Commercial van sector gets makeover
Recovery and fuel costs spur changes
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to note that most Ford E-series vans will end production in 2014.
DETROIT -- More American tradesmen will soon find themselves behind the wheel of a commercial van developed overseas.
Three automakers -- Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group and Nissan North America -- have introduced or will roll out next year commercial vehicles from their overseas operations that promise higher fuel economy.
"Fleets are getting savvier about how they do business," said Joe Langhauser, General Motors' commercial product and specialty vehicles manager. "They've recognized that what they carry and how they carry it can make a difference in their costs."
GM intends to keep its body-on-frame commercial vans, the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana, to capture customers who may not want a European-derived van from Ford or Chrysler, he said. But GM is selling a crossover made in Mexico to fleet customers and looking at possible new vehicles.
Here's a roundup of the changing commercial-van landscape:
Ford: The E-series, or Econoline, full-sized van will largely wrap up more than five decades of production in 2014, though some cutaway versions of the long-running van, like those that underpin commercial shuttles, will continue. Ford will introduce the Ford Transit, or T series, as a replacement for commercial and passenger van variants, in 2013.
Pricing for the new vans has not been announced, but the E series starts at $27,625, including shipping. The E-150 XL with a 4.6-liter V-8 gets 13 mpg city/16 highway.
Not to be confused with the small, front-wheel-drive Transit Connect, the Transit will be a full-sized, rear-wheel-drive van based on similar vehicles in Europe. It will be offered with Ford's 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 and with a diesel variant, with production to begin in 2013, a Ford spokesman said.
Ford recently trademarked T-150, T-250, T-350 and so on, indicating that the new van's nameplate likely will be similar to its predecessor's.
Chrysler Group: Chrysler will lightly reskin Fiat's European van lineup -- the Fiat Doblo and Ducato, and Iveco Daily -- to sell as Ram-branded vans in the United States beginning in 2013.
The Doblo, which competes with the Transit Connect, and Ducato, which will go head-to-head with the new Transit, will remain fwd and will be assembled in Mexico. They are expected to be available with diesel and gasoline engines. Pricing has not been announced for the North American versions.
Nissan: Nissan has begun selling its NV1500 full-sized vans in the United States and will enter the small van market with the NV200, which was revealed in February at the Chicago Auto Show. The NV1500, assembled in Canton, Miss., is a tall-roofed van similar to the Mercedes Sprinter and retails for $26,045, including delivery.
The NV200 rides on a chassis that is about the size of a Nissan Sentra and will use the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the current Sentra. Nissan says it will give buyers the option of interior shelving or exterior body graphics at no extra cost, the same policy it has for buyers of full-sized NV2500 cargo vans.
Neither GM nor Daimler AG, maker of the Mercedes Sprinter, has revealed any broad changes to its products for the United States. Toyota Motor Corp., American Honda and Hyundai Group have no announced plans to enter the U.S. commercial van segment.
Part of what is driving some automakers' interest in commercial vehicles is the rebounding sales numbers in the segment.
"As the economy recovers, we will start to see more money spent in business investment, so that's somewhat of what is driving these redesigns and refreshes that are long overdue," said Rebecca Lindland, an IHS Automotive analyst.
The E series is the full-sized van sales leader. And Ford's Transit Connect has owned the small commercial van segment since it was introduced to the United States in 2009. Ford sold 31,914 Transit Connects in 2011, up 16 percent from the 2010 total. Through June, Transit Connect sales have risen 12 percent from the year-earlier period, to 16,954 units.
"There's clearly a big, big opportunity here," explained Joyce Mattman, fleet and commercial director for GM. "It's such an important segment because it supports so many business and commercial needs."
Mattman said GM is seeing fleet and commercial buyers looking to downsize engines and vehicles to save on fuel costs. But she said part of the rebounding sales in the segment have to do with businesses replacing worn-out vehicles.
"If they could get another year out of a vehicle, they would. Right now, the costs of keeping these older vehicles running is exceeding their costs of buying a new one," Mattman said.
To offer an alternative to the Transit Connect, GM last year began selling the Mexico-made Chevrolet Captiva Sport crossover, a cousin of the Chevrolet Equinox, to fleet customers.
Said Langhauser: "We're always looking at new products, but while we have nothing to announce, we're looking at the market."
You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at email@example.com.