The name on the giant banners says it’s the NTEA, the Association for the Work Truck Industry, Work Truck Show, but much of the buzz in Indianapolis this year was vans. Automakers are in the midst of launching dozens of new van models at a time when many fleet managers are looking to cut costs by using relatively inexpensive light vehicles instead of multi-axle trucks.
“Vans have just been blown wide open. A few years ago, you had six or seven commercial options, and now you have dozens. There seems to be more models every year,” says George Mayhew, vehicle engineering and development director for Verizon.
New vans on the show floor included:
- Chevrolet’s City Express – Launched last year, it competes with Ford’s Transit Connect in the small van market.
- Ram Promaster City – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) competitor to the Transit Connect and City Express began arriving at dealerships in January, but supplies have been very limited.
- Ford Transit lineup – Also launched last year, Ford is replacing the aging Econoline series with the high-roofed, more fuel-efficient Transit.
- Mercedes-Benz Metris – A minivan-sized vehicle announced at the show, Mercedes calls the van the Vito in Europe but didn’t want to deal with Godfather jokes in the U.S.
More names, more variety
Officials from automakers say several trends are leading to the big increase in van options – Ford and Ram are bringing to the U.S. lighter, more fuel-efficient, European designed vehicles from their partners overseas.
Ford sold about 40,000 Transit Connects in 2013 and 2014, showing that there is a market for small vans, and demand continues to grow from fleet buyers for lower-cost options.
Ford Commercial Vehicles chief engineer John Davis says that in addition to more brands and names, automakers are offering more variants and options on their vans. Commercial fleet buyers went from having three or four layout options at the beginning of the decade to having several dozen opportunities to customize products for specific tasks.
“When we went from the E-Series van to the Transit, we went from about two dozen combinations of engine, cargo box size, suspension, etc… to 68 combinations. We have different roof heights, different engines, different transmissions, different load-out options,” Davis says. “Even within product lines, there’s a lot more diversity. And we know that we don’t satisfy all of the vocations with the Transit. That’s why we’re still keeping the E-Series around on the cutaways.”
At Ram, FCA’s commercial and truck division, brand marketing director Becky Blanchard says intense competition for commercial buyers has every automaker revamping its lineup to offer everything from micro-vans suitable for small businesses such as locksmiths, up to giant cutaway vans (unfinished large vans that get sent to upfitters for conversion into ambulances, beverage delivery vehicles, or airport shuttles) for big fleet customers.
“We’re really excited to see how Promaster City does in the market. We’ll know a lot more about what commercial buyers are looking for as we launch these products,” Blanchard says. “There’s a migration out of bigger commercial products, but there’s a migration in as well. Some businesses are growing, and they need more capability, so they’re looking at bigger vehicles. And some people are downsizing from Class 5 or Class 3 products into Promaster and Promaster City vans.”
While Ford, Ram, and Chevrolet fight for smaller businesses with their compact vans, Mercedes officials say they think the right commercial option for fleet customers is about the same size as consumer minivans. About the only thing separating the Metris from Toyota’s Sienna or Chrysler’s Town and Country are the engine and the rear doors. The Metris features a 2L four-cylinder engine, while minivans tend to have bigger V-6 engines, and in back, it has armoire-style open-out doors instead of the one-piece liftgate favored by family-oriented vans.
Bernhard Glaser, vice president and managing director of Mercedes Vans USA, says company officials considered bringing the Citan to the U.S., a van selling in Europe that competes with the Transit Connect and versions of the Promaster City and City Express. But after much deliberation, he and others decided that the mid-sized Metris made more sense.
“In Europe, we have a smaller option, but for North America, we think the larger Metris makes more sense. The smaller vans are often too small for commercial purposes,” Glaser explains.
He adds that Mercedes’ Sprinter line – vehicles that compete directly with Transit – has helped the company grow its commercial business in North America. Having established itself as a player in the bigger end of the commercial van world, Glaser says Mercedes is inching its way down with a mid-sized offering, rather than jumping all the way to compacts.
In conjunction with The Work Truck Show, the Green Truck Summit offered visitors in Indianapolis a look at electric, natural-gas powered, hybrid, and other fuel-saving options for trucks. Despite low gas prices, several companies say demand for greener trucks continues to grow as companies put forward environmentally friendly images and fleet buyers look to control costs they can.
Brad Dahl, operations manager of Dixon, California-based utility vehicles company Altec Industries, says, “Our industry is all custom orders, so it’s a delayed movement from things going on in the market to changes in demand. We’re working on products that were ordered when gas prices were a lot higher. And so far, we aren’t seeing anything change. People know that fuel prices are going to fluctuate, but if you’re using an alternative power source or a fuel-saving system, that’s going to save you money in the long run.”
John Davis, chief engineer for Ford Commercial Vehicles, says truck buyers aren’t willing to swap power for fuel economy, so truck makers have had to find ways of giving both. The chief tactic is lowering vehicle weight so the engine doesn’t have to work as hard. After launching an aluminum-bodied F-150 light pickup last year, Davis says Ford is working on F-Series Super Duty commercial trucks using lighter-weight aluminum bodies.
“We’re going to give those weight savings back to the customer in capability,” Davis says. “Just like with the F-150, it’s going to be partially about fuel economy, but it’s also going to be carrying capacity, towing capacity, and power.”
Downsizing to save money
Whether going from a Class 5 utility truck to a large full-sized van, or jumping down to the compact segment, Verizon’s Mayhew says the driving motivation is lower costs.
Mayhew says that Verizon was able to replace heavy-duty large vans with a stripped-down version of Dodge’s Caravan minivan, saving thousands of dollars on purchase costs, getting better fuel economy in the field, and maintaining less inventory in vehicles.
There was a tradeoff – less space. Line workers used to throw every tool or supply that might possibly be needed in the field in the larger vans. With the smaller ones, fleet managers and mobile employees need to pack only what they’ll need.
“We went from having a sort of universal tool to vans we can only use for certain jobs. We can’t do that with the entire fleet, but we can have some single-purpose vans,” Mayhew says. “The cost savings up front and operationally were immediate.”
The Work Truck Show
Ford Commercial Vehicles
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles – Ram Trucks
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at 216.393.0271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.