For generations, the commercial cargo van has been an icon of hard-working men and women across the country and around the world. These are the folks who build and renovate and repair, do the demolition work and the big clean-ups, drill and dig and excavate, deliver the goods, and provide the services that keep the global economy humming. The qualities they look for in a van have always included ruggedness, durability, reliability, power, and cargo capacity.
Those attributes are still important to them. But in today's technology-enabled, always-connected business environment, they're now demanding more. The commercial van isn't just a work vehicle anymore. Or, put another way, it's no longer only about the cargo area; today's vehicles have to offer a bumper-to-bumper suite of capabilities that meet a long list of business needs.
The good news is that the auto industry has responded with what Work Truck magazine describes as "an onset of new-model configurations" that give more choices and upfitting options to businesses looking for vehicles that are truly do-it-all technological marvels. Nissan's NV Cargo van lineup, for example, includes an extensive selection of models and trim lines ranging from the NV200 Compact Cargo van up to the NV3500 HD SL. The NV line offers a variety of height, weight, cargo capacity, and power train options, but all leave the factory with the essential infrastructure needed to function as a mobile office already installed.
The key to finding the best commercial van for any business is to start with the basics, says Barbara Fulkerson, owner of Louisville, Kentucky-based Action Truck and Body Equipment, a long-time upfitter and supplier of specialized truck and van equipment. Important items to consider include:
- Size, both interior and exterior. It makes sense that vans with more interior space are larger on the outside, so there is generally a trade-off between maneuverability and payload. For example, a Nissan NV200 Compact Cargo van has a total interior volume of a little more than 178 cubic feet (about 123 cubic feet of cargo space), but its smaller size gives it a turning diameter of 36.7 feet, making it highly maneuverable in tight spaces. The NV3500 High Roof Cargo van has a turning diameter of 45.2 feet but boasts a cavernous 420.5 cubic feet of interior volume (more than 323 cubic feet of cargo space), making it a good choice where maximum payload is an important consideration.
- Cost, including upfits. It's important to factor in not only the base cost of the van and the upfitting, but any dealer incentives or special deals that might be offered. Look for complimentary upfit incentives from the manufacturer. Bundled upgrade packages--some targeting specific trades, such as electrical or HVAC contractors--can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
- Power train. The trade-off here is usually between horsepower/torque and fuel efficiency, but advances in engine and transmission technology are making it easier to get the power you need with reasonable gas mileage. For example, the 24-valve, 4.0-liter V6 engine in Nissan NV1500 and NV2500 Cargo vans uses an advanced, continuously variable, valve timing control system that delivers 261 horsepower and 281 lb.-ft. of torque with optimum fuel efficiency.
- Quality and durability. Most manufacturers promise those things, but pay close attention to how they back up their promises. Nissan put the NV line through brutal rounds of quality and durability testing--more than 535,000 miles and 6,600 quality and durability tests. The process simulates years of exposure to corrosion-causing elements like salt and heat, and suspension and body components are subject to pounding from being driven over teeth-rattling potholes, dips, and 4 x 4 beams. Special chambers where the heat gets cranked up to 140 degrees and the humidity to 95 percent are used to break down seals and age interiors. Nissan has machines that can simulate nearly any road in the world, and it runs NV Cargo vans on them for 12 hours, 24 hours, and even more. The vans have performed so well through repeated rounds of torturous testing that Nissan is backing them with America's best commercial van warranty--bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Picking the right commercial van to meet your business needs is the most important part of the buying process, but it's not the only part. The upfitting process is the other half of the equation. When Work Truck magazine polled experienced upfitters and fleet managers on this topic, they offered a number of tips on how to make sure you optimize your upfitting investment:
- Involve the end-users. That means taking into consideration everyone who will be driving the van and how they will be using it. Make sure your upfit can accommodate all the tools, equipment, material, parts, and inventory for every type of job for which the van will be used.
- Don't get stuck in a rut. If your new van is a replacement vehicle or an addition to an existing fleet, don't automatically assume that past upfits are still the way to go. How has your business changed recently? Are you or your employees doing more paperwork or customer contact from the van? Make sure your upfit plan meets your growing technology and business needs.
- Communicate with your upfitter. Be specific about your current needs and how they might change in the future. Your upfitter represents a valuable knowledge base and can recommend products and designs that best match your business needs.
- Take advantage of OEM offerings to the greatest extent possible. Start with a commercial van that has the most of what you need in terms of payload, accessibility, cockpit design, and technology and also offers the most flexibility when it comes to upfitting. Keep in mind that OEM upgrade packages are specifically designed to work best with that vehicle and often provide significant savings.
Brian Braudis, an auto industry veteran, leadership expert, and president of The Braudis Group, a Philadelphia-based consultancy, advises taking advantage of all the manufacturer has to offer during both the vehicle selection and the upfitting processes. "The original equipment manufacturer will have recommendations, including the opportunities and limitations of selection based on your business and your specific mobile office needs. Prices, fuel economy, and fuel type vary. Nissan, for example, has a suite of work vans--anything from a compact cargo van to a 12-passenger people mover," he says.
Be prepared to invest the time and effort needed, because choosing the right van and upfitting it properly can pay off handsomely over the long run. "Ask a lot of questions, and visualize and contemplate your needs along with what you want," Braudis says. "You are making an important decision that will not only build more productivity and efficiency into your workdays but will also make them more pleasurable."
Case Study: Skyro Floors
Ken Ballin, founder and owner of Skyro Floors, is used to the stares he gets from passersby as he cruises the roads snaking through southern New Jersey's shore communities. It's not him people are looking at; it's his Nissan NV2500 Cargo van. Sure, even an unadorned NV2500 is a sharp-looking vehicle, but the full graphics wrap on Ballin's van makes it look so uncannily like an old-school woodie wagon that people walk up and touch the sides when it's parked. They always want to know about the van, of course, but on many occasions that leads to further discussion about Ballin's rapidly growing flooring business. It's viral marketing of the old-school sort.
"Woodies have a strong association with surf culture, so it's a great motif for the Jersey Shore, and of course there's an obvious tie-in to the work I do," says Ballin, who started his Tuckerton, New Jersey-based flooring installation company about seven years ago. "The NV2500 has been a game changer for my business in more ways than one."
Ballin spent a decade punching a time clock for other flooring companies before making the decision to start his own business in 2008. "I eased into it, actually," he relates. "I started off doing flooring installations on my days off, and pretty soon I realized I was making more money as a contractor than I was as an employee."
Ballin completed his first freelance job with a kit consisting of little more than a jigsaw and some hand tools, but as his business grew, so did his collection of tools and equipment. With each completed job, he added a few more pieces to his collection--a collection he now admits "may possibly be getting out of control." As time went on, it became increasingly untenable for him to continue working from the pickup truck with a contractor's cap that he'd been using. It could barely hold all his tools and equipment, let alone the materials he needed to complete a job.
It was what he describes as "a lucky accident" that got Ballin into a Nissan NV2500. "A young lady drove into my truck, and that put it in the shop for a bit." Insurance allowed him to rent another vehicle while the truck was being repaired, and he took the opportunity to try out a couple of different cargo vans. He had a bad experience with one and suffered sticker shock when he saw how much the other cost, but he realized the cargo van format offered serious advantages over his pickup truck. "I'd been in the market for a new truck for a while, but being able to stand up inside the rental vans made up my mind for me," he recalls. "I had seen some other contractors in the area with Nissan NV Cargo vans, and they loved them. Given my issues with the rentals I'd tried, I knew the NV was the right choice for me."
Not only does the Skyro Floors "Woodie" function as a mobile billboard that's proven to be a remarkably effective marketing tool, but the van is just as valuable to Ballin from an operational perspective. "Being able to stand up inside the van has made such a difference, and the interior space is huge. It's so flexible and easy to change the configuration with the shelving package I got. It's a snap to set up for any kind of job."
The NV Cargo High Roof van boasts more than 320 cubic feet of cargo capacity, ceiling clearance that lets a 6' 3" person stand tall, and floor space that can accommodate up to two 40" by 48" pallets. Low step-in heights all around, a large sliding side door, and split rear doors that swing 243 degrees wide and are held open with powerful magnets provide optimal accessibility and make loading and unloading a breeze.
Ballin chose the 24-valve, 4.0-L V6 engine for its combination of seamless power and optimum fuel efficiency. Its 261horsepower and 281 lb.-ft. of torque coupled with an optional towing package give the van plenty of towing muscle for big jobs. "That really comes in handy on larger job sites where we have to get rid of a lot of debris," he says.
Skyro Floors is a mobile business, and Ballin often runs multiple crews, so the NV Cargo's cockpit design as a mobile office space is a big plus. The NV2500 HD SV features a multi-functional and lockable center console with 12-volt and 120-volt outlets and an additional 120-volt outlet in the cargo area. "I also got the Technology Package with NissanConnect, which has fantastic features," he says. "The Bluetooth functions and GPS are very user-friendly and big productivity boosters."
Ballin is very satisfied with the looks, utility, performance, and reliability of his Nissan NV2500 Cargo van, and as his business expands, he "absolutely" intends to purchase more of them. "In fact," he says, "the only thing that would keep me from buying another NV2500 would be if Nissan came out with something even cooler!"
Key Optimized Mobile Office Considerations for Heavy-Use Businesses
- Size and configuration. How much room do you need for all your tools, equipment, parts, inventory, etc.? How easy is it to upfit? How important is access to different parts of the van?
- Work-site utility. Is it rugged enough to stand up to heavy-duty worksite use? How easy is it to load and unload materials? How thoroughly has it been tested for quality and durability?
- Drivability, power, and towing. Can you get the right balance between horsepower and fuel economy? How much and what kind of towing capability do you need?
- Cabin configuration and mobile office features. Are there sufficient power outlets for mobile devices? Appropriate technology options? Is the space designed to make your paperwork easier? Is there storage for brochures, invoices, forms, clipboards?
- Cost and reliability. What's the expected cost of ownership? What's the expected reliability? How good is the warranty?