By on February 21, 2017

2017 Ford Transit and Transit Connect - Image: Ford

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.

U.S. commercial van sales chart: Image: © The Truth About Cars
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.

2017 Nissan NV200 - Image: Nissan

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.

2017 Ram ProMaster City Tradesman SLT - Image: FCA

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.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

52 Comments on “Small Commercial Vans Rapidly Losing Their Appeal With Handy Mannys and Bob The Builders of America...”


  • avatar
    OldManPants

    I doubt conclusions can be drawn here. There has been such a frenzy of acquiring these vanlets for light service applications that they may just be mid-lifecycle and not yet requiring replacement.

    The only certainty is that they’re now ubiquitous.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      One of the local cafes bought a short wheelbase Transit Connect for the catering side of their business. It is from early American importation and I doubt they will need to replace it anytime soon.

      I think you are right. Small vans are everywhere and the only ones that I see looking “tired” are the Promasters.

  • avatar
    prisoners

    Bought a new 2014 Transit Connect. It was the perfect size for my business needs but the unfinished interior was disappointing. I knew this before buying, but it was still the best option at the time. The interior cargo area had absolutely no insulation or any trim pieces to cover exposed steel panels. This is of course a direct result of manufacturers avoiding the ‘chicken tax’ by importing passenger vans and removing all seats/carpet/etc to transform it into a commercial vehicle, but the result is a needlessly ugly product. Utilitarian is one thing (and appropriate here) but this can only be described as complete indifference to the end result.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      That’s because they expect buyers to work with upfitters, to install shelving/racks/drawers/etc. to accommodate their business.

      • 0 avatar
        prisoners

        I get that, but a simple piece of primed sheet metal or ABS plastic wouldn’t add much to the cost and would go a long way toward improving the look. When shelves are added the interior space starts to get taken up quickly; I’ll bet many buyers just want the open area but would still like something to finish the look and protect the interior side of the walls from damage.

        Another significant flaw: the Transit Connect comes to North America as a passenger vehicle with side windows. The glass is removed and a body-colored panel is attached on the outside using adhesive. It’s a low-rent fix at best.

    • 0 avatar

      Blaming the chicken tax for the interior is a bit silly. The big vans come the same way (though at added cost you can get the interior upgrade package). You’re correct on the window sides though. The way to go is to get side glass and cover it with a perforated vinyl. Cheap and good advertising while allowing better visibility while not sacrificing security.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    Most likely a case of market saturation. There isn’t an unlimited pool of buyers. I don’t see many of these in my town. Full sized Savana and Express vans are common along with Ford E-series. I see some business’s clinging tenaciously to those older vans along with the Safari/Astro vans.
    The Nissan NV cargo van is slowly becoming more common along with the Ford Transit.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I do recall a certain Australian saying that Eurovans were going to kick the sh!t out of pickups.

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      He also said the aluminum Ford trucks would be a failure… Swing and a miss..

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        Mike the D!ck,
        I think you have the wrong Aussie. I do believe it was RobertRyan.

        Oh, I stated the aluminium wunders trucks would not lift Ford as the best selling pickup manufacturer. I stated it would never pass GM.

        You screwed up who and what was put forward. Give it up. Troll.

        A bit of a beat up, or you seem to be beating something else.

        • 0 avatar
          Big Al From 'Murica

          But the amount of trucks they sell has not gone down.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          BAFO is testy today!

          Anger is a great way for hiding the fact that one is wrong…… I’d mention a certain leader of a certain country just south of my country but I don’t want to start a flame war.

        • 0 avatar
          DenverMike

          @BAFO – Nicely done! You just threw your comrade Robbie under the bus, for something he had no part in! You’ve been carpet bombing fhis site (plus another you were banned from), on the “aluminum F-150” *warpath*, yammering on, nonstop, on how “Ford is HURTING!!!”, “It’ll be Too expensive to BUILD!!!”, “It’ll be TOO expensive to BUY!!!”, etc, before/during/after its release, and all the while, not a single peep from RR on the topic!

      • 0 avatar
        RobertRyan

        @Big Al from Oz
        Not this Aussie. Only Ford Transits I have seen in Australia is a mid size version the Custom, they do not sell in the US
        http://m.ford.co.uk/CommercialVehicles/Transit-Custom

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I am starting to see a decent number of the Nissan NV200s, along with a smaller number of the Chevrolet City Express. Not too many of the RAM vanlets, and I’ve yet to see a Metris.

  • avatar
    John-95_Taurus_3.0_AX4N

    There is also the fact that when the Transit Connect was introduced, Ford’s full sized van looked like a 1992, drove like a 1978 and drank fuel like it was 1999. The smaller and far more comfortable and maneuverable T.C. was a revelation.

    Like the Aerostar before it, those who didn’t regularly tow a house or haul 179,000 cubic feet of wigits would gladly walk right past the ancient E-Series and into the arms of the little T.C.

    The E-Series replacement, the Transit, is unibody and much better to sit in, drive, and pay the fuel bill for.

    Stands to reason that it would make sense to people who needed the some more capability but couldn’t stand the seating and driving dynamics of E-Series.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Good point about the old E-series. There were a lot of reasons to prefer a TC if you didn’t have to have the extra space, but with the Transit it’s a different story.

    • 0 avatar
      Timothy Cain

      Very good point. The Transit Connect vs. Transit comparison is astonishingly different than the Transit Connect vs. E-Series comparison.

      • 0 avatar
        quaquaqua

        Yeah, but I bet hardly anyone is even test driving the Connect when they look for a work van. If gas were $4/gallon, people would be waaay more interested in a smaller van (most people don’t actual look at fuel economy stickers, they just think small=efficient). But for now, people have zero qualms buying a huge van if they don’t mind driving/parking it.

  • avatar
    Rday

    I recall reading a CR review stating that the transit connect was not fuel efficient and for the money there were better choices. My promaster 2500 did well on gas [prox 15mpg overll] and held an incredible amount of cargo, rode very well, turned on a dime and had the best brakes i have seen on a vehicle. too bad it had the caravan drive train which will doom it to poor reliability and high cost of maintenance. But i think all of t he new full size vans have ‘issues’ and none seem to be that reliable and cost efficient. Sad that this is the case.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I tend to go with market saturation as well. I still see a lot of minivans at construction sites here in CO. Only, they are well used Chrysler and Dodge bubble vans with roof racks and a bunch of ladders. You still catch the occasional Astro van as well.

    I think in some cases, it is still cheaper for the folks in the trades to buy a used, well used in some cases, family van and strip the seats out. Followed by a trip the pick n pull parts joint to keep it on the road.

  • avatar
    syncro87

    I was interested in a Ram Promaster City.

    My first problem was finding one with the rear seat option. Almost impossible. On rare occasion, I need to haul a third person. Dealers are loathe to stock one with a rear seat.

    Next issue was poor value for price. A Pro City with the rear seat, when found, was typically $28k. This for a very basic vehicle. You can buy a Honda Civic Touring with LED headlamps, navigation, dual zone climate control, and myriad other premium features (adaptive cruise, etc) for less money than a plain jane Pro C. You can buy a base Honda Odyssey with rear A/C for roughly the same price as the Ram. Not to mention how much cheaper you can buy a Grand Caravan. Compared to what upper $20s money buys you elsewhere in the market, the Pro City and TC offer relatively poor features for the dollar. I realize a Civic is not a small van, just a comment on loaded out Honda being the same price as a small metal box with a couple of fabric clad seats inside.

    The Pro Cities and Transit Connects depreciate quickly, so paying top dollar up front for minimal features held little appeal.

    Incentives that did exist were solely for commercial buyers. Mostly targeted toward people who already owned a cargo van, etc. Close to sticker price for non commercial buyers.

    I’d love to have a Pro City, but the pricing and incentive structure makes zero sense. Paying $26k+ for one new is like setting your money on fire. Used, low miles examples exist for not much more than half of new price, but again, all cargo versions, none with the rear seat.

    I’m surprised that Ford and FCA don’t offer a “Crew” variant, like MB does with the Sprinter. Minimal rear frills, but a rear seat and seat belts for when you need to carry cargo mainly, but an extra person or two on occasion.

    A Nissan NV200 was on my radar, but again, two seats only.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      This is the exact conundrum for FCA dealers and the Promaster City. For customers that don’t require the cargo specific features, a Grand Caravan makes more sense. You get seats and a nice engine standard. As long as the DGC exists, PM Citys with seats will be few and far between.

  • avatar
    stuki

    For urban applications, neither the Transit, Promaster, NV nor Sprinter is particularly parking structure friendly. They’re really a different class of vehicle altogether than the FWD little ones.

    A development that cuts into the desirability of small vans, is the reemergence of mid size pickups, and the exploding availability of commercial caps/service bodies for them. In the bigger vans, interior shelving solutions are functional for even normal sized guys. While for smaller vehicles, it often makes more sense to be able to access the shelves from the outside, where the average American has some room to move, and some headroom.

    Most people who look at small vans, unless they are pure package delivery guys, care less about the absolute largest amount of enclosed and lockable space, than they do about lockable space that is part organized, part open for the one or two larger objects they may need to carry. For those guys, an enclosed topper/service body works just as well as a van. While in many situations allowing for less cumbersome access, as well as more crossover utility for other possible uses (towing, 4wd…..)

    And in the future, although perhaps not pervasive as of yet, the more widespread and lower cost availability of service bodies that slide in and off the bed fully stocked and loaded, makes the pickup even more easy to re purpose if needs change.

  • avatar
    e30gator

    Pizza delivery drivers and florists don’t need a special vehicle just for them. Regular minivans and wagons work just fine. For most contractors, the cargo area of a Transit Connect just won’t do.

    On a side note, I cannot believe that the Chevrolet Express is still in production. 21 years old and still going strong. I think that speaks volumes about the mindset and thinking that goes into buying a business vehicle. Sheer size and a tried and true package will beat out fuel economy and modernity every time.

    • 0 avatar
      OldManPants

      “Sheer size and a tried and true package will beat out fuel economy and modernity every time.”

      Must be why I never see TCs, NVs or Promaster Citys.

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      Fuel economy is great and all but a competent fleet manager looks at total cost to own, any money saved on fuel can quickly be eaten up by unexpected repairs and unscheduled down time. The express is a known entity with known expenses with cheap parts that anyone can install.. All of which ensure a long and profitable history for the express

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      The express with a Duramax will actually yield something to *close* to reasonable FE. Even the half ton with the 5.3 will do mid to upper teens if you spend some time on the highway.

      The 3/4 ton express with a Duramax and tow package is a beast of a utility vehicle.

  • avatar
    CaddyDaddy

    I was at Home Depot the other day and some poor sap was trying to shove a water heater in his outfitted plumbing Transit Connect, it was not going well. Asked him if he needed any help and he said he had already called his partner with the Econoline.

    You can’t beat a cast iron V-8 and a one ton driveleine for reliability and capacity. I really do miss my 350 Sportsman.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      That’s funny because the last time I bought a water heater I carried it home in the Saab. Plenty of room back there, the heater is under 6 feet long, so it fit with the hatch closed and the passenger seat slightly forward.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    In a few months, I’ll be putting 2,000 miles on a 15-passenger rental van – I’m praying now start building karma points so that I get a Transit instead of a Chevy Express, though am a bit worried how only 260 ft-lb of torque will do on the mountains on I-77.

    • 0 avatar
      phxmotor

      I can’t tell if this poster with his planned 2,000 mile drive in a couple months on I-77 in a rented 15 passenger van is a sarcastic posting or if he’s serious. Only 277(?) ft lbs of torque… a huge 2,000 miles excursion(?)!
      What the heck?
      My family takes a 2,000 drive every few weeks. In Subarus with over 300,000 miles or in our v8 Explorer with a little over 200,000. What the big deal?
      Is the writer concerned about… ? …hmmm… I’m not really clear about what he-she is so concerned about.
      But I’ll bet… that he-she is the kind of 15 passenger van driver that I see soooo much of. Overloaded to the max….Speeding… and oblivious to the physics of a big heavily loaded vehicle and… after the inevitable accident… more than willing to blame the manufacturer for a defective product. Now I’m being sarcastic… you’ll be fine. I’m sure you are a good safe careful driver. It’s just that…
      Every time I am passed by an overloaded 15 passenger van going well over 75 on the interstate I just shudder.
      To the person taking the trip… have fun… be careful… …you won’t have any trouble getting there. You will be fine. Be careful. A lot of souls in one vehicle are depending on you. The can… I mean van… will do fine.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        I’m guessing Nick would rather get something modern “Transit” to drive vs something with ancient DNA “Express”. I’m guessing the Transit would be less stressful to drive in the real world.

        • 0 avatar
          Nick 2012

          PrincipalDan is correct; but appreciate the feedback Phxmotor.

          I’ve got a lot of seat time driving large vans as a volunteer EMT (including emergency vehicle operator training) and frequently being the designated driver. In Expresses, the dog house cramps my legs terribly.

          The Transit won’t be close to fully loaded. Five people with luggage will inhabit it for most of the travel (picking up another 3 within 60 miles of the destination for a week’s vacation). The low-torque-high-revving V6 will be a new experience for someone used to diesel or V8 motive power, and I don’t want to be in 3rd gear at 6500 RPMs going 55 up a hill.

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      If it’s a 15 passenger you’ll be getting the eco boost.. 450 ft lbs

  • avatar
    TR4

    History repeating itself (sort of). The Big Three all introduced compact vans around 1960 to compete with the VW transporter. Then around 1970 they greatly upsized them and kept it that way for the next four decades.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    This is probably the sustainable level. When these vans first came out, there was a wave of pent-up demand because there had never been appropriate products for this market before. For urban delivery and contractors who work at city job sites, the smaller size makes a world of difference.

  • avatar
    wally109

    These were supposed to replace rangers and S-10s. But they really suck, if all you’re doing is schlepping pieces and parts for worksites and stores.

    Need to take 2 new dishwashers, 2 microwaves, and a strap dolly out to the duplex you rent, Still in boxes? Both a Transit and an old Ranger will hold all that, but the trucklets’ will be a whole lot easier to load and unload. Tie-down is a breeze too, with no sides to contend with.

    Ten bags of mulch will go in and out of an S-10 truckbed quickly if you have people to help. A full-size truck can do it all better, but it will cost more to buy and run, and modern trucks are getting too tall for easy unloading by hand.

    Plenty of buyers are upgrading to full size trucks and vans, maybe that was the whole point all along.

    I see a ton of rangers and S-10s soldiering on because a mini-mini-work van is no replacement for the humble little work trucklet.

    • 0 avatar
      OldManPants

      “Because mulch” being the ultimate justification here for van haters, it needs to have a song. Temporarily…

      MULCH, MULCH, MULCH, MULCH

      LOVELY MULCH, WONDERFUL MULCH!

  • avatar
    Drew8MR

    I think for most of the trades you need to be able to get 8 feet of whatever inside. Ladders, pipe, conduit, lumber.. Do you really want to have to sit in the parking lot at home depot cutting conduit in half so it fits?

  • avatar
    Jagboi

    About the only Transit Connects I see are those owned by Canada Post. They must have a huge fleet of them. Perfect size for urban mail delivery, but big E series based vans were overkill most of the time. My postal lady likes driving her TC.

  • avatar

    I can’t understand that value proposition behind a $29k Metris.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    These types of vehicles could be a good barometer for all light commercial vehicle sales.

    It would be interesting to see how many real working midsize and 1/2 ton pickups are moving at the moment.

    I’m not describing the more than half which are a tax write off, but pickups that are purely for work.

    From what I’ve read most pickups are those for “personal” use.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • tankinbeans: Re: flickering CHMSL commonly known as the cyclops in Minnesota I always find it fun when the light is...
  • multicam: Oh, they make car hipsters too!
  • millerluke: @JMII: Good luck! A local Toyota dealer has by far the best salespeople and experience of any dealership...
  • Socrates77: they’re better cars that gm equinox or gmc terrain. I buy it over a Cadillac also.
  • Varezhka: Yeah, I remember those. Isuzu Rodeo as Honda Passport and Isuzu Trooper as Acura SLX. They even had Isuzu...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber