Fleet Management

The Reinvigorated Cargo Van Market

Many product choices means there’s a roomy truck for every hauling and delivery need.

October 2014, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Tom Berg, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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Morgan Olson’s aluminum bodies are mounted on Ford, FCCC, Sprinter and soon Ram chassis. This one’s built to haul heavy newspapers.
Morgan Olson’s aluminum bodies are mounted on Ford, FCCC, Sprinter and soon Ram chassis. This one’s built to haul heavy newspapers.

Is everybody happy? It seems so. The economic recovery is driving sales and there probably have never been so many cargo van offerings.

That judgment comes from Morgan Olson, which pioneered the lightweight aluminum step van body with General Motors many years ago. Today it builds and installs them on platforms from Ford, Freightliner Custom Chassis, and soon Ram, according to Allan Young, director of sales.

This won’t be a record year, falling at the low end of the 10,000 to 15,000-unit annual pace, he says, but it’s been “stable.” And a new product, the UCV (Ultimate Contractor's Vehicle), is enjoying “amazing sales.” It’s a service body crafted of lightweight composites with stainless steel hardware that claims a payload of 5,000 pounds. It goes on an imported Sprinter chassis-cab platform. Morgan Olson is the preferred upfitter for the Sprinter, and there's also a Sprinter-based UDV (Ultimate Delivery Vehicle).

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Another collaboration is that of Isuzu Commercial Truck and Utilimaster, which provide the chassis and body, respectively, for the Reach walk-in van. It’s assembled by Spartan Motors, which also does Isuzu’s NPR Gas truck. Its high-volume, impact-resistant composite body features easy access for drivers, and the 3-liter diesel from the NPR EcoMax provides good performance and excellent fuel economy.

“We’ve sold a little over 4,000,” says Brian Tabel, Isuzu’s director of marketing, “the majority to FedEx Express,” which finds the Reach’s 640-cubic-foot body just right for many routes. UPS has also bought some. “We also have some retail customers, who use it for deliveries,” he says.

Euro unibodies

Sprinter was the original provider (in 2001) of Euro-style unibody vans in North America. Sales of Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz Sprinters are up 22% over last year, and up 35% in August, says Claus Tritt, general manager for operations. He notes that the Sprinter line last year got a major redesign, with new styling and safety features, and a new 4-cylinder diesel with a 7-speed automatic transmission.

Ski resorts are one type of customer that might buy a Sprinter 4x4. Introduced in Europe last year, it’s coming to North America as a 2015 model in January.
Ski resorts are one type of customer that might buy a Sprinter 4x4. Introduced in Europe last year, it’s coming to North America as a 2015 model in January.

New for 2015 in the U.S. is a Super High roof option that will add another 10 inches to an already tall profile, plus electronic crosswind-assist that uses automatic selective braking to counter high lateral winds, and, in January, an on-demand four-wheel-drive with a 2-speed transfer case.

Introduction of competitor products from Ford and Ram have not hurt Sprinter sales, Tritt says, and show that “imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

All Ford Transit models are made with high-strength steel to enable them to cary 600 pounds more in payload.
All Ford Transit models are made with high-strength steel to enable them to cary 600 pounds more in payload.

‘Flexible’ Transits

Ford Motor began building its large unibodied Transit in June. It’s been so well received that it’s already pushed aside the venerable and class-leading E-series cargo van, says Yaro Hetman, brand manager. The E continues as cab-chassis and cutaway-cab versions, and probably will into 2019. All Transit models are made with high-strength steel “so they carry 600 pounds more in payload, and fuel economy is 46% better than the Econoline before it,” he said.

Transit production is ramping up toward the planned 58 variants. There are three roof heights and two wheelbases, and two gasoline V-6 engines with a diesel coming later. So flexible is the Transit that “11 of the country’s top upfitters have located facilities within 20 miles of our Kansas City plant,” Hetman says.

The new compact stream-styled Transit Connect has also taken off well, and will probably exceed the success of the plainer, boxier TC wagon and panel van. It started a trend toward “right-sizing” – high volume in a small footprint with a small, economical powertrain for those who carry bulky but lightweight items. The new Transit Connect, built in Spain, comes with two wheelbases and two 4-cylinder gasoline engines, including a 1.6-liter turbocharged EcoBoost rated at 23 mpg city and 30 highway.

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