By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Remember the Chris Farley skit about living in a van down by the river? In this economy, it’s no joke — because it may just come to that for many people. The good news is, there are some new vans that would make excellent homes if it does come to that — and they’re good for many other things besides.
Including saving you money — and giving you some interesting options.
One of these little busses is the Nissan NV200 — introduced to cross swords with the Ford Transit Connect and also the stripped-to-the-bone version of the Dodge Caravan minivan — which is sold as the Ram C/V Tradesman.
All of them are smaller-scale versions of the traditional (and full-sized) work van, designed to do the same kinds of things, but on a two-thirds scale — and for about two-thirds the price.
WHAT IT IS
The NV 200 is a compact-sized, FWD utility van — a smaller-sized (and lower cost) alternative to traditional utility vans like the Ford E-Series Van and the Chevy Express, as well as Nissan’s own full-size/RWD NV van.
It is much less expensive than its chief rival, the Ford Transit Connect — but also more bare-bones basic.The Ford, for instance, can be ordered with one of two available engines — and with room for up to seven people in three rows — and equipped with an array of luxury and convenience features, including a panorama sunroof and electric defrost windshield. The Nissan, in contrast, comes only with one powertrain — and just one row of seats for two people only. Fifteen inch steel wheels with plastic covers. An armrest — for the driver.
That’s pretty much it.
Take it or leave it.
Base price is $19,990 for the S trim and $20,980 for the SV trim, which adds power door locks and keyless entry, as well as additional cargo tie-downs.
A Ford Transit Connect starts at $22,000 — and when ordered in top-of-the-line trim with a few additional options can crest $30k.
The Ram (Dodge) Tradesman C/V starts at $22,355.
The NV200 came out last year (2013) as an all-new model; changes for 2014 are minimal, but later in the year Nissan will introduce an “E” electric version of the NV.
The best value of the “big three” — by several thousand dollars.
More room for cargo than the Transit Connect. Lower load floor/taller roof than Ram C/V.
Numerous practical touches such as passenger front seat that folds down to make a hard-surfaced desk and a center console deep enough and wide enough to take a laptop or invoice clipboard.
Taller-box profile allows for closer-to-standing upright posture when in the cargo area, as well as makes it easier to get taller things (like a motorcycle) in the cargo area.
Pretty decent gas mileage (overall better than base-engined Transit and much better than V-6 Ram C/V).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Only seats two.
Can’t even order side glass.
Not as much cargo capacity as Ram C/V.
Ride is bouncy (and noisy) due to leaf spring/beam-type rear suspension and de minimis insulation/sound deadening.
Looks and feels almost Soviet compared with the heavily updated (and now downright swanky) 2014 Ford Transit.
UNDER THE HOOD
One way to keep costs down is to make ’em all pretty much the same — which is what Nissan has done here.
All NV 200s come with a 2.0 liter, 131 hp four teamed up with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic driving the front wheels.
That’s it, chief.
The ’14 Transit, in contrast, now offers two engines — a standard 2.5 liter four and (optionally) the turbocharged “EcoBoost” 1.6 liter engine Ford uses in several other models. This gives the Transit more power — or more economy — as you prefer. This is nice, but the bottom line is the Ford also costs at least $2k more just for openers (with base engine). That’s fine, if you have the desire for more than an A to B unit — and the cash to satisfy that desire. If not, then the NV’s lower price point is likely to be very persuasive.
Ford has gone to town (uptown) with the Transit — which initially was, like the NV 200, a basic A to B unit. But while it is now a much more appealing vehicle, it is also a very different vehicle. It’s possible Ford has made a mistake given the putative mission of these kinds of vehicles as appliances — and given that the made-over and more expensive Transit will probably now be cross-shopped against compact crossovers and other vehicles not conceived as basic transpo or “contractor specials.” For good — or bad — the Transit has put distance between itself and the NV 200.
Speaking of such, how slow does she go?
Surprisingly, the Nissan hauls itself to 60 in under 10 seconds — very decent for what it is and what’s under the hood. It is quicker — by a full second — than a Prius. So it’s by no means the soggiest thing on the road.
Gas mileage is pretty good, too: 24 city, 25 highway. This on par with the base-engined Transit — which is worse in city driving (21 MPG) and better on the highway (29 MPG), the latter probably as a result of superior aerodynamics and the new for 2014 six-speed automatic (which replaces the outdated four-speed automatic used in the 2013 Transit). And remember: The Ford costs $2k more to start. Pays for a lot of gas.
The NV’s biggest functional weakness relative to its rivals is that maximum payload is just 1,500 pounds. This is 300 pounds less than the stripped-down Caravan (er, “Ram” C/V) which has the muscles of a standard 283 hp 3.6 liter V-6 (the only V-6 in this class and by far the strongest engine in this class) and also 500 pounds less than the just-updated Transit Connect, which can handle 2,000 lbs.
ON THE ROAD
Last year, the NV and the Transit drove very similarly. Both were what you’d expect them to be: UPS truck-like, but on a smaller scale. The NV is still like that now — while the Ford (as discussed above) has been greatly refined and now ought to be considered a crossover (Ford uses the term explicitly on its web page, see here) and compared with other crossovers.
The NV, meanwhile, is still what it was. For good — and for bad.
There is enough get up and go to get you going, but the powertrain is underwhelming and noisy when tasked; it has very little in the way of reserves. Nissan makes an excellent CVT automatic, but the largely uncarpeted/uninsulated interior amplifies the Sounds of Struggling — as well as the sounds of pebbles and so on being kicked up into the wheelwheels.
It tracks well, though — and does not require a white knuckle grip on the wheel to keep it in its lane on the highway. Nissan engineers compensated for the brick-ish side profile by dropping the whole works about as low as they could go — in part by using 15 inch wheels, as rare these days as carburetors and 8 track tape players — which serves the dual purpose of enhancing stability by getting the center of gravity as close to the pavement as feasible (6.5 inches of ground clearance) and reducing the load height — making it easier to do things like walk a motorcycle into the cargo area.
It steers easily – and with a turning circle of just 36.7 feet (vs. 39 feet for the Ram C/V) it is surprisingly maneuverable in close quarters.
The one fly in the soup is outward visibility, in particular to either side. Unlike the Transit and Ram C/V, both of which can be ordered with side windows (cargo/passenger area) the NV is a closed box, with glass for the driver and front seat passenger only. You can order rear door glass, but this does nothing to help you see what’s coming at you from the side. It is sometimes necessary to put it in reverse and back up a little — or inch forward — so that you can see what’s coming before you risk pulling into the road. In busy city traffic, this can be a bit unnerving.
The heater is also iffy in really cold weather because it is overmatched trying to impart warmth to all that open and uninsulated space. The large frontal and driver/front seat passenger door glass also had a tendency to fog up — and unlike the ’14 Transit, which is available with an electric defroster grid for the windshield, keeping it clear so you can see what’s out there often required full blast fan with AC on (to dehumidify) and even then, a hand swipe was sometimes necessary.
Overall, driving the NV reminded me of driving the ’73 Super Beetle I had back in college. Both are under-engined, noisy — and cold in winter. But the NV didn’t leak (the VW did) and unlike the Beetle, the NV is useful for more than bare bones A to B getting around.
AT THE CURB
This is a Soviet-looking vehicle. You almost expect to see a heavyset babushka — or a couple of gray KGB men — in the advertising materials.
But — quoting Larry the Cable Guy — it gits ‘er done. The NV is not meant to be sexy. It is meant for work — a Babushka on wheels. Stamped steel 15 inch wheels (no upgrade available) cheap and simple and no more than you need. Same goes for the simple dashboard, with speedometer and tach and not much else. The bar-type gas gauge reminded me of the old Chevy Astro van from the ’80s — only rendered LCD style this time.
AC is standard and so is an adequate two speaker stereo with CD slot.
Who needs more?
Well, if you want more, there’s always the niced-up Transit. But nicer also means more expensive — and we’re talking basic utility here, so different standards apply.
Speaking of utility:
The NV’s cargo hold can accommodate 122.7 cubic feet of whatever you need to cart somewhere — vs. 105 cubic feet for the Transit, which is slightly smaller-sized (173.9 inches long overall vs. 186.3 for the Nissan). The NV also has a taller cargo hold (73.7 inches vs. 72.5 inches) which is a help when you’re trying to do something like roll a motorcycle inside.
It is much easier to do something like that with a vehicle like this than it would be trying to load a bike onto the bed of a pick-up — which would entail rolling it up a steep ramp. It would also mean leaving it exposed to the elements. With the NV, your bike — or whatever — is inside, safe and secure.
The Dodge Caravan (er, Ram C/V) has more cargo space — 144.4 cubic feet — but is much less suited to hauling bikes or other tall stuff, being a low-roofed (69 inches) minivan, no matter what Dodge (er, Ram… uh Fiat) wants to call it.
The NV’s layout would also lend itself to handicapped access — and in fact, Nissan has already thought of this. But — unlike the Taxi prototype running around in NYC — there’s not (as yet) any factory-available, turn-key passenger-ready/mobility configuration available to the public.
Both S and upgrade SV trims come with dual side doors — one (driver’s side) opens car-style and outward, the other (passenger side) minivan-style — as well as dual (and outward opening) rear doors. The floor has multiple tie-down points and you could easily install shelving/storage cabinets along the walls.
Neat (and NV-specific) features include a fold-forward passenger seat that doubles as a table and a large center console that’s designed to handle a laptop or a bundle of invoices and a clipboard.
Unfortunately, the NV 200 does not offer the innovative glass breakage sensor that’s available in its big brother, the full-sized NV van.
You can class up the joint by ordering the Exterior Appearance package, which adds body colored front and rear fascias, mirrors and door handles, as well as nicer wheel covers. SV trims can be ordered with a Technology Package that includes a 5.8 inch LCD display in the center stack, GPS, integrated back-up camera and a better stereo with satellite radio and hands-free text-assist.
I think Nissan should offer a more-than-two-seater configuration. Nothing necessarily fancy, mind, Just something to make the NV 200 potentially more than just a delivery-utility vehicle. To put a finer point on it, to make it more like the Transit Connect used to be.
Last year (2013) you could order the Transit with a second row. It was a Spartan second row — but nonetheless, you had the ability to carry more than just the one passenger. Thusly fitted out the old CV had the essentials for Jitney Bus/taxi service — as well as a low-bucks family hauler. The new (2014) Transit now seats up to seven in three rows (nice rows, too) and has become for all practical purposes a mini-me minivan when so tricked out.
But there’s no longer anything in the middle. Nissan could steal the muffins by undercutting Ford and Ram/Dodge on price while offering potential buyers something that’s still pretty basic.
Side glass would be nice, too — but (at the time this review was written) it was not available, even though the cut-outs are there and even though the Taxi prototype model has ’em.
All the vehicles in this class cry out for diesel power. Yet none are or apparently will be offered with diesel engines — at least, not in the U.S.
There is no IC engine more suited to low-speed Here to There duty than a diesel engine. And imagine the MPGs. The Ecoboosted (gas turbo) Ford Transit barely gets into to the 30s — best case, on the highway. A vehicle like it — or the NV — would probably deliver 30 or better in city driving with a diesel — and over 40 on the highway.
The “E” (electric) version of the NV will of course deliver excellent “mileage” — but like all electric cars and plug-in hybrids, the up-front cost makes the economic case questionable.
Nissan also ought to update the gadget quotient. Ford is really pulling away with features such as its bar code inventory tracker system (and the previously mentioned front windshield electric de-icer).
Nissan has such gadgets. They’re just not available in the NV.
They should be.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The NV is basic, but basic has value. Under $20k, sticker, to start- vs. over $22k to start for both of the NV’s competitors. For small businesses — and bigger ones, too (think fleet users) that $2k saved up front is no small thing.
It could keep you in franks and beans for a year, down by the river.