New van crop is ugly — but in a money-making way

The Ram ProMaster van.

Not to burst the ego of the automotive stylists who worked on them, but the new commercial vans that are about to flood the market are ugly.

Beautifully, hideously ugly.

The vans from Nissan North America, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group are to automotive design what a young Mike Tyson was to opposing boxers: unorthodox and confusing, but devastatingly effective.

These are purpose-built machines for which function definitely overshadows form. Their sidewalls are nearly vertical, which is not the best attribute for driving dynamics but is great for sign placement and interior space. Their engines are powerful enough to haul almost any load, but not so overpowered as to gulp fuel unnecessarily. Their rear doors swing open wide enough and are tall enough to allow efficient loading and unloading, despite the increased drag such a design naturally entails.

It is remarkable that this segment -- a virtually ignored backwater for so many automakers for more than a decade -- should see so much new product in just 18 months. A great degree of credit should go to Mercedes-Benz, whose Sprinter seemed to rouse competitors into thinking that it might be time to devote some attention to the stale van designs they had to offer.

Commercial vans like these are an integral part of any nation's economy, efficiently delivering goods and services from suppliers and customers in an economical package. Though the segment represents only about 2 percent of overall auto sales annually, commercial vans make an outsized impact on the economic well-being of their owners.

And yes, the Nissan NV200, Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster have noses that not even a mother could love. But that's OK, because the only things commercial customers care about when buying vans like these are: Is it going to work, and is it going to help me make money?

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