September’s weather has been fantastic, so far. Sunny days, some very warm, combined with the changing season evident in the trees have led to much mind meandering as I piloted the Grand Cherokee diesel to our planned vehicle swap destination. As a Dodge Viper leaves the rendezvous point, its throaty V-10 engine on full display, my dream of a new Stingray convertible’s arrival is shattered by the appearance of a compact van coming over the overpass in my direction. The absence of a front license plate, the cleanliness of the vehicle, as well as the timing, all point out that this is my next test vehicle. Sorry, Tim, no top-down fantasies this week.
Instead, we get a toaster, a tall commercial van with no side windows, tiny tires and wheels and a diminutive 2.0-liter engine. I am headed for a long day in the saddle, through the mountains of New Hampshire, across the top of western Maine and back home — our missions seem in opposition.
Perceptions are often shattered by reality, and my early suppositions are dispelled as well. The Nissan NV200 Cargo Van — part of a new crop of commercial applications that will proliferate in our market over the next 12 months — is far from the penalty box that I assumed.
As I leave Kennebunk and push on westward through this part of rural Maine, one other point becomes clearly evident — the roads in this section of Maine are vastly superior to the road network we travel over in Downeast Maine. Even lightly used secondary roads are ribbon smooth, with wide, paved shoulders. Sight lines are excellent, and the pavement is devoid of the potholes, culvert bumps and other impediments to smooth travel that seem prevalent on many Downeast Maine roadways. Perhaps the sandy glacial soil makes a better base? Perhaps more maintenance and more money for surfaces is a factor too.
Onto the highways and into the mountain country of New Hampshire, the NV200 displays a confidence that might not be readily evident in a short exposure. The 2.0-liter engine and CVT transmission provide more than adequate acceleration and power to keep up with the pace of highway traffic, while the fuel economy hovers around 27.5 mpg for our whole week together — considerably better than the EPA estimates of 24-mpg city and 25-mpg highway. There is not currently the diesel engine option evident in other markets, however the 2.0-liter gas engine proved more than capable. This kind of efficiency will please many van owners currently shouldering mid-teen fuel economy with their full-size vans.
Behind the wheel, a nonadjustable helm to boot, the NV200 drives and handles like a tall, small car. Steering feel is light, quick. Controls are fluid, accessible and sensible designs, although the small navigation unit supplied in the optional Technology Package in our SV-trimmed sample is rudimentary and comparable to a first-generation Garmin. This is countered by Sirius Satellite radio plus voice recognition functions for the nav-unit and audio as well as Pandora, streaming audio via Bluetooth and hands-free messaging.
Combined with the numerous slots and pockets clearly designed for clipboards and electronic commercial devices, the NV’s mission becomes more clear: a modern commercial van for a new generation. Fuel-efficient, composed on the road and technologically capable, the Nissan represents a different interpretation of the cargo van.
This shows up in the working end out back too. Surprisingly quiet for most motoring trips (rain and elevated highway speeds produce some road noise), the NV200 has a quick sliding door on each side of the cabin as well as a unique 60/40-split rear door arrangement. These rear panel doors, with defroster wires on only one of the rear windows strangely enough, can open a full 180 degrees by tugging on the release lever on each door. A flat load floor has retaining rings up the side; however, 8-foot pieces of plywood or Sheetrock will not fit inside. The insulated walls of the van are ready for accessory bins and storage systems from aftermarket suppliers.
Forward visibility is very good, the short nose of the van hiding little. As with all other vans, drivers must learn to use their mirrors and approach intersections at 90-degree angles so the right side view is enhanced enough for oncoming traffic. The NV200 also offers a rear view camera to improve dock-access and other backing maneuvers.
The 60/40-split rear doors give drivers a better view of what is directly behind them in traffic as the center post is now off to one side, so cars cannot hide so easily. This design also makes the dominant right side door larger, giving greater access to the cargo bay without having to open both doors unnecessarily. All of the NV’s doors are lightweight designs that open easily.
Hurrying across western Maine’s rural backroads heading for home, the NV did not seem to mind the pace or the pavement as the truck handled the dips, turns, climbs, and broken pavement without protest. The tiny 15-inch wheels look, well, tiny, but the truck’s chassis proved supple and composed. Of course, the NV200’s cabin was empty; fill the truck with 1,000 pounds of gear and road manners might change.
Nissan will build a version of the NV200 for Chevrolet, as this segment looks to get much larger. With the larger NV250 previously on sale, plus a new Titan pickup in the wings, Nissan appears to be recognizing that if it wants to be a larger player in the American truck market, it has to build trucks that Americans want.
While the NV200 does not currently fit that paradigm — small engine, fuel-efficient, space-efficient — it soon will. Ford’s Transit Connect is all-new, Chrysler’s Ram trucks will have a rival, plus the Chevy version of the NV200 point to a new perspective in the cargo van class — not everyone needs a ¾-ton/one-ton van to do light duty work.
Pricing for the NV200 starts at $21,230 for our SV trimmed model; cruise control, flip-down passenger seat with table, power locks and windows, A/C, remote entry, center console, adjustable driver’s seat, vehicle stability system and CVT automatic. With featured options, the delivered price rose to $23,595.
Good thinking, good value, good operational skills in a vehicle that we will see a lot more of in the near future.