‘May you live in interesting times” is usually taken as a wry Chinese curse. But for cargo vans and the people who run them, an interesting era is here and it should be a blessing. New European-based products are being sent to the marketplace, and they’ll offer new efficiencies and choices in a segment that has languished design-wise since the first of that breed, the Mercedes Sprinter van, arrived a dozen years ago wearing a Freightliner badge.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler’s Ram Trucks are set to field new, large unibody vehicles that will change what we see on America’s streets.
Meanwhile, Ford’s Transit Connect, now in its fifth model year with a total redesign, is proving that there is a healthy market for a “right-sized” compact van that carries a lot but saves fuel. And Sprinter, the original Euro van in North America, has gotten a major makeover.
At the same time, GM and Nissan feel that many customers will prefer to stick with the tried-and-true, full-size, body-on-frame van that still sells in the hundreds of thousands every year.
Walk-in vans, a subset of the segment, recently got a fresh product with the Reach, a low-slung, lightweight, whack-resistant panel truck from Isuzu and Utilimaster. Package-delivery fleets are finding routes where it’s just right, and it’s fitting into other applications. But Freightliner Custom Chassis still sees demand for the large, high-capacity van built on a traditional ladder-type frame, though alternative powertrain choices are temporarily restricted.
In other walk-in van news, earlier this year Navistar folded Workhorse and cancelled its eStar battery-electric van. AMP Holding, which owns AMP Electric Vehicles, bought the remains of Workhorse from Navistar with the intent of reviving it, and announced an electric version of a Workhorse van.
One EV program under way involves United Parcel Service and Electric Vehicles International, a maker of electric powertrain conversions. The manufacturer says it is installing a system in a non-powered glider-kit walk-in van from FCCC for testing by UPS in California and Nevada. The 90-day test will include 30 days each in Sacramento, San Francisco and Reno, EVI said recently.
The big Euros
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the Euro van first brought to North America 12 years ago, has been restyled and redesigned with more driver comfort and convenience features, a new diesel engine, and several electronic safety and handling devices. It’ll be sold by a strong M-B and Freightliner dealer body.
The Ram ProMaster van has entered production in Mexico and will soon begin arriving at dealers, say Joe Benson and Bob Hegebloom, who head marketing and sales for the brand. It gives Chrysler a product it hasn’t had since the Dodge-branded Sprinter went away about a decade ago when Daimler divested itself of Chrysler.
Based on the Fiat Ducato, ProMaster has a front-wheel-drive powertrain suited for North American use, with larger engines than those in Europe. The FWD layout eliminates the long driveshaft and live rear axle and allows a lower floor. The North American version has many changes in structure and driver amenities, and was tested in extreme climates from 40 below to 125 degrees, all over the country.
“We’re coming off a van that’s been in the market, has been sold all over the world for three generations, with 4.5 million produced and 2 million still on the road today,” Hegebloom says. Some prototypes were placed with big delivery fleets and were well received. “Drivers were fighting over who would drive them because of the low step height. At a couple of inches lower, you feel the difference when you get in and out of the vehicle all day.”
The full-size ProMaster joins the Ram C/V, a commercial van based on the Dodge Grand Caravan with a flat floor and fiberglass panels instead of window glass. Its sales are up 12% over last year. It will be replaced later with a small ProMaster City van based on the European Fiat Doblo, though Hegebloom and Benson deflected questions about it.
Replacing the leader
Ford Motor Co. is preparing a plant in Kansas City to build the full-size Euro-style Transit that will replace E-series vans, reports Minyang Jiang, brand manager for Transit, Transit Connect and E-series. Production will start in April and will be staggered, with medium- and high-roof versions first, then a low-roof style and other types. There’ll be at least 62 variants, taking into account roof heights, lengths, powertrains and wheelbases.
“As part of our launch, we started communicating with our customers earlier than we normally do with a new model, because this is a model that will replace an iconic model, a very reliable model,” Jiang says. “They now tell us they can’t wait” for the Transit because of its size, handling and 20% to 50% better fuel economy due to smaller gasoline and diesel powertrains and lighter weight.
Ford dealers started taking orders for the new compact Transit Connect in mid-May, and production started in September at a plant in Valencia, Spain.
Dealers will begin receiving them early next year. Sales for current Transit Connect are up 20% to 25% over 2012, Jiang says. “It’s such a reliable vehicle. I get feedback from customers that their Transit Connects have 200,000 miles and still run well.”
The venerable but repeatedly improved E-series “is doing very well, extremely well,” Jiang says.
“Some customers have migrated to the Sprinter because they needed higher roof heights, so we expect them to return” for the new Transit. The E-series’ market share in the full-size van segment last year was 51% and Ford expects it to be about the same this year.
Then why phase it out? Because “‘Go Further’ (Ford’s advertising slogan), requires new products, which will give us the opportunity to gain new customers,” Jiang explains.
General Motors is sticking with its traditionally designed G-series, according to Joe Langhauser, van product manager.
“The G-van is going very well,” he says. The recovering economy means “this is a year where we’re seeing customers that we haven’t talked to in a long time, people who want a body-on-frame, with ruggedness and a powertrain they’re familiar with. They’re questioning the Euro vans; they prefer something with a proven track record.”
General Motors has several unibody vans in Europe: the Opel Movano, which ranges from smaller than the G-van to 500 cubic feet; the mid-size Bravaro, probably the largest seller there; and compact Combo. But they’ll stay there for now.
Aside from familiarity, the body-on-frame design of the G-van is rugged. If sheet metal is damaged, it doesn’t affect how it drives, Langhauser says. It’s also good for towing, and 20% of customers get the towing package on their Chevy Express and GMC Savana vans. GM is making the most of the G-vans, and has forged relationships with upfitters who provide 78 equipment packages.
“We are likely to lose some customers, and others are likely to come over,” he says of the upcoming contest between Euro and traditional vans. “That’s where the fight will be in the marketplace. We’ll talk to customers about the body-on-frame and its price competitiveness, and the different value equation of the unibody. We don’t have the answer yet. There’ll be three to four years when the market will be in turmoil.
“We’re constantly evaluating the market. If we saw significant market share erosion (of the G-van), would we look at alternatives? Of course.”
Earlier this year GM announced the City Express version of the Nissan NV200.
The Chevy-branded compact van will begin selling in about a year as a 2015 model. The Nissan partnership allows the two companies to share development and manufacturing costs.
One new, one true
There certainly is excitement in the van market, says Joe Castelli, vice president, commercial vehicles and fleet, for Nissan North America. And “it’s good for the customer.” He feels Nissan is in a good competitive position with its tried-and-true NV 1500, 2500HD and 3500HD body-on-frame models, which claim longevity and hauling ability, as well as the new compact unibody NV200.
“This segment is quite fragmented, from Joe Plumber who has one truck to the major fleets,” he said. With the NV200, “we have a good fuel economy story, The dealers are doing a good job with it. It’s not a big market, about 5,000 a month in August, 40,000 total last year. But we see it doubling in three years and tripling in five years.”
The full-size van market totals 18,000 to 20,000 per month, and 225,000 to 250,000 units should be sold this year. Ten years ago, it constituted over 300,000 annual sales.
Nissan’s large vans have only gasoline engines, with no plans yet for natural gas or propane. “The number one question we get at trade shows is diesel,” Castelli says. The new Cummins 5-liter V-8 diesel slated for the 2015 Titan pickup will fit in the big NVs.
“We’ve had Cummins put it in a couple of them that are rolling around in Columbus, Ind., right now.” Whether the vans will get that engine as an option depends on market demand, but it won’t come out before the diesel Titan.
There’ll be continued demand for the full-size body-on-frame van like the Es, Gs and NVs, because many customers need the heavier duty capabilities, Castelli says. “Those who haul balloons and other light stuff can go to the Euros. The ratio of sales will depend on location and come down to the pure usage of the vehicle.”
Price will also be a big part of it. “It was an expensive jump from full-size vans to the (Mercedes) Sprinter. A lot of these buying decisions are made by purchasing managers and finance managers who are still looking at initial purchase price. It’ll be quite interesting to see how many will be able to go over to the new design.”
The newest vehicle in the walk-in-van segment is the Reach, a combination of a modified Isuzu Eco-Max small-diesel chassis with a streamlined, lightweight composite-materials body from Utilimaster. It’s assembled by Utilimaster’s parent, Spartan Motors. Reach is aimed at applications such as package delivery, plumbers, HVAC repairmen, florists and food distributors.
Tests have shown the Reach gets 35% better fuel economy than traditional walk-in vans, says Brian Tabel, director of marketing for Isuzu Commercial Truck of America. Of course, Reach’s gross vehicle weight rating is 12,000 pounds, while most walk-in vans are heavier.
“The jury’s still out on how the (Mercedes) Sprinter and the Reach will be applied to the walk-in van market,” says Bryan Henke, manager of product marketing for Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. “They are hybrids of the walk-in van and the cargo van, but lighter.”
Most walk-in vans are heavy and large. They sell in small numbers. A good year is 10,000 to 15,000 units; this year it’ll probably be 9,000 to 11,000. But consumer trends bode well for the vehicle type. Online shopping is growing and merchants like Amazon “are wanting to deliver everything, including groceries,” Henke says, and walk-in vans are ideal for this.
FCCC sells the MT-45 and 55 series, but with fewer powertrains than before.
Eaton has withdrawn its diesel-electric hybrid from the walk-in van market. The Parker hydraulic hybrid system is not yet ready for sale because “they keep doing updates to it,” Henke says.
Enova, FCCC’s partner in a battery-electric van, went into bankruptcy, so the FCCC e-van is also on hold pending a possible deal with a different supplier. The natural gas option went away when Cummins withdrew the natural gas version of the ISB, but the GM gasoline engine with a gaseous prep package will help bring it back, as well as a propane option.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth and a lot of success with both our diesel and our gasoline chassis,” Henke says, and gasoline has grown substantially since the cost of a diesel engine with aftertreatment equipment has climbed. The split now is 60% gasoline, 40% diesel. The diesel is Cummins’ ISB6.7, while GM supplies the Vortec 6000 gasoline V-8.
The gasoline engine goes into a durable chassis, so “replacing the engine two or three times is in their business plan, versus just going with (longer-lived) diesel,” he says of customers.
In purchase price compared to gasoline, a diesel costs 10% to 15% more. Henke is high on the potential for propane walk-in vans, which would also cost more than gasoline-powered ones, but then come down when volume builds. Natural gas components are more expensive, especially storage cylinders, which alone are very expensive, he says.
“MPG with propane is less: 5 to 7 with propane vs. 7 to 9 with diesel in tests,” he says. “So do the math on operating savings. Propane is $1.20 to $1.50 per gallon compared to whatever you’re paying for diesel.”
This is a major reason FCCC developed the S2G Class 6 and 7 conventional-cab truck, whose production started in September. It has a purpose-built, propane-only 8-liter V-8 from Powertrain Integration.
The truck is initially aimed at propane delivery fleets but can handle applications such as beverage and furniture delivery and others. In price and operating costs, it rivals a diesel.
FCCC is working on propane and natural gas options for its walk-in van chassis using the 8- and 6-liter engines. Pilot vehicles are running, and production will be sometime in 2014.
Meanwhile, the Morgan Olson Aero body, launched with the now-discontinued electric van, might also become available with conventional- or alternative-fuel chassis, he says.
The body weighs 500 pounds less than current aluminum bodies, now built in 22- to 26-foot lengths. FCCC’s designers have to compare fuel economy benefits, but Morgan Olson is working on the panels for the smooth nose.
That’s another 2014 project.
Aftermarket hybrid for GM, Ford vans
Though neither General Motors nor Ford offer hybrid-powertrain vans, their existing G and E full-size vans can be fitted with aftermarket hybrid systems from XL Hybrids. The XL’s electronic controls work with the vehicle’s original controls, which are left intact. Its designers didn’t try to employ engine-off operation because it adds complexity and saves very little in fuel.
Aside from special controls, a system includes a motor-generator installed behind the transmission and a battery pack. It can be installed on a van in less than a day, and later be removed and reused on another truck.
Knapheide and Legget & Platt, both large equipment upfitters, are approved installers.
“If you didn’t know it was a hybrid when you drove it, you’d just drive it like a regular truck – it’s transparent,” says Jay Sandler, an industry veteran who recently signed on as XL Hybrid’s sales vice president.
“It’s a $9,000 package, which is not a lot of money. There’s no infrastructure, no range anxiety, and it delivers 20% to 25% fuel savings. You can downsize to the next smaller engine because you get torque from the electric motor.”