Stand by your van

Landscapers have a growing number of service vehicle options to replace heavier, pricier pick-ups.

Automakers are in the midst of launching dozens of new van models at a time when many fleet managers are looking to cut costs by using relatively inexpensive light vehicles instead of multi-axle trucks.

“Vans have just been blown wide open. A few years ago, you had six or seven commercial options, and now you have dozens. There seems to be more models every year,” says George Mayhew, vehicle engineering and development director for telecommunications company Verizon.

New vans on the show floor at this year’s Work Truck Show in Indianapolis included:

  • Chevrolet’s City Express – Launched last year, it competes with Ford’s Transit Connect in the small van market.
  • Ram Promaster City – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) competitor to the Transit Connect and City Express began arriving at dealerships in January, but supplies have been very limited.
  • Ford Transit lineup – Also launched last year, Ford is replacing the aging Econoline series with the high-roofed, more fuel-efficient Transit.
  • Mercedes-Benz Metris – A minivan-sized vehicle announced at the show, Mercedes calls the van the Vito in Europe, but didn’t want to deal with Godfather jokes in the U.S.


More names, more variety.

Officials from the automakers say several trends are leading to the big increase in van options – Ford and Ram are speeding up efforts to bring to the U.S. lighter, more fuel-efficient, European-designed vehicles from their partners overseas. Ford sold about 40,000 Transit Connects in 2013 and 2014, showing that there is a market for small vans, and demand continues to grow from fleet buyers for lower-cost options.

Downsizing cargo vans

OLD VEHICLE: ¾-ton commercial van NEW VEHICLE: Commercial-spec minivan (no side windows, carpeting, or extra seats) COST: approx. $23,000, down from approx. $33,000 LOADED VEHICLE WEIGHT: 5,000 lbs., down from 7,000 lbs. to 7,500 lbs. WEIGHT SAVINGS: 2,000 lbs. to 2,500 lbs.

Ford Commercial Vehicles chief engineer John Davis says that in addition to more brands and names, automakers are offering more variants and options on their vans. Commercial fleet buyers went from having three or four layout options at the beginning of the decade to having several dozen opportunities to customize products for specific tasks.

“When we went from the E-Series van to the Transit, we went from about two dozen combinations of engine, cargo box size, suspension, etc. … to 68 combinations. We have different roof heights, different engines, different transmissions, different load-out options,” Davis says. “Even within product lines, there’s a lot more diversity. And we know that we don’t satisfy all of the vocations with the Transit. That’s why we’re still keeping the E-Series around on the cutaways.”

At Ram, FCA’s commercial and truck division, brand marketing director Becky Blanchard says intense competition for commercial buyers has every automaker revamping its lineup to offer everything from micro-vans suitable for small businesses such as locksmiths, up to giant cutaway vans (unfinished large vans that get sent to upfitters for conversion into ambulances, beverage delivery vehicles, or airport shuttles) for big fleet customers.

“We’re really excited to see how Promaster City does in the market. We’ll know a lot more about what commercial buyers are looking for as we launch these products,” Blanchard says. “There’s a migration out of bigger commercial products, but there’s a migration in as well. Some businesses are growing, and they need more capability, so they’re looking at bigger vehicles. And some people are downsizing from Class 5 or Class 3 products into Promaster and Promaster City vans.”

Landscaper’s special

In hopes of winning more work from landscapers and similar businesses, General Motors is launching a stripped-down version of its Chevrolet Colorado small pickup. By selecting a box-delete option, buyers will get a chassis and cab with no pickup bed, effectively prepping the truck for upfitters to add unique work spaces. GM officials say they expect the option to be particularly popular with landscapers seeking inexpensive flat-bed options to carry mowers and other mobile equipment.

“The Colorado was developed with the upfitter industry in mind,” says Mike Jones, product manager, mid-pickups, CNG, and LPG. “Input from body manufacturers and fleet owners helped us make the most of the optional fuel filler mounting location to suit their unique needs.”

Available since April, the box-delete option, order code ZW9:

  • Comes only with trucks equipped with the 3.6L V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission
  • Includes a $300 credit vs. a pickup with a bed
  • Has a 2,200-lb. payload
  • Has a 6,001-lb. gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)
  • Includes temporary taillamps installed on the rear of the frame
  • Deletes the rear bumper
  • Features eight body mount provisions for adding custom rear ends


Mid-sized option.

While Ford, Ram, and Chevrolet fight for smaller businesses with their compact vans, Mercedes officials say they think the right commercial option for fleet customers is about the same size as consumer minivans. About the only thing separating the Metris from Toyota’s Sienna or Chrysler’s Town and Country are the engine and the rear doors. The Metris features a 2-liter, four-cylinder engine, while minivans tend to have bigger V-6 engines, and in back, it has armoire-style open-out doors instead of the one-piece liftgate favored by family-oriented vans.

Bernhard Glaser, vice president and managing director of Mercedes Vans USA, says company officials considered bringing over the Citan, a van selling in Europe that competes with the Transit Connect and versions of the Promaster City and City Express. But after much deliberation, he and others decided that the mid-sized Metris made more sense.

“In Europe, we have a smaller option, but for North America, we think the larger Metris makes more sense. The smaller vans are often too small for commercial purposes,” Glaser explains.

He adds that Mercedes’ Sprinter line – vehicles that compete directly with Transit – has helped the company grow its commercial business in North America. Having established itself as a player in the bigger end of the commercial van world, Glaser says Mercedes is inching its way down with a mid-sized offering, rather than jumping all the way to compacts. 


Robert Schoenberger is editor of Today’s Motor Vehicles, a sister publication of Lawn & Landscape. Email him at

October 2015
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