By Homer J. Elmer
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.
By Homer J. Elmer
Once we approached the manufacturers about doing our brand of testing on its products they wholeheartedly agreed. Those of you who buy and use commercial vans already know that the landscape has changed. The traditional low-roof North American box van (think Ford E-series) is under siege from 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. Badged as Ram they started life as Fiat. They too bring diesel powertrain options 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 is a competitor to all the builders mentioned so far. Now Nissan has also offered up a smaller FWD van, the NV200.
Six judges evaluated these vans over two days this fall. 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, then we loaded them with payload and finally replicated downtown deliveries. In total, we drove over 1,600 km while testing.
For payload we used shingles, 3,070 pounds on a single pallet for the full-size vans and 1,040 pounds for the three smaller ones. These were supplied by IKO and loaded at Roof Mart in Brampton, Ont.
The following day we did something rather new to the Challenge. We ran a very small route through a congested downtown area 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 see how well the mirrors were set up, what the sightlines on each vehicle were and to sense how well it steered in tight quarters. Each judge scored each van based on their own observations.
How a vehicle drives and handles is a very subjective process when scoring. Determining fuel economy isn’t. Just like last year (and with our Heavy Duty Challenge) 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. The results are available here. Please keep in mind that these results are as real-world as it gets. The 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. What we have done is tried to break out the fuel numbers for when the vans were empty, loaded and during the low-speed simulated downtown delivery segment.
So who won? The Ford Transit come out on top for the full-size vans while the Nissan NV200 squeaked out a win in the smaller 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.
Ford Transit 250
The Transit was born and raised in Europe and Asia but is now also being built in Kansas City. 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 has now ceased production. Variations on this model 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, a 6.5-inch touchscreen display with navigation and Ford’s Sync wireless connection package with MyFord Touch. Ford suggests that the 1.6L EcoBoost I-4 will get approximately 7.8 L per 100 km gas mileage. 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 louvers and new options like Bi-Xenon headlamps. Along with the body update the V6 BlueTec diesel gets a new base engine partner: the 2.1L I-4 turbodiesel. This engine is said to get a combined fuel rating of 8.9L per 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), the 4WD Sprinter was not available at the time. Maybe next year.
The new ProMaster will cover consumer’s needs with a variety of body styles and weight categories (1,500-, 2,500-, and 3,500-pound) in van, chassis cab and cut-away versions. However, unlike the Mercedes and Ford it is a front-wheel-drive powertrain giving it a lower, flat cargo floor. The two ProMasters we had for testing were both built with the 3.6L Pentastar V6 gas engine. However, the ProMaster is also offered with a three-liter 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.
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 FWD platform lends itself to fleets and individual business functions. 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 also the ProMaster City ⎯ a smaller version of the ProMaster meant to do battle with the Transit Connect and NV200. As for GM, it is offering the NV200 now re-badged as the Chevrolet City Express for its small van market, so this entry would have been redundant. And it still offers its full-size Savana and Express vans. These vans are old-school, and while they have their market I understand why GM didn’t enter them.