The days of the cramped, gas-guzzling American contractor van are numbered. Fleet buyers are now faced with a wide range of roomy, fuel-efficient, European-style models—such as the Ford Transit, Nissan NV, Mercedes Sprinter and Ram ProMaster—that promise more capability and cargo space while driving twice as many miles on the same gallon of fuel.
"We see it as a victory of the European van concept," says Claus Tritt, general manager of commercial vans for Mercedes Benz USA. The company was the first to bring a tall van—the Sprinter—to the U.S.; over the past decade, the van has been sold under the Dodge, Freightliner and Mercedes brands. Last year, Mercedes sold 20,929 units, representing an 8% share of the full-size van pool, according to Automotive News. Another analyst, Polk, estimates that, last year, 38% of Sprinters were registered as fleet vehicles.
Mercedes now faces stiff competition. Ford has the largest share—at 49%—of the full-size U.S. van market. Last year, the company sold 122,000 E-Series vans, and 74% of its three-quarter-ton and one-ton models went to fleets. The E-Series is now being discontinued to make room for the Euro-styled Ford Transit.
The defining trait of the European work van is its cargo area's ample headroom. Like the other manufacturers, Ram trucked over its entry, the 2014 ProMaster, to this year's Work Truck Show, held on March 6-8 in Indianapolis. There, it announced a starting price of $27,025, including delivery fees. Ram's Saltillo, Mexico, plant will start production in the third quarter.
Based on Fiat's Ducato, whose sales have topped 4.5 million in Europe, the Ram ProMaster will be available in four body types with three wheelbases and two roof heights. It can be had with a 3.6-liter gasoline or 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Ram executives say the diesel's field-testing has yielded miles per gallon in the high-20s.
Compact versions of these unibody vans are not to be overlooked. Ford has redesigned its Transit Connect, and Nissan is rolling out its NV200. Ram and Mercedes are exploring smaller sizes, too.
General Motors, whose Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana command 39% of the full-size van market, now stands out as the oddball of the bunch, having no Euro-style van in its lineup.