Editor's note: This review was written in July 2014 about the 2014 Nissan NV200. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2015, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The 2014 Nissan NV200 cargo van is exactly what it looks like — a simple, useful, inexpensive miniature work truck that should serve urban businesses well without breaking the bank.
Since its introduction to the U.S. market in 2009, the Ford Transit Connect compact commercial van has been gaining customers who need the versatility and cargo-carrying capacity of a small van, but who don't need the gargantuan dimensions or poor fuel economy of a full-size truck. Nissan saw the opportunity as well and has brought its own compact commercial van to the U.S. market: the 2014 NV200.
A front-wheel-drive, two-seat cargo van, the NV200 isn't offered in passenger-wagon form like the Transit Connect, at least not in the U.S. Its mission on our shores is to be purely a cargo van, sold through Nissan Commercial channels, and a little brother to Nissan's full-size NV truck-based van. I recently had the opportunity to drive the new NV200 back to back with the brand-new, second-generation 2014 Transit Connect in Southern California to see how the only two compact commercial vans on the market stack up against one another. The differences couldn't be more stark.
Exterior & Styling
Take a walk around the outside of the new NV200 and you might mistake it for another manufacturer's offering — any manufacturer. Little about it is Nissan-distinctive, but that doesn't mean it's not attractive. The NV200's tidy dimensions make it seem tall and cute, and it's not surprising that such little vans are popular on the narrow streets of many Asian countries as dual-purpose work and family vehicles. You're likely to see some of them show up in New York City as Manhattan's "taxi of tomorrow." The Transit Connect does have the edge in styling, however, with fresher looks and a better fit into the Ford family of vehicles.
The NV200 is offered in only one length, while the Transit Connect comes in two wheelbases; with a 115.2-inch wheelbase, the NV200 splits the difference between the 104.8-inch short-wheelbase Transit Connect and the 120.6-inch long-wheelbase version. The NV200 is also narrower than the Transit Connect, at 68.1 inches versus the Ford's 72.2 inches. My plain, unadorned, dark-blue metallic test van turned some heads and drew praise from Los Angeles valets as a "neat little van," drawing more attention than I thought it would on the automotively jaded streets of L.A.
How It Drives
The NV200 is built to a price point, and that point is as low as possible. It shows in the van's equipment list — it's powered by a 131-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission. It's enough to get an empty NV200 up to speed in unhurried fashion, but no more than that. Passing on the highway or a two-lane road requires forethought and bravado, but it gets the job done. How that all changes when the NV200 is loaded up with 1,500 pounds of cargo, shelving, tools or equipment, however, remains to be seen and is likely to be the topic of a comparison test down the road.
As an around-town delivery van, there's plenty of scoot to the four-cylinder NV200, and the CVT is well-matched to the engine — there's no horrible cabin drone or wailing, gnashing mechanical noise accompanying the acceleration. The powertrain overall is respectably quiet, even when taxed. It is, however, outclassed by the more expensive Transit Connect's standard 169-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic gearbox, as well as the optional 173-hp, turbocharged 1.6-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder for even more grunt. The NV200's powertrain is fairly efficient, however, rating 24/25/24 mpg city/highway/combined. That beats the Fords' city ratings but isn't as good as either Ford powertrain in highway mileage. The 2.5-liter Ford is rated 21/29/24 mpg while the turbocharged 1.6-liter nets 22/30/25 mpg. Braking is unimpressive, with a cheaper front disc/rear drum setup that doesn't provide much feel or firmness. The Transit Connect comes with a standard four-wheel disc setup, though it doesn't provide any better braking feel or performance, with a mushy response and long pedal travel.
The NV200 does, however, ride and handle reasonably well. Steering is numb but not vague, with a tight turning circle for urban environments. The NV200 is more tippy feeling than the Transit Connect, due partly to its different center of gravity; passengers in the Transit Connect sit on the floor, low in the vehicle, while the NV200 has a much higher seating position and dashboard. The result is a much more commanding view outward and the sensation that you're piloting a commercial truck, while piloting the Transit Connect feels like driving a Ford Focus wagon with a ridiculous amount of headroom. I prefer the driving position of the NV200; stepping up into the van instead of dropping down into my seat puts me at eye level with drivers of bigger Chevrolet Suburbans and full-size pickups, providing a greater sense of security.
The NV200's 15-inch wheels are dinky, but the tall sidewall tires provide a smooth ride and excellent pothole absorption. They're also likely cheap to replace, keeping maintenance and running costs down for owners. The rear suspension is a leaf spring setup, also cheap and durable but not terribly sophisticated for ride purposes. It rides and handles exactly like what it is — a cheap, durable cargo van.
The seats are comfortable and larger than one would expect; after a four-hour trek into the California desert, neither driver nor passenger complained of any discomfort. Material quality is appropriate to the price and mission of the truck; the plastic is hard, durable and not meant to be luxurious. The Transit Connect definitely feels better inside, but it's a newer design, more expensive and also meant to appeal to consumers as well as commercial buyers.
The Nissan's seat fabric is acceptable, and the seating position is suitably adjustable. One surprising characteristic: It's not possible to access the cargo area from the front seat of the van. A center console prevents that; one must exit the van to get into the back. The Ford offers more room for its two front occupants, as well, with 63 cubic feet of room versus 56 cubic feet for the Nissan. This comes from the Nissan being lower and narrower than the Ford; it has just 41.7 inches of headroom versus 46.8 inches in the Ford, plus around 3 fewer inches of hip and shoulder room. This isn't to say the Nissan feels cramped; it doesn't — the tall seating position, big windshield and low belt line for the door windows combine to create a commanding, confident driving position. The NV200 is also surprisingly quiet in motion, with none of the rattling, booming resonance that one expects from a steel-walled panel van with no rear seats or fabric to keep things quiet. Even at highway speed it's decently hushed inside, with conversation between driver and passenger easily accomplished at normal volume.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The NV200 was introduced to the rest of the world in 2009, and it shows — this is Nissan's previous-generation, low-cost interior style. From the orange-lit gauges to the switches, it's old-style Nissan in here. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the limited information presented to the driver is easy to read at a glance and won't overload you with useless data. But compared with the Transit Connect, the lack of sophisticated electronics is jarring.
What the NV does have is an optional low-cost navigation system. It's slower than the latest models on the market, but it works well, is simple to use and is mounted high in the dash for ease of reach. All other controls are manual, such as climate control, and steering-wheel controls are available for audio and cruise control functions. The NV200 feels a generation behind the Transit Connect in appointments and electronics, but given its price advantage and targeted buyer, I'm not sure that's much of a problem.
Cargo & Storage
It's business up front, and it's business in back, too. In the top trim level, there are six tie-down points in the rubber-covered floor of the truck for securing loose cargo. The NV200 features 122.7 cubic feet of cargo space, larger than the 105.9 cubic feet of the short-wheelbase Transit Connect but just slightly less than the 130.6 cubic feet of the long-wheelbase Ford. The rear doors open in a 60/40-split configuration; unlike the Transit Connect, no liftgate option is available. Payload capacity, at 1,500 pounds, rivals that of compact pickups.
There aren't many advanced safety features in the NV200: It offers front, side and overhead curtain airbags, traction control with antilock brakes, and that's about it. The NV200 has not been crash-tested. See all its safety features here.
Value in Its Class
The NV200 is not an expensive delivery truck, even when optioned to the gills like my SV test model. Starting price for a base model is just $21,150, including destination, and climbs to $22,140 for an SV trim. For that price, you get 15-inch wheels, manually adjustable cloth seats, power locks, remote keyless entry, six cargo hooks, power windows and power heated exterior mirrors. There aren't many options for the NV200, but mine included a bumper protector, glass in the back doors, body-colored bumpers and mirrors, wheel covers, floor mats and a $950 Technology Package that included a backup camera, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio, a USB input, and a multimedia system dubbed NissanConnect with Navigation. The grand total for my loaded NV200 SV was just $23,645 — less than most compact pickups these days. Option one your way here.
Competitors include those compact pickups, which are often used for commercial duty. The NV200's foremost competitor, however, is the new Ford Transit Connect. It starts at $22,995 for a short-wheelbase XL cargo van, which doesn't offer the space of the NV200. The long-wheelbase Transit Connect does, but it comes with a steeper price tag, starting at $23,995. Nissan's own Frontier compact pickup could be considered a competitor, given its role as a low-cost commercial truck for businesses. It starts at $18,850 but features much worse fuel economy, rear-wheel drive and a standard manual transmission. For 2015, Chevrolet is getting a version of the Nissan NV200 called the City Express that will be priced a little higher than the NV200 but include more standard equipment. Compare all competitors here.