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2011 Nissan NV (Nissan)
2011 Nissan NV (Nissan)

Driving It Home

Commercial vans: A new threat to Ford and GM emerges Add to ...

I cannot think of any vehicle I detest more than those van conversions we endure when riding from hotels to airport terminals. Noisy, bouncy, smelly, crude, uncomfortable in every way and surely unsafe at highway speeds. I hate riding in them and feel a wave of terror mixed with nausea every time I climb aboard one of these monstrosities.

But this sort of van conversion makes money for auto manufacturers – especially Ford and General Motors – and those companies in the conversion business, also.

Full-size commercial vans in general are a big cash generator for Ford and GM in particular. In Canada, the numbers are massive: 49 per cent market share for GM, 43 per cent for Ford. Daimler’s Sprinter van has a paltry 1.0 per cent of the market. A few minor players get the rest.

Ford and GM have done almost nothing to service this market in decades. They’ve let their commercial vans and commercial van platforms get old and outdated and the result is a horribly unpleasant experience for anyone who uses these vehicles – from airport commuters to plumbers, and carpenter, and tradespeople of all sorts and, of course, logistics companies and so on and so forth.

Not surprisingly, rival auto companies smell opportunity. Most recently, the Chrysler Group said it will expand its plant in Saltillo, Mexico, to assemble a Ram-branded version of the Fiat Ducato commercial van for North America. Look for this to arrive in 2013, according to a report in Automotive News.

Late last year, Nissan launched its own all-new commercial van in Canada, the NV ($30,998-$39,668). Like Daimler’s Sprinter, it competes against the Ford E150/250/350 Econoline, Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana, Freightliner Sprinter and even to some extent Ford’s Transit Connect.

The NV may not be pretty, but it is exceedingly functional, decently powerful AND fuel efficient, quite comfortable and hugely flexible. You want a delivery van? No problem. A spacious mobile workplace? Sure thing. Versions are sold with more than six-feet of headroom. Camper van conversion? Completely possible. Airport transporter? Of course.

The NV has a lower starting price than the Sprinter ($42,000), which is why Nissan expects the NV to trump the Daimler entry here. Last year Mercedes-Benz sold about 2,500 Sprinters in Canada, but Nissan has designs on sales of at least three times that.

For its part, Mercedes positions its Sprinter as something of a “premium” entry. Premium includes an advantage in ownership costs, argues Mercedes-Benz Canada.

Last year, the Merc types – sensing the new Nissan competition - shared the results of a study which argues the Sprinter has the lowest cost of ownership in its class. The calculations were based on an average driving distance of 25,000 kilometres per year for five years, and measured eight major costs associated with owning a vehicle: depreciation, fees and taxes, financing, fuel, insurance, maintenance, opportunity cost, and repairs.

“The study concluded that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter offers a total cost of ownership that is 7.7 per cent to 9.1 per cent lower than its competitors,” notes Mercedes, adding, “This translates into a savings of approximately $6,000 - $7,000 over a five year period.” Low fuel costs and longer maintenance intervals were key in lowering the Sprinter’s ownership costs.

“Buyers often think they are saving money because they pay less at the dealership, but as we saw with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, a higher priced vehicle can provide significant savings when buyers look at the total cost of owning a vehicle,” said Vincentric president David Wurster.

These developments should alarm Ford and GM, both of which have thoroughly ignored and completely disrespected commercial van customers for years, no decades. Once customers and users experience something better than those rattle-trap airporters I hate so much, they’ll move along to the new, new thing from Sprinter, Nissan and soon Ram. Once that business is lost, Ford and GM will have a tough time winning it back.

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