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Commercial vans go head to head

Ready to upgrade your hard-working van? The 2015 Canadian Truck King Challenge (Van Division)


May 11, 2015
By Howard J. Elmer

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The Ford Transit came out on top for the full-size vans.

The Canadian Truck King Challenge has concerned itself with real-world pickup truck testing since 2006 – and still does.

The Canadian Truck King Challenge has concerned itself with real-world pickup truck testing since 2006 – and still does. However, over the past few years, a one-of-a-kind metamorphosis has taken place in the commercial van market in Canada: one that simply had to be investigated more closely. 

Once we at the Challenge approached the manufacturers about doing our brand of testing on its products, they wholeheartedly agreed.

Now, for those folks who buy and use commercial vans, you already know that the landscape has changed. For almost everyone else, let me just say that what has happened to the traditional low-roof North American box van (think Ford E-series) is a European invasion. Starting with Mercedes Benz, several years ago, we saw the arrival of the Sprinter with its distinctive high-roof and diesel engine. What followed was Ford product, designed and built in Europe – the smaller Transit Connect and now the full-size Transit. Quick on the heels of these two are the ProMaster vans. Now labelled as Rams, they started life as Fiats. They too bring a diesel powertrain as well as gas and a unique front-wheel-drive design.

From the other side of the globe, Nissan brought a built-in North America van: the NV.  Gas powered and with various roof heights, it’s a competitor to all the builders mentioned so far. Now Nissan has also offered up a smaller front-wheel drive van: the NV200. 

Six judges evaluated these vans over two days in the fall of 2014. Each of these judges is an automotive journalist, a member of Automobile Journalists Association of Canada and someone who spends a substantial portion of their working year evaluating trucks, vans and vehicles that work for a living. But, that pedigree alone is not enough (as anyone who follows the Challenge knows). We drove the vans empty to start with; we loaded them with payload; and, finally, we replicated downtown deliveries.

In total we drove over 1,600 km while testing.

For payload we used shingles: 3,070 lb. on a single pallet for the full-size vans and 1,040 lb. for the three smaller ones. These were supplied by IKO and loaded at Roof Mart in Brampton.  

The following day we did something rather new to the Challenge. We ran a very small route through the congested downtown that took in laneways, parking lots and alleys. And, we spent a bit of time with each van backing into narrow docks. This exercise was to determine how well the mirrors were set up, to see what the sightlines on each vehicle were and to sense how well it steered in tight quarters. The judges scored each van based on their own observations.

Although judging how a vehicle drives and handles is a very subjective process when scoring, determining fuel economy isn’t. We engaged a Kitchener company, MyCarma, to install electronic data readers in each of the vans to record fuel consumption over the two-day test period (see the sidebar “Fuel consumption analysis data”). Please keep in mind that these results are as “real-world” as it gets. The data readers run constantly and the results are a blend of the driving styles of all six judges who circulate through the vans on a rotating basis. We tried to break out the fuel numbers for when the vans were empty, when they were loaded and when they were doing the low-speed simulated downtown delivery segment.   

So, who won? The Ford Transit came out on top for the full-size vans and the Nissan NV200 squeaked out a win in the mid-size category.

And how did that happen? The story is in the details. Please have a look at who our competitors were and how the judges scored them – that’s where the story lies.

  
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Who were our competitors?

Ford Transit 250
The Transit was born and raised in Europe and Asia but is now also being built in Kansas City, Mo. It’s a typical front-engine, rear-wheel drive configuration. Ford says the Transit will average 25 per cent better fuel economy than the current E-series, which is no longer produced. Variations of this include three body lengths; two wheelbases; three roof heights; and bodies that include van, wagon, chassis cab and cutaway variations. Each engine is paired with an automatic six-speed transmission.

Ford Transit Connect
This small van, introduced in 2009, really started the trickle that has become a flood of new van product here in Canada. Late last year the Transit Connect got a nice makeover, taking it into this model year. It got two new engines, a tow package, two wheelbases and new trims. Order it with second-row seating, a rear-view camera, 6.5-inch touch screen display with navigation, and SYNC with MyFord Touch. Ford suggests that the 1.6L EcoBoost I-4 will get in the 7.8 L/100 km range.

We had both an EcoBoost and a naturally aspired engine to test.

Mercedes Benz Sprinter
This year Sprinter has an updated body that features a higher nose, larger grille louvres, and new options such as Bi-Xenon headlamps. Along with the body update, the V6 BlueTec diesel gets a new base engine partner – the 2.1 L I-4 turbodiesel. This engine is said to get a combined fuel rating of 8.9 L/100 km.

Mercedes has also added five new assistance systems to the Sprinter to help drivers avoid accidents.

Last, but most interesting, a four-wheel-drive option is now available on these vans. While I have driven one after our event (and it worked very well); one was not available to test this time around. Maybe next year.

Ram ProMaster
The new ProMaster will cover consumers’ needs with a variety of body styles and weight categories (1500, 2500 and 3500) in van, chassis cab and cut-away versions. Unlike the Mercedes and Ford, however, it is a front-wheel-drive powertrain that gives it a lower, flat cargo floor.

The two ProMasters we had for testing were both built with the 3.6 L Pentastar V6 gas engine. However, the ProMaster is also offered with a 3L I4 EcoDiesel, which was not available at the time of testing. That falls into the “too bad” category because we were very curious to see how it stacked up to Ford and Mercedes. Again, maybe next year.

Nissan NV200

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The Nissan NV200 squeaked out a win in the mid-size category.


 

The NV200 is going up against the Ford Transit Connect and the coming ProMaster City.  Unlike the others, it has already scored a market by being named the preferred taxi of New York City. Its small front-wheel-drive platform lends itself to fleets and individual business functions and its low pricing is certainly an advantage.

These were our competitors. A very nice field; however, there were a couple of vehicles missing for one reason or another. These were the full-size Nissan NV, the diesel-engine  ProMaster and the ProMaster City, a smaller version of the ProMaster meant to do battle with the Transit Connect and NV200.

As for GM, they are offering the NV200 – now relabelled as the Chevrolet City Express for its small van market. This entry would have been redundant. GM still offers its full-size Savana and Express vans.

These vans old-school vans have their market, but I understand why GM didn’t enter them.