Playing in the big leagues: Full-size vans are coming on strong

 

2014 Ram ProMaster

2014 Ram ProMaster

There’s a big war in the auto industry heading this way, and it may be the first time you’ve heard about it. You already know that the market for full-size pickups is cutthroat, and you’re  more than aware that the fight for the midsize sedan crown has been raging for decades, but the newest battle set for major combat is full-size vans. Stop laughing. While these tanks may not be on your radar, perhaps some sales numbers will wipe that grin off your face. Ford has sold over a half million E-Series vans since 2008; Chevy’s Express has sold over 400,000 units, and the new-to-market Nissan NV is selling about 1,000 units a month.

Large commercial vans may not be sexy, sporty, and swoopy, but they are a lot more necessary than just about every other vehicle segment in the market. We all love the Mazda MX-5 Miata, but it’s not going to work as a mobile dog grooming vehicle. The Jeep Grand Cherokee can climb rocks, but it can’t bring miles of heating ducts to your office. Almost any profession can benefit from a commercial van, including those who shuttle people to the airport, hotels, and special events.

People are working smarter and harder these days. Small vans are taking off (Nissan NV200, all-new Transit Connect due soon, GM City Express in 2014), and are great for those looking for both a commercial vehicle and a personal ride, but the full-size van market has remained largely unchanged for decades — until now. Let’s see what’s new in the big-boy segment.

2014 Ford Transit

The 2015 Ford Transit is due first quarter 2014.

Since 1980, the E-Series (formerly know as Econoline) has been the best-selling full-size van, and Ford is banking on its replacement, the Transit, which will appear in dealerships starting early next year. The new Transit will offer more of what full-size customers are looking for: four chassis styles, three wheelbase lengths, three roof heights, passenger or cargo setups and more. It’s even going to offer a diesel engine, gas V6 and even an available 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6. That’s a far cry from the gas-guzzling V8 and V10 offerings for today’s E-Series vehicles. The new Transit will be full stocked with a host of Ford’s available technologies such as SYNC and the Lane Keeping System.

Unlike the Transit Connect, which is now being built in Valencia, Spain (the previous models were built in Turkey), the European-based Transit will be built at Ford’s Kansas City, Missouri, facility. We are eagerly awaiting a test drive in the new Transit. Anyone need help moving next spring? Prices for the Transit have yet to be announced, but should fall close to the E-Series starting price around $27,000 (A loaded E350 XLT with options can top out over $41,000.)

2012 Nissan NV

The Nissan NV is slowing making a dent in the full-size van segment.

Nissan’s NV is the company’s first foray into what has been a domestic-only market segment. Asking people to switch to an import from a domestic may be difficult (as Toyota and its Tundra truck), but not impossible. Like any other vehicle, a test drive will determine if it’s the right truck to fit specific needs. The Nissan NV comes in three different models, and a standard or high roof height. It’s engines include a 4.0-liter V6 and a 4.6-liter V8, both workhorse engines found on other Nissan products. You can get the NV in van or passenger configurations, and Nissan boasts the NV has 324 different seating configurations. Although it has a ways to go before getting close to the sales numbers of the E-Series, customers are starting to at least consider buying the import. We use the import word lightly, because the NV is built at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi. We drove the NV in Miami when it was first introduced a few short years ago. For a giant van, we were pleasantly surprised at the ride quality.

We drove it to the local DIY store and picked up a vanload (literally) of building supplies then drove it over to a Habitat for Humanity house, which gladly accepted the gracious donation on the part of Nissan. Plenty of room, good ride quality, and a long list of creature comforts will almost make you glad you do deliveries for your daily job. The NV Van’s base price is slightly over $25,000, but can reach as high as $36,000 for the NV3500 HD SV V8 with all the options.

2014 Ram ProMaster

The all-new Ram ProMaster is based on the Fiat Ducato van from Europe.

What once was Dodge now is RAM. Because Dodge is under the Fiat umbrella, say goodbye to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and hello to the ProMaster, built on the Fiat Ducato platform. Lest you get all crazy, the Fiat Ducato is now in its third generation, and has sold close to five million units worldwide. RAM is bragging that the ProMaster offers more than a half dozen best-in-class features, including fuel economy, cargo capacity, payload, cost of ownership, step-in-height, and more. The ProMaster also will offer a 3.0-liter I4 EcoDiesel, along with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Choices for this big van include two roof heights, three wheelbase lengths, and a max tow capacity of 5,100 pounds.

What’s unique about the ProMaster is that it’s a front-drive system, so the fact that it lacks a rear driveshaft or a rear differential means the load floor doesn’t have to accommodate any driveline pieces. We had a chance for a brief drive in the ProMaster cargo van (159-inch wheelbase with the high roof) powered by the 3.6-liter V6, and were stunned at the great ride and handling for the tall van. It was empty during our drive, but still surprisingly quiet. The V6 felt good with 280 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, and we liked that it offer the optional Uconnect system, GPS navigation, and power folding mirrors. For a  base price of $32,875 and an as tested-price of $37,175, the ProMaster seems like a great value for those who plan to use it (and probably abuse it) a long time. The ProMaster van starts at $29,625, and also comes in chassis cab and cutaway cab configurations like the other vehicles in this article. The ProMaster will be built at the Saltillo assembly plant in Saltillo, Mexico.

2014-Chevrolet-Express-009-medium

The Chevy Express Van continues on in 2014 with minor changes.

Chevrolet and GMC continue into 2014 with the same full-size vans that they have sold to the faithful for many years. Although GM is going to be rebadging the Nissan NV200 midsize van as the City Express, no word on if GM will be redesigning its big boys to stay competitive with the only other three players in the segment. The vans come in cargo or passenger iterations, and offer a V6 or two V8s: a 4.8-liter or 5.3-liter. There are two wheelbase lengths, max towing of an impressive 10,000 pounds, and one roof height. The Savana Cargo 1500 starts at $27,205, and can top out over $31,000. The twin vans are built in Wentzville, Missouri.

2014-GMC-Savana-003-medium

Twin sister to the Express, the Savana is for those who don’t like a bow tie badge.

Big vans are a big investment, which is why you don’t see a lot of the smaller-volume manufacturers playing in the segment. The favorites have been established, and it might take a miracle to unseat the champion Ford van. If diehard E-Series owners don’t take to the European-styled Transit, the other three will certainly be happy to take some of that market share off Ford’s hands.

As soon as we get behind the wheel of the Transit, we’ll let you know if that will be possible.