Modern commercial vans are emerging as a competitive segment in the U.S., and automakers are launching new products, many from Europe, as versatile offerings better equipped to handle a wide range of duties for small businesses and corporate fleets alike.
The Detroit Free Press reported that Chrysler is creating a Ram Commercial division to handle development and sales of commercial vehicles in preparation to sell Fiat Ducato commercial vans in the U.S. while Ford is using the Transit name on three global commercial vans that are to be available in the U.S. by the end of 2013.
Nissan continues to push in the segment it entered in 2011. It invested $118 million to build the NV cargo van and passenger van in its Canton, Miss., plant and is introducing the smaller NV200, which will become the official New York taxi about a year from now under a 10-year contract.
And Mercedes-Benz is hinting it has a redesigned Sprinter up its sleeve. “We are not going to be sitting still,” said Claus Tritt, vice president of operations for Daimler Vans.
One analyst said Mercedes may bring the minivan-sized Vito from Europe.
“We are seeing a major fragmentation of the market with new players, entries, models and sizes,” said analyst Aaron Bragman of IHS Automotive in Northville, Mich.
“No one is entirely sure what will work. It is a big experiment,” Bragman said. “There is a shift to European-styled vans, but there is no guarantee Americans will see it and say it looks great.” The Sprinter, for example, has been on sale here for a decade and still accounts for only a small percentage of the market. The platform is also popular among Class B motorhome builders.
Chrysler has been without a commercial van since it sold the Sprinter as a Dodge when it was owned by Daimler. That pact ended in 2010, and the Sprinter was reintroduced as a Mercedes-Benz. Fred Diaz, CEO of the Ram brand, is to announce the Ram Commercial division today at the Texas State Fair.
“We are getting really, really serious about the commercial end of the business,” Diaz said last month.
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It used to be that ladder-frame-based full-size vans dominated the commercial van segment but all that seems to be changing. Companies like Ford and Chrysler are poised to come to market with their own bigger, lighter, and more fuel efficient (small and large) choices to better compete as the economy implies there are better times around the corner. Whether downsizing or replacing their aging fleets, small businesses will have many more choices in size and capability.
PickupTrucks.com reported that the Ford Econoline or E-Series has dominated the industry for several decades but the heavy, rear-wheel drive, V-8, automatic, full-size van is into its last year of production before the new Ford Transit (due to offer several T-Series models — T-150, T-250, T-350), to be equipped with at least one EcoBoost engine and one turbodiesel, is on the way. The trend nowadays is to have both a large and more compactly sized work van that provides good load-carrying capability, has a substantial tow rating, offers decent I-4, V-6 or V-8 engine choices, has a relatively low load floor, and can be configured in many different ways to fit the needs of the many small businesses around the country.
According to Automotive News, interest in this segment seems to be building — in the last five years, the number of plane-Jane commercial vans sold in the U.S. has gone from well over 300,000 in 2007, to below 160,000 in 2009, and now seems to be riding a “rebound” wave with almost 230,000 units sold in the segment in 2011.
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