When General Motors cancelled its popular Astro and Safari cargo vans back in 2005, few contractors expected to wait 10 years for a replacement and nobody would have expected that replacement to come from Mercedes-Benz.
But the company’s new mid-sized Metris van seems to be aimed squarely at the service contractor working in busy metropolitan areas, the same market that has been nursing their existing GM mid-size models along or making do with newer vans that are either too small or too large.
The cargo van market tends to see steady evolution rather than a lot of new models. In recent years it has been busier than usual with the introduction of various European style vans.
Return of the mid-sized van
The new Mercedes Metris was announced in March and became available in October.
Designed from the ground up as a cargo van, the power-train layout is conventional, to Canadian contractors, with rear-wheel-drive and a seven-speed automatic transmission. A 208 horsepower four-cylinder turbo-charged gas engine provides the urge.
A 25,000 km maintenance (oil change) interval should keep operating costs relatively low. It should be noted, however, that Mercedes recommends 91 octane (high test) for better performance and fuel economy.
The Metris has over twice the payload and about 40 percent more cargo volume than the small vans currently on the market. The cargo bed length is 283 cm (9’3”) with a width of 168 cm (5’6”), so plywood can be stacked flat if need be. The interior height is 137 cm (4’6”).
Payload is 1,135 kg (2,500 lbs.) and towing capacity is 2,250 kg (4,960 lbs.)
The Metris features the traditional configuration of barn-style rear doors and a sliding side door on the passenger side.
The van includes all the electronics that have become almost commonplace including Bluetooth and iPod interface, etc. A rearview camera and navigation system is optional.
Standard safety features include Mercedes’ Attention Assist and Crosswind Assist. Attention assist is aimed at driver fatigue. Sensors monitor driver behavior and, upon detecting signs of tiredness, remind the driver to take a break.
An optional cold weather package includes heated seats and an auxiliary electric heater.
After a major upgrade in 2014 and the introduction of the four-wheel-drive model in 2015, the Mercedes Sprinter offers relatively few changes for 2016.
A 93-litre fuel tank is now standard and, for the four-wheel-drive models, ZG3 all-wheel-drive with low range, which improves slow speed performance on rough terrain, is also standard.
Ford’s Euro-style van
The European styled full-size Ford Transit van has proven popular since Ford introduced it in 2014. It may look European but Ford emphasizes that it is made at its Kansas City plant. The factory churned out over 100,000 of them for the North American market in 2015.
It returns for 2016 in two wheelbases, three roof heights and 58 different configurations in total, up from 47 in 2015. This type of flexibility allows contractors to tailor the Transit for their needs.
Dual sliding doors are now available, an option probably more popular with delivery drivers than mechanical contractors. Rear barn-style doors open up to 237 degrees.
Electronics become even more sophisticated for 2016. Ford’s new SYNC 3 communication system features faster performance, better voice recognition, a more intuitive smartphone-like touch screen and easier to understand graphics. A rearview camera is now standard.
The standard engine is a 3.7-litre V-6. There is also a 3.5-litre five-cylinder Power Stroke turbo diesel and 3.5 –litre EcoBoost gas engine that provides a stump-pulling 400 ft. lbs. of torque.
All engines operate through a six-speed automatic transmission and rear wheel drive. Rack and pinion steering provides a car-like driving experience.
Ford continues to refine its second-generation Transit Connect small van. It is available in two wheelbases, has a 1,620 lb. payload and can tow as much as 2,000 lbs.
The standard engine is the 2.5 litre Duratec four cylinder that delivers 29 mpg on the highway. A 1.6-litre EcoBoost engine delivers 30 mpg.
Sophisticated electronics and a rear view camera are optional on the Transit Connect. The Ford Telematics system allows a centralized dispatcher to monitor several vehicles in real time.
Back in the market
Chrysler re-entered the commercial cargo van market in a big way with its full-sized ProMaster van in 2014 and smaller ProMaster City van in 2015.
Most of the changes for 2016 are aimed at the passenger or RV upfitter market – things like more windows, 20-amp auxiliary switches on the instrument panel and a second battery package.
The ProMaster is available in two roof heights, three wheelbases and four body lengths, along with chassis cab and cutaway versions.
Payload capacity, depending on model, is up to 5,160 lbs. and the towing capacity is up to 5,100 lbs.
The standard engine is a 3.6 litre Pentastar V-6, rated at 280 horsepower with 260 ft. lbs. of torque. Also available is the three-litre four-cylinder EcoDiesel 1-4, rated at 174 horsepower and – this is key for pulling power – 295 ft. lbs. of torque. The V-6 operates though a six-speed automatic while the four uses an electronically controlled “six-speed automated manual” transmission. And unlike other vehicles in this category, the ProMaster features front-wheel-drive.
That feature, along with vertical sidewalls, makes the ProMaster extremely easy to upfit and customize to the contractor’s needs. With no driveshaft or rear differential, the floor is lower. Front wheel drive also allows a tighter turning radius.
Introduced last year, the 2016 ProMaster City small van returns with minor upgrades, including better all-season tires and standard Bluetooth.
Power is provided by Chrysler’s 2.4-litre four-cylinder Tigershark I-4 engine, which produces 178 horsepower and 174 ft. lbs. of torque. This is mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission for 29 mpg on the highway and 21 around town.
Payload is 1,883 lbs. and cargo volume is 131.7 sq. ft. Vertical sides aid the installation of shelving but, like a lot of small vans, sliding doors on both sides can prove a hindrance. A cargo floor length of 87.2 inches is just a little too short to lay a 4×8 sheet of plywood flat. Rear barn style doors are split 60/40, with the larger door on the driver’s side.
Both vans are available with Chrysler’s U-connect electronic system that includes Bluetooth, GPS navigation, and Internet access.
A traditional approach
Despite the proliferation of Euro-style vans, a visit to any job site shows that contractors still have a high comfort level with the traditional cargo van. General Motors will continue to offer its long running Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana for 2016.
Upgraded electronics and Internet options, single pane mirrors, six D-ring tie-downs and a dual isolated battery system are all new for 2016. Also new is a navigation radio with GM IntelliLink “infotainment system.”
The new OnStar 4G LTE system provides a mobile hub for the driver and passenger to connect to the Internet, effectively making the van a Wi-Fi hotspot.
GM full-size vans are available in standard and long wheelbase versions. The standard engine is a 4.8 litre V-8, with an optional six-litre version. Also available is the 6.6-litre turbo diesel. All operate through a six-speed automatic transmission. A locking differential is also available.
A crew cargo van package expands seating to five for contractors that need to travel with a larger crew.
The Chevrolet City Express is also back for 2015. It is produced for GM by Nissan and is based on the Nissan NV200 small cargo van. It offers 122 sq. ft. of cargo space and a payload of 1,500 lbs. A two-litre 131 hp four-cylinder engine drives the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission.
The cargo area offers 6’10” from the rear door to the seats and 4’6” between sidewalls. Rear doors are split 40/60 with the larger door on the curb side. Both open 90 and 180 degrees. There are sliding doors on both sides.
Nissan is a relatively new player in the cargo van market but it’s NV 1500, 2500, 3500 full-sized vans and it’s NV200 small van have become common sights on Canadian job sites.
The large NV van will continue in 2016 with few changes from 2015. For contractors that want to stand out amidst a sea of white vans, the NV is now available in red.
The large NV rear-wheel-drive cargo vans are offered with either a 261 hp 4.0 litre V-6 or a 317 hp V-8, both operating through a five-speed automatic transmission. Rear doors are split 50/50 and open 243 degrees for easy loading. There are numerous interior and exterior mounting points to make upfitting easy. Standard and high roof versions are available.
The specifications for the small NV 200 cargo are basically the same as the Chevrolet City Express, above.
The cargo van market has changed dramatically in recent years with multiple players offering large and small vans. But in the mechanical contracting industry many contractors still struggled between too big and too small. The new mid-size van from Mercedes may go a long way to solving that problem. Other manufacturers are likely to be watching carefully.