Of capability and driveability

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Over the last 12 months or so there’s been a huge beehive of activity where commercial vans are concerned, capped off by the official production launch of Ford Motor Co.’s new 2015 Transit full-size van, which I got an opportunity to test drive earlier this month in Kansas City, MO, where – not coincidentally – the new Transit is manufactured.

[Go here and here to see more 2015 Transit test drive photos.]

One reason is very bullish on the prospects for its new Transit van – especially for its high- and medium-roof models, which is expects to make up over 50% of Transit sales – is due to the expected growth of the global commercial vehicle market over the next several years.

That projected growth, coupled with fleet demands for costs savings alongside improved performance, is driving all van OEMs – not just Ford – to offer better options.

Chrysler LLC – a division of Italy’s Fiat – certainly jumped on the van bandwagon with both feet for similar reasons, boosting investment in its Mexico operations by over $1 billion in part to support its new Ram ProMaster van line.

Germany’s Daimler is also ramping up its own efforts on the commercial van front in the U.S., rolling out improved versions of its Sprinter van for journalists to test drive last year – as well as the addition of a new 4x4 version of the Sprinter due to reach the U.S. in 2015.

Nissan is another competitor in the van space that is working hard to beef up the utility and versatility of the commercial van, which is one reason that it introduced the NV200 compact cargo van into the market – a van that General Motors will use as a platform for its own new entrant into the commercial van space, the Chevy City Express.

After test driving almost all of the models mentioned above – with Ford’s 2105 Transit being the most recent one – I can tell you that the capability and driveability of these new commercial van platforms will likely be the two most talked-about features.

Simply put, those vans drive with the ease and smoothness of a sedan – with all the features one expects to get in a car today, such as onboard navigation, satellite radio, optional heated seats, you name it.

Thus the commercial operator will no longer feel like they are driving a rough bare-bones vehicle; instead, they’ll find their work van contains the same – if not better – features of their car, with a steering and suspension system that makes driving said vans so much easier than in the past.

Indeed, that proved the biggest takeaway for me after piloting several iterations of Ford’s Transit van lineup in and around Kansas City, on local roads as well as fast-moving highways – how easy it is to maneuver the vehicle, even the big 148-in. wheelbase versions.

Plenty of windshield space made seeing the road easier, too, and the welcome addition of rear-view camera systems made it safer to back the vans up in tight spaces.

Of course, fuel economy and capability were not sacrificed to give me a better ride – on the contrary, both are vastly improved compared to the E-Series line the Transit is replacing.

In the end, it is sort of like getting your cake and eating it to when it comes to the new and improved commercial van models coming to market here in the U.S. – and that’s certainly going to be a welcome one-two combination for any fleet operator.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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