Full-Size Vans in Today's Market

A number of factors — from rising gas prices to tough times in the contracting industry — may lead some people to wonder whether they really need a full-size van like the Ford E-Series, Chevrolet Express, GMC Savana and Dodge Sprinter. The cargo and passenger-hauling capabilities of a full-size van are impossible for anything else to match, but if your business doesn't truly need a vehicle that carries refrigerators, there are a few alternatives that come out ahead in a number of other areas.

Stripped-down cargo versions of the E-Series, Express and Savana start around $25,000, but pile on the work-site options and prices for heavy-duty passenger vans can top $35,000 in the Express and Savana and $40,000 in the E-Series. The Sprinter starts around $38,000, and with options it can exceed $60,000.

Consider a few alternatives. Dodge markets a cargo version of the Grand Caravan for just over $22,000; a cargo-ready Chevy HHR Panel Van can be had for even less. Both return significantly better gas mileage. The EPA isn't required to rate heavy-duty trucks, which leaves most full-size vans exempt, but the agency's numbers for the E-Series a few years back put combined city/highway mileage in the low to mid-teens. GM's Savana and Express are EPA-rated in their lightest-duty 1500 variants, and both are in the same league.

The smaller alternatives don't have the sort of capacity a full-size van offers, but they do come out ahead in a number of other areas. Compare some examples:

Van Alternatives
Here a full-size van is compared to other vehicles that can carry cargo.
Ford E-150 Cargo Van CommercialDodge Grand Caravan Cargo VanChevrolet HHR Panel Van LS
Price$25,060$22,475$20,030 w/automatic
Engine4.6-liter V-83.3-liter V-62.2-liter four-cyl.
Mileage (city/hwy., mpg)Not rated*17/2422/30
Length (in.)216.7202.5176.2
Width (in.)79.476.969.1
Height (in.)81.968.962.5
Turning circle (ft.)48.039.136.0
Max. cargo volume (cu. ft.)230.6143.857.7
Total weight capacity (lbs.)3,2561,9591,018

*The EPA is not required to rate heavy-duty vehicles. The last 4.6-liter E-150 rated by the EPA, in 2006, earned 13/17 city/highway; it's been restyled since then but uses the same basic drivetrain.
Source: Automaker and EPA data for 2009 models.

Precisely because of these capability differences, some say that very little cross-shopping occurs between full-size vans and smaller cargo-haulers.

"Vans are sold primarily as commercial vehicles whose buyers look for capability, durability and low ownership costs, which include maintenance expenses, as well as fuel economy," Carmelita Badia, marketing manager for GM's commercial vans, wrote in an email. "Customers would not typically divert to crossovers or minivans for their business needs."

Tom Libby, an analyst at J.D. Power and Associates, agrees.

"Movement between minivan, crossover, midsize car, midsize utility — I see a lot of movement there, but not a lot between that and full-size van," Libby said. "I see full-size van as a separate and distinct category. It's a very different concept."

Even so, cargo variants of the HHR and Grand Caravan signal the presence of at least a small market. In the summer of 2009, Ford plans to add another entry to the fray with its Transit Connect, a utility van that's popular in Europe. Though it's just a few inches longer than the HHR, the Transit boasts cargo volume that's similar to the Grand Caravan, thanks to its tall height. Ford says it will offer considerable cargo versatility, and its 2.0-liter four-cylinder will get an estimated 19/24 mpg city/highway.

David Cole, chairman of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research, said the dramatic difference in fuel economy alone is causing some commercial buyers to consider smaller vehicles.

"As people worry about fuel economy and things like that, they're really making an assessment of what their needs really are," Cole said. "And small delivery vehicles can be a factor there. The person with a small business says, 'Do I really need that size?'"

Posted on 10/15/08