Many firms have tried to build a better mousetrap, but few have truly endeavored to develop a better full-size cargo van. Today's two best-selling designs -- The Ford E-Series and Chevrolet Express -- can be dated to the late 1990s, and adhere to a design ethic established in the early 1970s.
For large fleets, which simply seek the cheapest means to schlep cargo from point to point, that's no problem, but small business owners, contractors, and entrepreneurs are left seeking a capable, comfortable vehicle that caters to their industry. Lucky for them, the 2012 Nissan NV offers exactly that.
What Workers Want
Nissan's feet-first jump into the commercial van business may appear to originate from left field, but it's actually a very calculated move. In fact, the idea behind these particular NV models -- Nissan's first commercial vans for North America -- was born almost six years ago.
Although the E-Series and Express have large, loyal fleet followings (Mercedes-Benz's costly Sprinter is, admittedly, a niche player in this market), the automaker sought to target independent contractors and small businesses -- people who may, on occasion, use their vehicle as something more than transport to a job site. A logical business case, as the automaker says these buyers lay claim to nearly 3.5 million vehicles in the U.S. alone.
So, what were they looking for? A pickup. Mike Hobson, Nissan's North American director of LCV and fleet vehicles, says van sales dropped earlier this decade largely because traditional van customers were switching to pickups, thanks in part to their comfort, available comfort, and drivability. The ideal vehicle, Nissan believes, combines the best of those two worlds.
Standing on the Shoulders of Titans
Beneath the skin, the pickup influence is apparent. The fully boxed ladder frame is based upon the F-Alpha frame used in the full-size Titan pickup, but the two aren't interchangeable. The NV's frame rails are flat, allowing for a low, level load floor. A new recirculating ball steering rack, redesigned rear leaf springs, enlarged front spindles, and enlarged brakes are designed to cope with extra payload.
Unlike the Titan, however, the NV is offered in three different weight classes. The entry-level NV1500 can handle payloads up to 2590 pounds, while the heavy-duty NV2500 and NV3500 models can lug up to 3142 and 3925 pounds, respectively.Regardless of the model, all NVs ride upon a 146.1-inch wheelbase and measure 240.6 inches in length. NV1500 models are available only with the standard 84-inch roof height, which provides 234.1 cubic feet of cargo room. The 2500 and 3500 models, however, are optional with a Sprinter-like high roof, which measures 105 inches tall, and boosts volume to 323.1 cubic feet.
Those familiar with Nissan's pickup models will likely recognize the NV's engine offerings. NV1500 and 2500 models come standard with a 261-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6, derived from Nissan's venerable VQ engine family. Optional in the 2500 range and standard on NV3500 models is a 5.6-liter V-8, shared with the Titan and Armada SUV. Regardless of the cylinder count, all NV models send their power to the rear axle via a five-speed automatic transmission.
Different By Design
The NV's pickup roots may be evident upon first glance. Unlike other vans, which traditionally have a cab-forward stance, the NV sports a long, truck-like snout. An unusual tactic, but it does allow Nissan to keep the engine from entering the cabin, which improves both passenger space and routine maintenance.
Commercial clients, however, will be more interested in the attention to detail exhibited throughout the NV's cargo area. A standard step bumper, along with a large doorway-mounted grab handle, help when climbing up through the rear doors -- which, if need be, can open nearly 243 degrees. There's nearly 54 inches of space between the rear wheelwells -- more than enough to accommodate a standard pallet or a sheet of drywall -- and six D-ring tie-downs integrated into the floor are capable of holding up to 1100 pounds.
Owners looking to install interior cargo racks will appreciate the NV's slab-sided design, which allows shelving to be installed without eating into additional cargo room. Better yet, Nissan's provided a number of reinforced mounting points alongside the interior walls, which allow racks, shelving, and other equipment to be installed without drilling through sheetmetal. Cargo area lighting is standard, and accessory power outlets -- including a 120-volt, 400-watt power point in the rear cargo area -- are optional.
Those wondering if it's possible to convert the NV into a pseudo shuttle bus may wish to wait until later this year, when Nissan plans on rolling out a bona fide passenger variant. Officials say the NV-based people mover will be offered only in a standard roof form, and will be able to comfortably seat 12.
Don't Forget The Driver
Cargo may seem to be king, but Nissan hasn't forgotten about the driver's needs. By eliminating the typical engine doghouse cover, the NV provides expansive legroom to both driver and passenger. A number of storage cubbies scattered throughout the interior (including pull-out underseat bins on 2500 and 3500 models) offer plenty of room for clipboards, notebooks, and other personal items. Bucket seats, trimmed in a waterproof, stain-resistant fabric, are nicely bolstered and quite comfortable -- perfect for spending long hours behind the wheel.
SV-trim models offer even more amenities, including power windows and locks, an eight-way power driver's seat, a rear parking sensor, a security system, chrome exterior trim, remote keyless entry, and cruise control. If that isn't enough, SV models are also available with a technology package, which adds navigation, a rear-view camera, XM Satellite Radio, a USB audio input, and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is the NV's demeanor over the road. Lest you gaze rearwards into the expansive cargo hold, it's easy to mistake the NV as just another full-size SUV. Unladen, the NV drives much like the Titan, albeit with slightly stiffer springs. Despite its upright stature, the van feels surefooted in crosswinds -- even in high-roof form.
Both V-6 and V-8 models are peppy off the line, but we'd opt for the V-8 if you plan on regularly hauling hefty loads or ordering the high-roof model. Not only does this engine have plenty of power to spare, but it's also able to tow nearly 9500 pounds, provided it's paired with an available class IV hitch receiver.
Priced to Please
Despite outpacing its rivals in terms of refinement and content, the NV manages to undercut both the E-Series and Express when it comes to the MSRP. List price for a standard roof NV1500 with the V-6 comes in at $25,570 with destination, almost $300 less than a comparable six-cylinder Chevrolet. Better yet, every buyer will be able to add up to 70 square feet of custom vinyl graphics or a basic interior shelving package from Adrian Steel at no additional cost.
It's unlikely that companies already loyal to Ford or GM vans will cast aside their fleets and parts supply in favor of an all-new design, but the NV's packaging, pricing, and performance will certainly woo -- if not convince -- those who actively use vans for their daily business.