RICK KRANZ

The next sales dogfight? Full-sized vans

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News.

Looks like Ford is planning a commercial van blitz.

The automaker’s execs have their eyes focused on the newest competitor in the full-sized van market, the Nissan NV. Sales began last month. This is a real, strong competitor in a field dominated by Ford.

In particular, Ford will be watching sales for Nissan’s high-roof models, which raise the roof about two feet. It’s tall enough on the inside to walk around, long enough to add a work bench and big enough to create a workshop on wheels. Different wheelbases are offered. Additionally, a passenger version -- engineered by Nissan as an airport shuttle or school bus -- also is planned.

During a dinner earlier this month at the Geneva motor show, Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product development chief, said the automaker will do whatever it takes to maintain its leadership. That includes adopting a European model or models for the U.S. market. Ford has done that before. It engineered the front-drive Transit Connect compact van that is assembled in Turkey for Europe, Asia and North America.

Beyond the Transit Connect, Kuzak said “we have even more flexibility in terms of configurations in Europe that clearly we are positioned to bring to the U.S. market.” No timetable or models were mentioned.

A likely candidate is the next-generation Ford Transit van. The current generation is sold in Asia and Europe, and it is about the same size as Ford’s popular E series.

While not mentioning the Nissan NV by name, Kuzak strongly hinted that Ford may be planning a considerable expansion of its model range. Today, it is limited to panel and passenger vans, all based on one wheelbase.

Speaking of fleet customers and their vans, Kuzak said “the more configurations almost the better because they will find a way to use it.”

Ford has been the full-sized van leader for some time. Last year Ford’s E-series vans had 56.7 percent of the full-sized van market, accounting for 108,258 sales. The entire market totaled 190,765 sales last year and included the Chevrolet Express/Chevy Van, GMC Savana and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, according to the Automotive New Data Center.

U.S. van sales plunged during the recent recession. As recently as 2000, nearly 413,000 full-sized vans were sold, with Ford accounting for 45.3 percent of the total market, a shade over 187,000.

“Commercial vehicles are really important to us, and commercial vans in particular are really important to us,” Kuzak said.

“We intend to be a leader in that market.”

Expect the full-sized van business to turn quickly into a real dogfight.

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