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Cargo Van Update: More Products, Costlier Diesels on the Way

October 2009, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

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

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The gasoline share will only increase, because Ford Motor Co., the market leader, is dropping the Navistar-built PowerStroke diesel following lawsuits over warranty claims and competitive issues, leaving its E-series vans with gasoline-only power in the new year
Workhorse offers its MetroStar, with contemporary International-like nose styling and aluminum bodies.
Workhorse offers its MetroStar, with contemporary International-like nose styling and aluminum bodies.
. Workhorse Custom Chassis, owned by Navistar International, will lose its MaxxForce 5 V-6 diesel at the end of the year but will use another diesel - perhaps the MaxxForce 7 V-8 - instead. General Motors-built gasoline V-8s account for about three-quarters of its business.

Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., which is now all-diesel (with a natural gas variant), is considering the addition of a gasoline engine to its lineup. It won't say which engine it's looking at, but it won't necessarily be from Daimler AG, its German grandparent. FCCC competes with Workhorse for sales of chassis for walk-in vans, motorhomes, buses and other specialty vehicles. FCCC offers a hybrid using Eaton's electric-drive system, and such a hybrid is an "inactive" option from Workhorse, which built some for package-delivery companies.

FCCC has recently overseen the retrofit of about 100 older vans with Eaton hybrid powertrains that include current Cummins ISB-6 diesels. The conversion was done for a major package carrier, and the retrofit is now available to other customers. It costs substantially less than a brand-new hybrid because much of the existing van body and chassis is reused.

Down but not out

Overall, the recession has driven down sales of Class 1 through 4 panel vans and cutaways and the heavier walk-in vans, as it has all vehicles. Traditional full-size cargo vans, including Ford's E-series and General Motors' G-series, are now selling in the 200,000 to 220,000 annual range, compared to 350,000 in a typically good year. GM and Chrysler went into well-reported bankruptcies while taking huge government-backed loans, but the process didn't affect commercial van activities at the companies much at all. Now they're out of the bankruptcy courts and poised for an economic recovery expected next year.

Executives at Ford, which stayed solvent, are high on their Transit Connect, a compact but roomy van now on sale here. They say that some of the new TC vans are sold about as quickly as they are driven off transport trucks. Reports that the Connect's big brother, the Transit van, will be imported by 2013 are premature, as no decision has yet been made, execs say. Truck managers have discussed bringing in the Transit almost since the Mercedes-made Sprinter came on the scene, but continued popularity of the E-series vans dissuaded them.

Model-year 2010 Ford E-series trucks include a new gasoline-engine ambulance chassis; announced earlier this year, this version will sell for thousands less than diesel-powered chassis. Gas chassis will be the only ones customers will get from Ford after it drops the PowerStroke diesel next year. A replacement diesel from Ford itself will also be a V-8 similar in size to the 6- and 6.4-liter Navistars, but the new diesel will be for SuperDuty pickups, not the E-series.

Whether gasoline power will be sufficient to maintain Ford's E-series sales lead will have to be seen, but another round of stiff price increases for EPA-2010 diesels won't help competitors who still offer diesels. That includes General Motors, whose Duramax V-8 will be optional while Vortec gasoline engines will remain standard for its G-vans, and Chrysler's Dodge Truck division, which will continue selling diesel-powered, Mercedes-made Sprinter vans.

The European connection

Daimler AG of Germany no longer has an ownership stake in the new post-bankruptcy Chrysler, but it will continue to supply Sprinters, Dodge says. Partly due to the recession, sales of the Euro-style, fuel-efficient vans are down substantially compared to when they were introduced. Premium pricing is one factor here. Both Ford and GM claim to have taken market share from Sprinter, which is sold by Dodge commercial-truck dealers and some Freightliner dealers.

But Sprinter's future with Dodge is questionable due to Fiat's new ownership stake in Chrysler. Fiat of Italy makes several commercial vans that might be brought to North America to be sold as Dodges, reports Automotive News. One, called the Doblo, could compete with Ford's Transit Connect, and the Fiat Daily van (originally called the Turbo Daily for its small diesel) could replace the Sprinter. Dodge Truck executives here won't comment on the AN report or their plans for future products.

Ready for 2010

Though General Motors dropped its medium-duty products, its commercial van business continued mostly unimpeded by the company's bankruptcy, and executives say they're facing 2010 in strong form. Gasoline-powered 3/4- and 1-ton Chevrolet and GMC vans are getting 6-speed Hydra-matic transmissions, replacing the 4-speed Hydra-matics except in half-ton models with V-6 engines. GM remains the only company offering under-8,500-pound vans and equips them with government-mandated safety measures, including stability control and, for 2010, side-curtain airbags.

The EPA-2010 Duramax V-8 diesel is being upgraded with a high-pressure common-rail fuel system and piezo electric injectors. These can shoot minute amounts of fuel up to six times per event, resulting in cleaner combustion and lower temperatures to help reduce NOx. Those advances plus the adding of SCR equipment will raise the current $7,700 list price for a diesel by another $4,000 or so.

The higher price for diesel might cause shuttle-bus operators to gradually return to gasoline power, marketers think. But the other two customer categories - ambulance and school-bus operators - will probably stay with diesel because their vans tend to be parked with fire trucks and larger buses that also use diesel fuel. And for ambulances, diesel is less flammable than gasoline or alternative fuels, so is safer to send to fires. Anyway, Duramax engines now go into only 6 to 7 percent of GM's van sales.

The current pre-2010 version of the Duramax 6600 will stay in production until the end of December. Truck production will continue using them until the supply runs out, then cease for a while. When diesel-van building resumes in 2010's second quarter, it'll be with the more expensive diesels equipped with selective catalytic reduction technology to meet EPA 2010 emissions standards. GM marketers expect customers to pre-buy the current diesels to beat the 2010 price increase, and are already seeing some sales because of this.

The light side

On the lighter end of the van spectrum, GM execs have resumed discussing bringing in Opal vans from Europe. Included might be the Navarro, similar in size to Ford's Transit Connect. Such talk was shushed during the bankruptcy, but minds and mouths are working again. Noting a growing interest in smaller engines because of customers' demands for better fuel economy, execs point out that the 4.3-liter gasoline V-6 remains available in the G-1500, which is rated at 15 to 20 mpg and was thus eligible as a replacement vehicle in the government's Cash for Clunkers program. The smallish 4.8-liter Vortec V-8 can be ordered in all models, up to the 3500-series 1-ton vans. Look for more development of these and other small engines at GM, they say.

Nissan Commercial Vehicles continues development of its full-size van that's due out in mid-2010, with gasoline V-6 and V-8 engines plus a Cummins-made diesel. It's to be built at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. A concept truck was shown earlier this year, and NCV showed pictures of a production version to dealers in mid-August. First display of a prototype will be at the NTEA's Work Truck Show next March. Also planned is a compact van, slightly smaller than the Ford Transit Connect but with 9 more cubic feet of cargo space, that will be built in Mexico. More products mean greater competition among

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