Fitted with racks, shelves, extended roofs, hydraulic buckets, or any other useful accessory inventive minds can devise, the commercial van has become an essential tool for a broad range of service fleets. But while other trucks have changed dramatically in the push for ever increasing productivity, the “breadbox” has gone about its business with its basic design and silhouette unchanged for decades.
Now after all those years of small, evolutionary changes, the commercial van is being completely overhauled. If your fleet depends on vans, get ready for a flood of new configurations, powertrains and even sizes. The days of the one-size-fits-all van are over.
The start of the transformation can be traced back to 2001 whenintroduced the Sprinter, a large van from its parent Daimler popular among European fleets. It featured stand-up interior room without any aftermarket modification, a fuel-efficient small diesel engine and design elements specifically aimed at accommodating commercial applications.
A second generation Sprinter, which for some time was also sold by Dodge as part of the former Daimler-Chrysler partnership and is now sold by Mercedes-Benz USA as well as Freightliner, built on those initial strengths, adding active safety systems, more driver comfort features and other options. Though perceived as a premium vehicle, it has shown that a growing number of American users see the value in the European style of dedicated full-size commercial vans. While traditional American-style full-size vans still accounted for over 80% of sales last year, Sprinter doubled its 2010 sales, according to data from WardsAuto.com.
The second part of the van's transformation is coming in what is essentially an entirely new size of dedicated commercial vans for the North American market. While full-size vans are rated around 10,000 lbs. GVW,believed it saw an opening for a smaller commercial truck under 6,000 lbs. GVW. So in 2010, Ford modified its European Transit Connect by swapping out a small diesel for a fuel-efficient 4-cyl. gasoline engine that met U.S. emissions requirements and tested its thesis.
The results even surprised Ford, according to Tim Stoehr, the company's commercial truck marketing manager. Drawn by the large interior cargo capacity in a small package and good fuel economy combined with a true commercial vehicle chassis, North American users bought over 30,000 Transit Connects last year. Those numbers attracted a lot of attention, and suddenly a new category — the Class 1 commercial van — has come to America.
With North American fleets clearly interested in these new types of commercial vans, truck builders have reacted quickly. This year and next will see an unprecedented number of new vehicles introduced both in full-size and Class 1 sizes. And while the traditional American van will be with us for the immediate future, Ford has already announced that the most popular — its E-Series — will be phased out in favor of a new Euro-style vehicle. General Motors, the only other maker of the traditional breadbox van, hasn't been willing to go that far in its public comments, but it has pointedly said that it, too, has a full range of European-style vans in its global portfolio.
Information about these new trucks has been dribbling out over the past few months, butFleet Owner has talked to all of the major players for a comprehensive, first-hand report on the changes coming to vans over the next two years. What follows is a brand-by-brand rundown on the trucks that will completely remake the commercial van fleet.