The year 2010 could turn out to be an important turning point for the light-duty market in the U.S. New competition and new products are offering customers who have money to spend plenty of intriguing options.

“Over the last four years or so, that class of vehicles has gained quite a bit of market share and they haven't given it up in the downturn,” Jonathan Starks, transportation analyst for FTR Associates, says. “It really comes down, quite honestly, to fuel economy.”

And with this shift has come several new products. In past years, the small-business owner had a choice of a full-size van like the Sprinter, or going small with a vehicle like a Chevrolet Express van. Now, with the introduction of the Ford Transit Connect last year, the soon-to-be-introduced Nissan NV2500 van, plans by Chrysler to eventually import Fiat vehicles, and reports that General Motors is looking to enter the fray, customers will have plenty of choices in a wide array of styles and sizes.

“Obviously, it is going to be really good for the small-business owner if we get any kind of recovery at all,” Starks says. “And if there is any kind of fuel spike,” buyers might stay away from the larger vehicles and shift focus to the smaller vans.

The shift to smaller and lighter vans, Starks says, is a reaction to the marketplace by manufacturers. “What they're seeing is there's been a pretty good introduction of the Sprinter; they've seen a shift to lighter vehicles, so they are responding to the market,” he says. With the new emissions requirements on diesel engines, “there's every advantage to shifting down” to smaller gas versions, he adds.

Nissan's NV2500 will be formally introduced at the Work Truck Show this month, according to Brian Brockman, spokesman for Nissan North America. “It will be a full-size commercial van competing with other full-size vans,” he says. “It will go on sale late in the fall.”

Specifics on the vehicle, which will headline the new Nissan Commercial Vehicle division, are not being unveiled until its Work Truck Show debut, Brockman says, but “it's been designed for this market specifically” and will be built at Nissan's Canton, MI, plant. According to the Auto Channel, Nissan will have invested $118 million to expand the facility's production capabilities to manufacture the vehicle and two other commercial vehicles by the time the first vehicles roll off the line.

Joe Castelli, who leads the LCV division, said plans call for three commercial vehicle models by 2013 and eventually a full line of Class 1 to 5 commercial vehicles using a mix of trucks designed for the North American market and others imported from Nissan's global commercial vehicle businesses.

The NV2500 is based on a concept vehicle that was displayed at the 2009 Work Truck Show. It will be built on a Titan chassis and will provide three distinct interior zones — passengers, work space and cargo. There is also a transparent roof with solar panels, an integrated computer workstation, built-in tool racks, and a clamshell side panel that opens to create an on-site work table.

In addition to Nissan joining the commercial market, Ram Trucks, the renamed branch of Chrysler's Dodge Ram division, plans to bring Fiat-based models to the U.S. by 2012. The large commercial van will be based on the Fiat Ducato, a similar vehicle to short-wheelbase versions of the Sprinter van. To compete with the Transit Connect and the NV2500, Ram Trucks plans to add Fiat's European-built Doblo light van to its product offerings in 2012.