What You Should Know Before Buying Vans
With U.S. consumers (and manufacturers) coasting along for some twenty years with a domestic van fleet sorely in need of a shakeup, Mercedes-Benz introduced its Sprinter to a commercial and civilian audience absolutely screaming for a van that didn’t remind them of bell bottoms and Watergate. That was roughly a decade ago, and it took Ford and Chrysler about that long to wake up to the potential of a van, either cargo or passenger, designed in this century. The result was Ford’s adoption of its European Transit for U.S. production, sales and distribution, while FCA’s Ram is building the Promaster, a domestic take on Fiat’s commercial-oriented Ducato. The new Transit, in any of its dozens of variants, is more dynamic, more capable and more efficient than the Econoline it replaces. And Ram’s Promaster, with a front-wheel drivetrain, affords the commercial user or your 5-year old easy access (via a lower step-n height) to both the front seat and the cargo area behind it. GM has yet to get on the new van bandwagon, but it’s only a matter of time before its Chevy and GMC offerings are aggressively redesigned. Shag rugs might still come back, but for vans first designed in the ‘70s? Their time is up.
Exterior – Until very recently there were no designs newer than a Reagan bumper sticker. As noted above, the introduction of the Mercedes Sprinter to the U.S. market upended the market. Suddenly, design, comfort and efficiency could be combined in a two-box design more than faintly reminiscent of this century and not – notably – the last century. Much more recently, Nissan’s Titan-based NV, Ford’s Transit and Ram’s Promaster are set to upend both the commercial and passenger ends of the marketplace, with (available) stand-up headroom for your plumber, electrician or the plumber and electrician trying to catch a ride to the airport. And in much the same way as the Mercedes entry has revolutionized the RV market, so will the NV, Transit and Ram.
Interior – If a typical SUV is analogous to Boeing’s 737, the full-size commercial or passenger van can best be likened to an Airbus. These commercial-based vans are the epitome of ‘roomy’, whether offered in standard spec or with a raised roof, and with either a typically barebones interior ready for commercial outfitters or with super seating appropriate to a SuperShuttle. And while, given their lower production volumes and less emphasis on passengers, technology isn’t on option menus in the same way it is for more mainstream product, tech, too, will be more readily available with each product refresh.
Powertrains – Within the older domestic offerings, gas-swilling V8s were the order of the day. Thankfully, only GM and Nissan’s NV continue to offer lots of cylinders burning lots of gas, while their competition – both domestic and foreign – have moved to fewer cylinders and, increasingly, diesel power. Invariably the platforms are rear-wheel drive, occasionally all-wheel drive and very occasionally (Ram Promaster) front-wheel drive.
Safety – ‘Large’ invariably feels safer than ‘small’, and if you’re driving or riding in a van designed in this century and not the last, you could reasonably consider it safe for human consumption. With that, know that commercial vehicles – of which these are based – are not subject to the same crash standards as passenger vehicles, those with raised roofs have a higher center of gravity, and where you might typically find a vehicle’s interior surrounded by airbags, they only recently have made an appearance within commercial vans, regardless of its cargo or passenger intent. The good news: those vans recently brought to market, such as the Ram Promaster, offer an expanded menu of safety items (above and beyond the front and side curtain airbag) including traction control, electronic roll mitigation, seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain front airbags. So, if you’re currently piloting a ’71 Econoline with shag carpet and little else, it might be time to trade up.
Technology – Led by their commercial clients, full-size vans are increasingly incorporating the needs of a home office into their home-on-wheels platforms. Ford’s passenger Transit offers – as an option – Ford’s SYNC, an audio upgrade (one of several) to SiriusXM, and a lane-keeping alert, while Mercedes incorporates electronic brake force distribution and crosswind assist in its standard menu, and offers blind spot assist, lane keeping assist and Parktronic (assists with collision warning in small, tight confines) among its many Sprinter options.
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