Small Commercial Vans Rapidly Losing Their Appeal With Handy Mannys and Bob The Builders of America
On the surface, little Euro vans seem to make so much sense. Not every contractor needs a football field’s worth of space behind two front seats.
City-friendly exterior dimensions, a more affordable price tag, and four-cylinder fuel economy should, in theory, cause Bob the Builder or Handy Manny to take a serious look.
But enticing as the idea sounds, the value quotient proffered by 2017’s crop of five small commercial vans simply doesn’t add up for the overwhelming majority of commercial van buyers. Sure, the Ford Transit Connect may be a decent deal. But the Ford Transit is a comparatively great deal.
As a result, full-size commercial van sales are consistently on the rise. But small commercial van sales? Plunging like Paul the Plumber.
Despite declines in the last two months from the top-selling Ford Transit, full-size commercial van sales have grown in 18 consecutive months, rising 15 percent in calendar year 2016.
Yet January 2017 marked the sixth consecutive month of sharp decline for America’s small commercial vans. January 2017 was the sixth consecutive month in which small vans owned less than one-fifth of America’s overall commercial van market. January 2017 was also the thirteenth consecutive month in which U.S. sales of small commercial vans failed to climb into five-digit territory.
The Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200, Ram ProMaster City, Chevrolet City Express, tweener-sized Mercedes-Benz Metris, and discontinued Ram Cargo Van combined for nearly 91,000 sales in calendar year 2016, a modest 3-percent year-over-year decline. Yet the decline was modest only because of a surge in the first half of the year, a successful follow-up to a 2015 calendar year in which small commercial van sales jumped 38 percent to form 22 percent of the overall commercial van market.
More recently, over the last half-year, sales have fallen by a fairly astonishing 27 percent, a loss of more than 13,000 sales, year-over-year. Last month, small vans accounted for just 17 percent of America’s commercial van sales tally.
Meanwhile, full-size commercial van sales continue to expand, month after month after month.
With fuel prices well below $2.50/gallon, the economic climate for small vans today is very different than it was in early 2008, when average fuel prices spiked to an all-time high and Ford announced that it would begin selling the Transit Connect in the United States. Even upon the Nissan NV200’s arrival in early 2013, Americans were paying an average of $3.70/gallon.
Fuel costs are only part of the issue, however. Full-size commercial vans — particularly at a time when saving every last penny on fuel, no matter the compromise, isn’t necessary — simply provide more bang for the buck. For 31-percent more money than the largest Ford Transit Connect, even the smallest Ford Transit provides 92-percent more cargo volume.
After peaking at 52,221 units in 2015, U.S. Ford Transit Connect sales plunged 17 percent in 2016. On a monthly basis, Transit Connect volume has decreased in six consecutive months and in 10 of the last 13 months. The small Ford continues to be the dominating player in the segment, claiming just under half of all non-full-size commercial van sales in 2016.
January volume, however, fell to a 72-month low.
2016 produced another year of growth for the Nissan NV200, sales of which expanded for a third consecutive year. In keeping with the category, however, NV200 sales decreased in six of the last seven months.
Still a fresh face in 2016, the third-ranked Ram ProMaster City likewise reported improvement last year. Much of that growth came early in the year, however, when 2016 sales were being compared with the launch period of 2015.
Over the last three months, Ram ProMaster City sales have essentially been chopped in half, falling 46 percent since November.
The Nissan NV200-related Chevrolet City Express has progressively proven to be less and less of a player in the segment. Only 8 percent of the small commercial vans sold in 2016 were Chevrolets, down from 11 percent one year earlier. City Express sales have crumpled in nine consecutive months, sliding by nearly two-thirds — a 64-percent drop — since May of last year.
Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, does not provide a breakdown of Sprinter and Metris sales in its monthly sales report, although we have acquired the information for much of its tenure. Of the 34,304 vans sold by Mercedes-Benz last year, 17 percent were midsize Metrises.
No other commercial van on sale in America sold less often than the Metris last year.
Of course there are buyers who, regardless of the value quotient, simply won’t want to spend the extra cash on a full-size van. Fortunately, for the time being, there are a variety of non-full-size options for that demographic.
But it’s a demographic that appears much smaller now than we thought it would be back when fuel prices were high, when businesses of every size were looking for cost-saving measures, when we assumed new contenders would exponentially grow the category and not fight over smaller slices of a shrinking pie.
Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.
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I can't understand that value proposition behind a $29k Metris.
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