Posted by Mike Levine | February 3, 2011
Nissan’s all-electric Leaf small car may be getting the lion’s share of attention these days, but the company’s all-new NV full-size vans are the most researched vehicles the company has ever built, according to Nissan execs on hand in Miami for this week’s first drive with journalists.
Nissan has spent six years creating its North American light-commercial vehicle group from scratch. During that time, a team of former Detroit Three managers and engineers identified full-size vans as a market opportunity because their research showed van owners’ needs weren’t being met, according to Larry Dominique, Nissan’s vice president of product planning for North America.
“There are no more dissatisfied customers than the people who drive [full-size vans] around, Dominique said. “Most people hate their vans. We asked what needs we could address to make them happier, and that’s what you see in these vans.”
Nissan’s target buyers? Many are current full-size pickup owners who used to be van owners. To attract these buyers, Nissan has combined some of the best attributes of both vehicles in its NV vans.
The pickup truck design elements are obvious before you even step inside.
Instead of a conventional short-nose configuration, where part of the engine sits in the cab next to the driver, the NV has a long-nose front end, like a full-size pickup. Nissan positioned the engine ahead of the A-pillar and firewall. That’s not surprising, since the NV is based on a heavily modified version of the Nissan Titan half-ton pickup’s body-on-frame platform.
Nissan is offering a broad lineup from Job 1. There are three NV models to choose from: the light-duty NV1500 and heavy-duty NV2500 HD and NV3500 HD. A 261-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 is available for the NV 1500 and 2500, and a 317-hp, 5.6-liter V-8 is available for the NV 2500 and 3500. There’s also a choice of standard and high-roof models, with the latter offering enough room for a 6-foot 3-inch person to stand upright in the cargo space. Two-wheel drive is the only driveline available.
We sampled the NV 2500 V-6 and NV 3500 V-8 standard and high-roof vans on the highways and crowded surface streets around south Florida.
Standard Roof NV3500 HD S 5.6-liter V-8
The first van we drove was the NV3500 HD with the 5.6-liter V-8 and five-speed automatic transmission. It’s the same powertrain that propels the Nissan Titan half-ton pickup.
Inside, we immediately noticed the extra legroom in the foot wells. The long-nose layout allowed our legs to naturally extend and relax instead of being pushed back toward the chair. In the area that would normally be occupied by an engine “doghouse” was a pair of cup holders and storage cubby.
Between the driver and passenger seats was a generous storage bin plus pull out storage drawers beneath the chairs.
Unloaded, the NV3500 weighed about 5,900 pounds, some 500 pounds more than a crew-cab Nissan Titan. We’ve always liked the performance and liveliness of Nissan’s 5.6-liter V-8 in the Titan, and it performed similarly in the NV. Jumping on the freeway was a snap, even with the relatively conservative 3.54-to-1 rear axle ratio.
A major mechanical difference between the NV vans and Titan is the use of heavy-duty recirculating ball steering instead of light-duty rack and pinion. The change makes sense, since the vans can manage 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of payload, depending on the model. Steering was a bit heavy and numb at times, but Nissan said it’s still being tuned for production.
If you buy an NV van, you’ll probably rarely drive the truck completely empty, like we did. In this scenario, ride quality was comfortable. The truck skipped a bit on rough pavement, but no more so than an unloaded pickup.
Nissan has done a nice job engineering the seats for ride comfort, though an air suspension option is not available for severe duty use. Extra-sturdy construction used in the seat bottom bolster near the door should keep wear to a minimum even if the driver frequently enters and exits the truck.
We stopped briefly at a Lowe’s hardware store, where our van was loaded with several hundred pounds of construction supplies to be donated to Habitat for Humanity. The cargo floor has six “D” ring mounting points that are rated up to 1,124 pounds. They made it easy to strap the pallet securely in the van.
Nissan has also delivered in the engineering of the cargo doors. They’re designed to open and fold to the sides of the van – up to 243 degrees – like in the smaller Ford Transit Connect van. This feature is unique in full-size vans and makes for a safer loading experience on tight surface streets. The doors provide unimpeded access to the back of the van and greatly reduce the chance of another vehicle coming along and knocking the doors off their hinges.
Load floor space is also excellent. There’s 54.3 inches of space between the wheel housings. That’s three more than Ford’s E-Series vans and enough room to lay down a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood flat with room to spare. Cargo length at the floor is 120 inches and 111 inches at the belt line.
When it goes on sale, the van will be available with a painted steel floor or with optional soft-feel material, which makes it difficult to push heavy objects on. A laminated floor option is expected later in the year.
The NV has dedicated mount points in the cargo area. There’s no drilling or cutting to install racks and bins. Nissan’s upfit hardware comes from a partnership with Adrian Steel, a well-known van cargo management and storage product maker.
We departed Lowe’s to drop off the supplies at Habitat for Humanity’s warehouse. The V-8 shrugged off the extra heft as we drove over Florida’s flat roads. Ride quality improved a bit, as the NV’s rear leaf springs soaked up the weight.
Nissan isn’t required to provide fuel economy figures for its vans because all three models have gross combined weight ratings above 8,500 pounds. Commercial reps on hand said the NV vans will meet or beat the competition, but that remains to be seen. In the NV3500 HD, we averaged 12.1 mpg in mostly city driving conditions, according to the van’s trip computer.
High Roof NV3500 HD S 5.6-liter V-8
After dropping off the construction supplies, we changed vans. This time, we chose the high roof NV3500 HD. It was a duplicate of the standard roof version, except its added height allows tall people (up to 6 feet, 3 inches) to stand upright in the cargo area.
The tall roof configuration is similar to that of the Mercedes (formerly Dodge) Sprinter, but whereas the Sprinter starts at $36,000 with a standard 3.0-liter V-6, the NV starts about $10 thousand less for the high roof.
We drove the high roof completely empty and found no issue with power and ride. The only major difference we noticed was the extra wind noise the taller profile brought into the cabin. It sounds like a window was open at speeds as low as 45 mph. Wind noise would likely drop by adding optional interior side paneling to insulate the bare metal walls or with racks and shelving full of tools and supplies.
Noise levels in the cockpit area were very low. It was easy to have a conversation with our driving partner without ever having to raise our voices.
The high roof rode comfortably, and we soon forgot we were driving a van with an 8.8-foot-tall profile. It will be a bad day for the driver who forgets just how tall this version is and drives into the roof of a garage or tunnel. It almost warrants a warning on the windshield so the driver doesn’t forget.
Standard Roof NV2500 HD SV 4.0-liter V-6
The last NV we drove was the six-cylinder standard roof version. Even though it had the standard engine, it featured SV trim, which adds electric window and mirror controls and a power driver’s seat. It also came with two 120-volt 400-watt power outlets in addition to two standard 12-volt power outlets.
Despite a rear axle with a 3.36 ring and pinion, the 261-hp engine had good off-the-line performance, but we’re concerned about its strength in mountainous regions and cities like San Francisco, with its steep hills, when the NV is loaded to its max. We have the same concern about GM’s lower-rated 195 hp 4.3-liter V-6 but that engine is limited to use in the half-ton Chevy Express and GMC Savana vans, while Nissan offers the V-6 in both the light-duty NV 1500 and three-quarter-ton mover 2500 HD we drove.
Our drive in the V-6 lasted only several miles, so we couldn’t get a feel for its fuel economy. In the Nissan Frontier, the same engine is about three miles per gallon better in fuel economy than the Titan. Both the V-8 and V-6 vans share the same five-speed transmission and transmission gear ratios.
All NV vans come with a manual shift option, which can be controlled on the transmission’s steering-column-mounted shift stalk. We tried it out and found it worked acceptably, upshifting and downshifting on demand.
The NV2500 seemed a bit more squirrelly driving around empty compared with the heavier-sprung NV3500. The rear axle chirped a bit under moderate push while making turns. Weighted down with stuff in back, we’d expect the truck would settle down just fine in the handling.
Compared to full-size vans from Ford, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz, the NV offers the best combination of price and functionality in the segment. No other full-size van provides its unique combination of features and capability out of the box at close to its starting price of $24,590. But that advantage comes with a unique consequence: The NV is ugly.
We’re confounded by the van’s looks. We understand that form follows function and don’t mind the squared-off back end, but the front end could benefit from rhinoplasty, stat. It should be about 20 percent smaller than it is. There’s so much chrome on the front end of high end models, we wonder how Earth’s chrome mines are ever going to keep up with demand should the NV become the sales success Nissan hopes it does.
Nissan expects that 80 percent of sales will have basic white paint jobs, but red, silver, blue and black are also available.
In a unique program, Nissan will let NV buyers design up to 70 square feet of custom vinyl graphics at no cost to call attention to the owner’s business, though we don’t think attention will be any problem driving this van.
There are no plans to offer a diesel engine option in the near future, unlike the Sprinter, which offers a standard diesel V-6.
While most pickup truck owners are enthusiastic about a diesel engine, that’s not the same with van buyers, Dominique said. We don’t disagree. Higher upfront purchase costs for diesel engines because of added expense to meet U.S. emissions, plus higher fuel costs, conspire to make it unlikely we’ll see a diesel for the NV vans anytime soon.
Cargo vans will be the only version available at the start of sales, but a 12-passenger version is likely by early 2012 or sooner.
250 Nissan dealers have been signed up around the country to sell NV vans. They’ve committed to upgrading their service bays to handle the tall and heavy vehicles and will offer special service hours for commercial customers – up to 60 hours per week.
Nissan will finance NV buyers with special tools and options, including custom payment arrangements and rolling upfit costs into scheduled vehicle payments. As mentioned earlier, buyers can get up to 70 square feet of customized vinyl wrap free of charge to place on the exterior of their vans for promotion and advertising.
An incentive program offers substantial benefits to qualified commercial customers, including a choice of one of the following packages at no charge: A cargo partition and three 44-inch shelving units on either high-roof or standard roof models, or a cargo partition and a three-bar utility rack for standard roof models, or a cargo partition and an interior ladder keeper for high-roof models.
What we like:
- Comfortable seating for driver and passenger
- No-nonsense functional cargo layout that’s ready for immediate upfit
- Low step-in height to cargo space
- Cargo doors open up to 243-degrees – moving out of the way of traffic in tight loading conditions
- Cavernous space in the high roof model with a starting purchase price almost $10,000 less than Mercedes Sprinter
- Tows up to 9,500 pounds with V-8 and up to 7,000 pounds with V-6
- Strong V-8 performance
- Excellent visibility (for a full-size van)
What we don’t:
- Uninspired front-end styling that doesn’t measure up to cargo management and driver comfort innovations
- No telescoping steering wheel option
- Lack of standard USB ports and Bluetooth wireless connectivity for cell phones
- Soft load floor option makes it difficult to push heavy materials around cargo area
- Unknown maintenance and performance record – for both the van and Nissan’s new commercial dealers
- Trailer sway control not available for towing