When Nissan invited me to sample the Versa Note hatchback, tucked away in a corner was the new-to-America Nissan NV200 compact cargo van. No, this isn’t a relative of the NV2500 that started out our commercial week in 2012, instead it’s a purpose-built cargo hauler [very] loosely based on the underpinnings of the Nissan Cube. You may have also seen the NV200 shown as NYC’s “Taxi of Tomorrow” choice, but this NV is all about hauling. (Strangely enough that’s why it makes a good taxi.)
The NV200’s boxy profile is all about hauling, that’s something the NV200 and the Transit Connect have in common while the RAM C/V minivan is obviously a passenger car with steel inserted where the windows used to go. I think we can all agree that the C/V is more attractive in a “minivan mommy” sort of way, not surprising since it has to sell on curb appeal as well as kiddie schlepping. The NV200 doesn’t have to steal hearts to accomplish its mission enabling Nissan to pen vertical slab sides and a very vertical tail. Anyone hauling cargo will tell you the C/V’s top-hinged hatch precludes loading with a regular forklift, something that isn’t a problem with the NV200’s 60/40 “barn” door back-end.
Practicality has a downside, like the current Transit Connect, the NV200 isn’t the most attractive thing on the road. The big cargo box makes the 15-inch wheels look smaller than they are and there’s just something wrong with the NV’s nose. (It is more attractive than the schnoz on the Transit Connect however.) The standard black plastic bumper covers don’t help matters, so be sure to check that $190 option box and get them body-paint matched. Ford promises the 2014 Transit Connect will be a different animal sporting the Fusion’s award-winning nose.
The NV200 wears a unique dashboard with parts pulled from a variety of Nissan products. The urethane steering wheel comes from the Versa sedan, the shifter and A/C controls from a last generation Sentra and the radios are shared with most of Nissan’s small car lineup. This parts sharing helps keep the NV200’s purchase price at a low $19,990 which is nearly six-grand cheaper than the Chevrolet Express and $2,435.
Nissan is touting a driver-focused cabin with business-oriented features, something that also sets Nissan’s full-size NV1500 apart from the Americans. In the NV200 these features include a comfortable driver’s seat with a right-side armrest, a hanging file holder in the center console, large glovebox, deep pockets in the doors and a fold-flat passenger seat. If you were hoping for a 5-seat NV200, don’t hold your breath, Nissan tells us they have no plans to offer a competitor to the Transit Connect Wagon in America.
Cruise control and Bluetooth hands free are not standard, but can be added to the base NV200 S for $200 and $250 respectively. If you want navigation and a backup camp, you have to jump up to the $20,980 NV200 SV and add the $950 technology package which bundles Nissan’s latest “Nissan Connected” head unit. In addition to greatly improved voice commands, Nissan’s cheapest nav unit adds smartphone integration for Google data services and Pandora internet radio streaming. It’s an interesting option in a segment that lacks good infotainment options with GM and Ford offering essentially no navigation in any van for 2013 and Chrysler’s C/V gets stuck with their ancient pre-uConnect system. If you want to know more, check out the video review of the Versa Note which uses the same system.
Commercial vehicles put function over form, that’s why the Americans use short hoods and engines stuffed under doghouses in the cabin. Up till recently, all commercial vans except Chrysler’s slow selling C/V have been rear wheel drive. That means there is a trade-off between interior space and somewhere to put that driveshaft. The NV200 is based on Nissan’s small car platform, but doesn’t share much with the Cube. That’s a good thing when it comes to hauling because if you look at a RAM C/V, the touted “under floor storage” compartments are caused by the passenger car floor stamping. Rather than change the stamping, they turned the fold/tumble seat “wells” into storage. That means the load floor in the NV200 is close to the ground making loading easy.
On the down side, Nissan missed a few opportunities for the American market. At just over 122 cubic feet of storage, the NV200 fits just below the RAM C/V and between the 2014 redesigned Transit Connect short and long wheelbase models in terms of widget schlepping. The folding front passenger seat allows you to toss 10-foot long items in NV from the dash to the rear doors and the wheel-wells are just over four-feet wide. However, the distance from the driver’s seat to the rear doors is 18-inches shy of 4X8 hauling nirvana. Nissan tells us they just couldn’t stretch in the NV any further for Yankee duty which is a pity when American construction is dominated by 4×8 sheets of everything. Note that the C/V can handle 4×8 sheets of something (barely) but the Transit Connect has the same limitation as the NV200.
Payload is the limiting feature of any current small cargo vehicle. Nissan rates the NV for 1,500lbs in the S model and 1,477lbs in the SV. That’s 100lbs lower than Ford’s baby-hauler, 300lbs less than Chrysler and 800-1,000lbs less than the average 1500-series cargo van. When looking at those numbers, keep in mind the driver and passenger’s weight is included in the payload. Toss in two 200lb Americans and you have 1,100lbs of payload left. Nissan softens the blow by tossing in large sliding doors on both sides of the NV.
The NV200 may be cheaper than a Chevy cargo van, but its important to remember that GM fleet shoppers get incredible discounts on even small orders of the big vans dropping base models below $20,000 in real dollars. While Nissan has a similar volume discount program, we’re told by fleet buyers that the cuts aren’t as deep. Why pay only slightly less for a van that only holds half as much? The logic is as much about “right sizing” as fuel economy.
Motivating the NV200 is the same 2.0L four-cylinder engine that powered the last generation Sentra. The tried-and-true mill is good for 131 ponies and 139 lb-ft of twist. Sending power to the front wheels is, you guessed it, a Nissan CVT. Before you complain about CVTs, keep in mind we are talking about a cargo van where driving dynamics are secondary to the mission. The reason for the belt-pulley slushbox is obvious when you take a look at the MPGs: 24/25/24 (City/Highway/Combined) which are the best in the very small segment for 2013. Ford is promising 30MPG out of the new Transit Connect in 2014, but I suspect that the city mileage will be lower than the NV’s 24 and the combined number is unlikely to be much higher. You can thank the CVT for that combined number because it’s easier for the engine to stay at an efficient RPM in a wider variety of situations. However you feel about CVTs, anything is better than the current Transit Connect’s 4-speed auto.
Logically this is the least important of this review, but the most common question people have after “who makes it” and “how much does it cost” is: a CVT in a cargo van? What’s that like? Surprisingly good. A fully loaded NV200 weighs 4,725lbs. It’s easy to see that 131HP and 139lb-ft need all the help they can get, and that help comes in the form of infinitely variable ratios. Unlike the Transit Connect which feels winded when fully loaded, and never seems to have the right gear for hill climbing, the CVT seems to have the right ratio for every situation. The tangible benefit is: you can load up your NV200 and climb a mountain pass at a constant highway speed while the Transit Connect is doing the speed-up-upshift-slow-down-downfshift-speed-up dance. Meanwhile the RAM C/V’s 283HP V6 is the performance champ (and the only one I’d want to tow anything with) but you pay a 3MPG combined penalty for the added zoom.
Maneuvering the NV200 around downtown San Diego proved easy thanks to a tight 18.3-foot turning radius (1 foot smaller than Ford and Chrysler) and heavily boosted electric power steering. When equipped with the backup camera the NV200 is a breeze to park. Without the $950 option the NV is more of a challenge but still easier to deal with than a full-size cargo hauler. Tight parking is where a compact hauler like the NV really shines.
Before the 2010 model year the commercial cargo market was a stagnating mess. If you needed something more utilitarian than a Caravan or Odyssey, you had to step up to an enormous van with thirsty engines and old 4-speed automatics. Fast forward a few years and we have Nissan’s full-size alternative, the new Ford T-Series on the horizon, GM is stuffing 6-speed autos in their vans, Fiat’s ginormous front-wheel-drive Ducato is landing as the Ram ProMaster and now this NV200, Nissan’s first foray into the growing small commercial market. How well the NV200 sells will depend greatly on Ford’s new Transit Connect for 2014. If Ford can deliver the impressive mileage they are claiming, larger cargo capacity with a similar footprint and a sprinkling of style, the NV is unlikely to fly off the lots. Until then, the NV200 is the king of the compact cargo hill.
Nissan flew me to San Diego for the Versa Note launch and they made a few NV200s available to those interested.