GM stands by its 1990s vintage vans; Fleet exec says customers are content

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General Motors' full-sized commercial van -- sold as the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana -- has officially become the old man of that mainstay fleet segment.

Ford in June launched the Transit, a European unibody offering to replace the body-on-frame Econoline. Chrysler also turned to Europe for its first full-sized commercial van since its Daimler days, launching the ProMaster last year, an Americanized version of the front-wheel-drive Fiat Ducato.

Daimler has kept the relatively sleek Sprinter, around since 2007, fresh with cosmetic nips and tucks and new engines. Nissan hit the market with its Nissan NV rear-wheel-drive van in 2011.

That leaves the Express and the mechanically identical Savana, the body-on-frame, rwd vans that have been around since 1996.

GM's recent decision to discontinue the light-duty 1500 versions for the 2015 model year, leaving the 2500 and 3500 models, renewed interest in GM's long-range plans for the product, which is among its highest volume fleet sellers.

Ed Peper, GM's vice president of U.S. fleet and commercial sales, said the 1500 model was a relatively light seller and that buyers can easily move up to a 2500 or down to the City Express small cargo van, which is a rebadged Nissan NV200 slated for a fourth-quarter launch. He declined to discuss longer range plans for the van.

But for now, he says, customers are content.

"There are a lot of folks who are looking at some of our competitors' vans and coming back to us and liking what they see," Peper says.

Suburban Detroit auto analyst Alan Baum believes GM decided to let the vans stick around as it prioritized capital spending on other product programs following its 2009 bankruptcy. He expects GM's fleet customers to stick with the tried-and-true vans for a few years before eventually gravitating toward the improved fuel efficiency and smaller footprint of the Euro-style vans.

"GM doesn't have a European van to bring over like Ford and Chrysler did," he says. When the time comes, he believes GM could decide to partner with Renault-Nissan or another automaker rather than developing its own.

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.


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