Demand for cargo vans has builders scrambling to increase production.
Sales of the full-size, Euro-style Sprinter, handled by Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz dealers, have grown enough that it will be assembled here instead of being imported as knocked-down kits from Germany and reassembled at a plant near Charleston, S.C., says Volker Mornhinweg, head of M-B Vans. It will invest about $500 million to build a new van plant in the same area to supply the North American market with the next-generation Sprinter.
General Motors plans to speed up assembly lines at its Wixom, Mo., factory, where its Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana traditional full-size vans are produced. Ford Motor’s plant in Kansas City, where the Transit Euro-style full-size van is made, is adding a third shift.
Ford’s Transit represents the fast-developing trend in the U.S. toward unibody vans, which now include compacts such as its Transit Connect, as well as Ram’s ProMaster City and Nissan’s NV 200 (also sold by GM as the Chevrolet City Express). Daimler’s Sprinter arm is adding a third type here, the “mid-size” Metris, which other builders will watch closely. Its announced pricing, in the $29,000 to $32,000 range, is closer to full-size vans and that might limit its appeal, competitors think. But those prices also reflect the premium stance of the full-size Sprinter, the first Eurovan introduced to America in 2001. GM and Nissan, meanwhile, are finding that there’s plenty of life left in the body-on-frame design.
In the sales derby, Ford has bragging rights and isn’t shy about proclaiming them. It recently sent out a press release announcing that Ford vans captured 56% of the commercial van market and are bestsellers in 47 states. Ford Transit became the best-selling full-size van in America just six months after it went on sale in 2014, Ford says, replacing America’s best-selling van for 35 years, E-Series, which was descended from the Econoline of ‘61. For the 2015 model year, Ford produced more than 100,000 Transits at its Kansas City plant.
Ford Transit Connect, the first compact commercial van introduced to America in 2009, has been the segment’s bestseller for the last five years with a 69% market share, the release continued. TC sales are up 43% in the first half of 2015.
Overall, Ford’s van sales increased 28% January through June, while the segment overall grew 11%. The release didn’t mention the F59 chassis, a strong contender as the platform for walk-in vans and Class A motor homes.
The full-size Transit is now available in 58 variations of wheelbase, roof height and body length, plus cab-chassis and cutaway versions. E-series vans and wagons are gone, but chassis-cabs and cutaways remain in production in Ohio and probably will into 2019. A dozen upfitters are located within 30 miles of the Kansas City plant, allowing convenient equipping of trucks for specific duties. And the current strong economy enables fleets and individuals to replace old trucks.
How long will the prosperity continue? “If I had the answer, I’d probably be operating with more stripes on my shoulder than I have,” says Yaro Hetman, brand manager for Ford’s van products. “I can say that everything we hear from our customers is that the trend to more efficient vehicles is likely to continue. That’s why we made our vans even more ways to suit the job at stake. But it’s also about changing customer preference. Some are switching from trucks [with separate bodies] to vans. You couldn’t stand up in the E series, but you can with a Transit. So plumbers and other tradesmen who drive somewhere and have to get inside for tools and materials are switching to vans.”
Ford offers a 5-cylinder diesel in the Transit, but nine out of 10 customers choose gasoline power because low purchasing and fuel prices make it economical. Yet some fleets have switched over to diesel, Hetman says. One major telecom company did and increased fuel economy by 47%. And long-term, as oil prices go up again, diesel and alternative fuels might be the busier path. CNG or propane can be burned in the 3.7-liter V-6, which fleets tend to take, though they usually stay with gasoline; the stronger 3.5 double-turbo EcoBoost is popular among retail buyers. Altogether the 3.7 takes about two-thirds of gasoline-engine sales.
Fiat Chrysler’s Ram ProMaster full-size van has “solidified” in the market and sales are up almost 40% year to date, with 16,774 units and an 11% market share, according to Dave Sowers, head of marketing for commercial vehicles. The ProMaster is unique in the segment with front-wheel-drive, “which is a selling feature from a traction standpoint and, more importantly, in [short] turning radius,” he says. And it has a low floor height for easy loading and unloading.
The small ProMaster City, introduced late last year, combined with the now out-of-production Ram CV (a cargo variant on the Dodge Caravan), tallied 4,454 units for 10% of that segment. Compared to other small vans, Sowers says, “the ProMaster City’s got more cargo space and payload capacity, 1,800 pounds plus 2,000 pounds towing, yet best-in-class fuel economy. It’s a more efficient truck compared to the old body-on-frame truck. It’s all new product for us. It built some momentum and familiarized our customers with our products. For a 100-unit fleet, they might try 10 now, then maybe 20 next year. Customers are surprised at how nice the driving experience is.”
The ProMaster City is selling to two categories: people who work out of their vans (plumbers, technicians, telecom) and the people who deliver – couriers and small businesses like food caterers and florists that are delivering their products. For instance, an irrigation contractor in Arizona uses two ProMaster City vans to carry tools and light PVC piping to customer sites for installation. The ProMaster City’s towing ability comes in handy for fall service work for this customer, when the vans can pull a trailer-mounted heavy air compressor to customers’ properties to blow out lines and prepare them for the cold winter.
But are customers overloading their small vans? Some are, according to Mark Namuth, senior sales manager at Nissan Light Commercial Vehicles, which sells the NV 200 and supplies the Chevy City Express to GM.
“Some are bought by people who are overworking them,” he says. “Something overlooked is that that load is not always water-level, where weight dispersion is even. And the heaviest thing gets plopped at the very rear.
“The body-on-frame truck is forgiving of that, but the unibody not so forgiving…. If he’s over 1,500 pounds of payload, and you add to that a driver and fuel, you need to walk that customer to a full-size van. Beefing it up is not too doable with a unibody.”
Nissan’s three body-on-frame NV models, the 1500, 2500 HD and 3500 HD, make up 6% of the full-size segment, he says. “We’re selling all we can produce right now, and I think we could increase our market share if we had more production capacity,” Namuth says. “The body-on-frame is still good for us, and GM. You’re giving up a touch of fuel economy and weight, but adding durability and better upfitting capability, like cranes for telecom companies, where the boom sits on frame.”
Its full-size vans come with a limited five-year/100,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, the best in the business, Namuth says. The warranty seems a safe bet for Nissan, because its vans are living much longer than promised. One customer that delivers supplies to copper mines in Arizona has an NV 3500 that has run over 550,000 miles, Namuth reports. That van has the strong 5.6-liter V-8, but most customers take the peppy 4-liter V-6.
Will Nissan put the 5-liter diesel, slated for the new Titan XD pickup, in its big vans? “A lot of people are asking will we put that Cummins diesel in the vans, and we’re certainly looking at it,” he says. “But competitors have smaller diesels in their vans, so the Cummins engine is a bit large.” He declines comment on a smaller 4-cylinder Cummins diesel shown late last year in a Nissan Frontier pickup concept.
GM Fleet & Commercial agrees with Nissan about traditional vans.
“It’s a good market for the body-on-frame design,” says Joe Langhauser, product manager for vans at GM, which continues to sell as many Chevy Expresses and GMC Savanas as it can make. “Customers tell us that ‘it really works for us.’ All upfitters know how to deal with it, it’s reliable and durable. And it’s got the best warranty in the General Motors line of products. And they know they can damage the side panels without getting into operations. Our worst fears of the Eurovan definitely did not come true. I believe there is a market for both of these vans.”
The bulk of GM’s market is a short-wheelbase 2500 series van, he reports. Telecoms and electric utilities are buying the short-wheelbase, low roof version. Some go to a longer wheelbase to get more cargo room for carrying long items, like ladders, but most stay with the shorter model to be able to park easily. Heavy haulers go to the 1-ton 3500 model.
“There’s more growth in cutaways due to changes in federal regulations on greenhouse gases, where the sticking point is declared frontal area,” Langhauser says. “Ours is 74 square feet; our cab is 37 square feet, and upfitters must stay within 74 or 85 square feet to meet the regs. Eurovan cutaways are restricted. G-vans give the upfitters more leeway, and that’s reflected in more and more business in cutaways.” He says GM will add speed late this year after rearranging workloads to maintain quality.
“Diesel remains a very small portion of the portfolio — ambulance, school and shuttle, for those who have diesel fuel on site,” he says. He estimates 95% of the vans they sell have gasoline engines, evenly split between the 4.8- and 6-liter V-8 versions. That’s because gasoline prices are low right now, and there’s a big price premium for diesel, about $12,000. “And gasoline engines go longer [than they used to] — routinely they go 600,000, 700,000 miles,” he says, “and some customers say they go over a million.”
GM’s Chevy City Express compact van, obtained from Nissan, “is meeting our expectations,” Langhauser says. “While we can’t get into specifics, we can tell you that sales are trending upwards and we are hearing from our customers that they love driving it.” The City Express is a unibody design, and GM continues to look at bringing unibody products in from Europe, Langhauser says, “but I can tell you that the body-on-frame will be around for a long time.”
At Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., sales continue to be “robust,” and have been all year, reports Mike Stark, product manager. “In addition, we are seeing strong orders and customer demand through Quarter 1 of 2016. Our customers are anticipating 2016 to be a strong year, so we’re seeing that in our orders thus far.” FCCC makes Class 4 through 7 MT-series chassis on which walk-in bodies from Morgan Olson and Utilimaster are mounted. Customers include package delivery fleets, bakeries, and uniform and linen suppliers.
Demand is not so strong for the Isuzu-Utilimaster Reach van. Sales of walk-in vans rise and fall as the big package delivery fleets order batches of trucks, explains Brian Tabel, marketing manager at Isuzu Commercial Truck.
“For our package-delivery partners, we’re told this was an aviation buying year, and next year is supposed to be a truck buying year.” Last year the major delivery fleets and other customers acquired a little more than 3,000 Reaches. That number may be under 1,000 this year.
Plumbers and other tradesmen, and non-profit groups that pick up donated goods, are among the retail customers for the Reach. The scuff panels front and rear and along both lower sides of its composite body cost more than aluminum and might keep some buyers from considering it, but those who buy it appreciate its value, Tabel says.
Reach comes in two wheelbases and body lengths, and runs on a 12,000-pound-GVW Isuzu chassis with a 3-liter, 4-cylinder Isuzu diesel and an Aisen 6-speed automatic transmission.