Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., a unit of Daimler Trucks North America, produces two series of Class 4 through 7 stripped chassis to which Morgan Olson and Utilimaster aluminum walk-in van bodies are fitted. The MT-45 is rated at 14,140 to 19,000 pounds GVW, with up to 10,000 pounds being payload. The MT-55 (shown) goes from 20,500 to 30,000 pounds GVW, with payloads of up to 19,000 pounds. All models, including a hybrid using Eaton’s electric-drive system, employ Cummins’ 6-cylinder ISB diesel with 200 to 300 horsepower; a compressed natural gas version burns fuel from tanks mounted on frame rails. Hybrids use Eaton’s UltraShift automated mechanical transmission, and others have Allison automatic transmissions. A variety of wheelbases and rear-overhang lengths accommodate customer needs for carrying packages, bakery products, industrial laundry and other commodities. FCCC’s MT-55 is used for command centers produced for police departments and other government agencies, and FCCC also makes chassis for motor homes and buses. 

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