It was back in the psychedelic '60s that the forerunners of today's full-size vans from Ford Motor Co. and General Motors' GMC Truck and Chevrolet divisions began taking their present-day shape.

Exactly 45 model years ago, the first Ford Econoline (E-Series) van hit the streets. Of course, GMC and Chevrolet vans provided solid competition, as did the Dodge Ram.

Alas, the Ram van was dropped after the 2003 model year. It was replaced by the Mercedes-Benz-derived Dodge Sprinter, which has brought a new and truly higher profile to the U.S. commercial van market.

Full-size van production is still the province of Detroit's Big Three: DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM. That may change if and when a Japanese or other offshore OEM decides to enter the U.S. commercial van market, which may be sooner than later (see box).

No longer the new kid on the block, the German-designed Dodge Sprinter still presents the freshest face to van buyers. The cargo-van model remains distinguished by its tall “Euro-style” body, as well as standard diesel power.

General Motors redesigned its full-size GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express vans in 2003 and Ford last redid its E-Series (Econoline) vans back in 1992.

But no matter how fresh the sheet metal, all vans being sold in the U.S. today offer a range of features appealing to commercial buyers.

DIESEL PROGRESS

Perhaps the most striking change in vans is the wider availability of diesel power. The Dodge Sprinter only comes with a diesel, and both Ford and GM now offer diesels alongside a range of gas powerplants.

“There's no big debate” about the diesel, says Pamela Niekamp, DaimlerChrysler's senior manager of commercial vehicle marketing & product planning.

“There's broad acceptance for diesels in general,” she continues. “Once the customer is behind the wheel, we encounter no resistance. People who drive the Sprinter find they like the performance of the 2.7-liter, 5-cyl. turbodiesel, including the fact that it's quiet and clean. And when they consider the fuel mileage, it becomes a good choice.”

Ross Hendrix, marketing director-commercial trucks & vans for General Motors' Fleet & Commercial Operations, says an Isuzu-designed 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel is available on GM and Chevy van cargo and cutaway models rated from 8600 lb. up through one ton.

“We got out of diesels back in 2002,” Hendrix candidly points out, “but brought them back for 2006. At launch, diesel penetration was 10%, but we expect that to increase as more buyers rediscover that we also have diesel At the moment, we're finding the Duramax is being embraced especially by ambulance and shuttle bus operators, who seem to appreciate how quiet and reliable this engine is.”

He notes “we have engines,” pointing out GMC and Chevy vans can also be powered with a choice of four different V6 and V8 gas engines.

According to Cristi Brown, Ford's E-Series marketing manager, the heavier-duty E350 Econoline can be spec'd with either a V10 Triton 6.8-liter gas engine or a 6.0-liter PowerStroke diesel. She notes the standard engine in the E350 is a 5.4-liter V8 gas and the E150 and E250 base engine is a 4.6-liter gas V8.

“We brought the 6.0-liter PowerStroke out in calendar-year ‘04,” Brown relates. “We're finding more commercial and retail buyers are becoming interested in the diesel but right now most of these sales are for cutaways and ambulances.”

SAFETY PAYS

Given that vans are usually bought either by very large firms, such as those operating service fleets, with in-house safety departments, or by mom-and-pop owners who personally know the workers driving their vans, it's little wonder safety features get a good deal of attention.

For example, 1/2-ton GMC and Chevy vans can now be had with optional all-wheel drive (AWD). “With AWD, the rear wheels are the driving wheels,” notes GM's Hendrix, “unless slippage is sensed and then front wheel drive also kicks in. This option is running about 5% on cargo models but closer to 50% on passenger vans.”

Noting that GM “completely redesigned the van in ‘03,” Hendrix points out some other salient safety benefits.

“The independent front suspension provides improved ride and handling and the box-frame construction adds stiffness for better ride and stability.

“The entire package has been awarded a five-star frontal crash rating by the federal government,” he continues. “In addition, when we redesigned the van, we extended the wheelbase to 155 inches to improve load centering for a safer ride.”

Looking ahead, Hendrix says that GM's StabiliTrak control system is now offered on GM SUVs and passenger vans and “will roll out eventually on cargo models as well.”

According to GM, StabiliTrak uses sensors to detect the difference between the steering wheel angle and the direction a vehicle is actually turning. The system then “applies quick, precise force to the appropriate brakes to help the driver control the vehicle's direction”.

Ford's Brown says that a roll stability control system is available on extended-length E-Series passenger vans right now. As for when the safety enhancement might appear on cargo vans, she notes that Ford “doesn't comment on future offerings.”

Unlike its cargo van competitors, DaimlerChrysler is already providing stability enhancement via the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) available on the Sprinter 2500 model.

The OEM describes ESP as a combination of traction control, antilock braking and yaw control to enhance driver control in all weather conditions.

Also standard on Sprinter 2500 models is Acceleration Skid Control (ASC), an advanced traction-control system that DaimlerChrysler says maximizes traction by applying the brakes to a wheel as soon as it begins to spin in a low-traction condition.

All Sprinters boast four-wheel disc brakes with four-wheel ABS as well as Electronic Brake Distribution for improved steering control, points out DaimlerChrysler's Niekamp.

“Other safety features include the huge glass windshield for excellent visibility and three-point seatbelts and headrests on every seat, which are not offered on other vans” she says.

Vans become vocational trucks when they are outfitted for tasks but especially when they boast features that boost productivity for their operators.

Ford's Brown points out that all E-Series vans now carry as standard the Slimline engine cover console. “It's an ergonomic feature,” she explains. “By reducing the size of the engine cover, more ‘pass-through room’ is provided for moving from the driver's seat to the cargo area.”

Brown says qualified commercial customers can take advantage of Ford's “Commercial Connection” program that allows choosing from one of three work-oriented interior upgrades at no extra cost.

“These are ordered at a dealership and installed before the van arrives at the dealer,” she explains. “There are two different rack-and-bin packages; one constructed of steel and the other of composites. The third system is an insulated liner for better temperature regulation in the cargo area, such as for caterers.”

Brown notes that in lieu of these packages, a commercial buyer with their own interior system to install may qualify for a Ford “up-fit” incentive.

DaimlerChrysler's Niekamp says research that led to the Sprinter van's stand-up inside height has proven out “loud and clear” in terms of buyer acceptance.

According to Mike Pultorak, DaimlerChrysler's brand manager-commercial vans, the Sprinter's flexible design is leading it into “applications that were not part of what we envisioned.” These include such creative uses as a mobile X-ray center and a rolling pizzeria.

GM's Hendrix points out there are two productivity-boosting options that can only be found on a GMC Savana or a Chevy Express.

“We have a left-hand door option,” he states. “Also unique is our access package. This provides three panels, two on the driver side and one on the passenger side, which allow easy exterior access to the cargo area either by remote keyless entry or an interior manual release.”

Although no manufacturer would discuss any major future product changes, given the design age of some models and the competitiveness of this segment, it's a safe bet OEMs are working on new van releases for the near future.

Down the road…

Although the company is tight-lipped about what products will result and when, Nissan North America Inc. (NNA) is creating a new division “for the sales and marketing of light commercial vehicles (LCV) and fleet sales” in the U.S.

According to Katherine Zachary, manager of corporate communications, the Light Commercial Vehicle and Fleet Division will develop products as well as sales and marketing strategy for the commercial and fleet segments. But she told FLEET OWNER that at this point the OEM is not ready to discuss what new products might be introduced here or when.

“The new LCV lineup is a major part of Nissan's future profit and volume plans for the U.S.,” said Jed Connelly, NNA's senior vp-sales & marketing in a news release “A dedicated division will help us meet the specific needs of the American LCV customers, both in terms of products and services.”

Mike Hobson will lead the division as director-LCV & Fleet. He joined Nissan in 1991 and has held numerous positions since, including truck model line manager, and will report directly to Connelly.

According to Connelly, the new division is part of a global Nissan strategy aimed at fostering its LCV business. He pointed out that LCVs are one of four key “breakthrough areas” identified by Carlos Ghosn, president & CEO of parent firm Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., to achieve corporate objectives.”

Connelly added that Nissan aims to sell 434,000 LCV units globally in fiscal year 2007.