Even Bare-Bones, This Nissan Van’s a Cruiser

May 9, 2011

If you’re a tradesman or building contractor, chances are you drive some kind of work or utility truck. And maybe it’s a cargo van set up with shelves, bins and a ladder rack. So this new Nissan Van will catch your eye and you might wonder what it’s all about.

If you’re a tradesman or building contractor, chances are you drive some kind of work or utility truck. And maybe it’s a cargo van set up with shelves, bins and a ladder rack. So this new Nissan Van will catch your eye and you might wonder what it’s all about.

The NV, as Nissan calls it, was preceded by extensive research in the United States, was designed for use here, and is built in Mississippi. It’s definitely an American-style vehicle. It’s large and roomy and has a big gasoline V-8 engine that really hauls! A V-6 is standard in some models and there’s no diesel option. It’s aimed at the high-volume segment dominated by Ford and its E-series vans.

The man in charge of Nissan Commercial Vehicles, Joe Castelli, knows quite a bit about the E-series because he was a top executive at Ford Commercial Truck. He helped guide the NV design process and also prepared Nissan dealers to handle this brand-new commercial product. It comes as a half-ton 1500, a three-quarter-ton 2500 HD, and a 1-ton 3500 HD. There’s a Nissan disc on the grille, but model identification appears only on one rear door, so a lot of people peered at the truck with “what-is-it?” looks on their faces.

A 3500 HD is what Nissan marketing people sent to my driveway in central Ohio. It resembled a Ford E van, but there are some serious differences. Most obvious is the longer nose, which allows that V-8 to sit further forward—almost completely within the engine compartment and not in the cab. This makes it easier to work on and, with no wide doghouse to cover the engine’s rear, there’s more foot and leg room for the driver and passenger.

Nissan calls the cab interior “pickup-like” and it pretty much is. There’s still the transmission hump and it’s covered by a small console, which has a couple of cup holders and not much else. A tall armrest between the two seats has more cup holders and a big bin that can take file folders and a laptop computer.

The seats were large and nicely padded and contoured, so offered excellent support. My wife and I ran an errand, dropping boxes of clothing and household discards at a thrift store, and she called her passenger seat “very comfortable.” That’s saying a lot because she has spinal arthritis. My back and arse are 68 years old and the driver’s seat accommodated them very nicely, from Columbus to Indianapolis and back. There were no power adjustments, but I didn’t need any.

This was a base-model NV, so there were power steering and brakes and automatic transmission but not much else. The side windows were hand cranked, and from outside the ignition key locked and unlocked the side and rear doors. The cab floor is close to 2 feet high, so climbing in required grabbing the steering wheel or the large handle on the A pillar. The plastic cover on the door sill was slippery when wet, but I learned to put a foot in the rounded crook where the sill transitions from horizontal to vertical.

The instrument panel was attractively laid out if sparse, with only a large speedometer and tachometer and smaller gauges for the gasoline tank and coolant temperature. Of course, there were plenty of warning lights, and they’ll flash and holler if something ever goes wrong with the engine or other systems. Rotary switches and buttons controlled the HVAC. In early March when I had the van, it was plenty cool but the heater kept me warm and ventilation was plentiful.

Windows and windshield were big and so were the side mirrors, so I could see everything I needed to. The mirrors were remotely adjustable, but the multifunction switch for them was at the lower-left side of the dash, hidden by the steering wheel except if I cocked my head in its direction. I wondered why the switch wasn’t on the driver’s door, but never needed it much anyway.

The long hood was prominent, but it sloped down so was not in the way. A center mirror gave a view directly to the rear, through the windows in the two barn doors. This reminded me of my college-years driving job where I started out with “panel trucks,” which were steel-bodied, low-roof vans that used noses, cabs and chassis from pickup trucks.

Panel trucks were popular from the 1930s to ’60s, but were eliminated by purpose-built vans that began as compacts with flat front ends, then morphed into the full-size, short-nose creatures that we have today. American users have come to expect this type of vehicle, and they buy hundreds of thousands every year. So I suppose going back to pickup-based panel trucks is out of the question, even if they might save a bunch of development and manufacturing money.

The NV’s nose and cab might be pickup-like, but are not those of Nissan’s Titan. The cargo body is unique to this van, as well. In this base model, the ceiling, walls and floor were bare steel, which made for enough road noise out on Interstate 70 to drown out the otherwise nice-sounding radio/CD player. There were tie-down rings in the floor, which would’ve been handy if I had hauled anything besides those boxes of stuff for the thrift store and six days worth of luggage for that trip to Indy, but I didn’t. And there are hard points at key places in the body for attaching equipment to suit the user.

The body comes in two heights: the low roof, which stands about 6.5 feet from the pavement—I know this because I couldn’t get into parking garages with overhead clearances of 6 feet 4 inches—and a high roof, which offers standup room and quite a bit of interior volume. In that sense the NV is like the tall German-made Sprinter van, now sold here by Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner dealers. These find favor with folks who appreciate the overhead room and fuel economy.

The Sprinter comes only with a small V-6 diesel that sips fuel but helps make the van pricey, about $10,000 more than a comparable domestic gasoline-engine van. That’s why Nissan decided to start with only gasoline engines. They’re far less expensive to make and buy, and even if they suck some gas, it costs about 50 cents per gallon less than diesel. And the many dollars saved upfront results in a lower cost of ownership, unless a van will run 25,000 to 30,000 miles per year or more.

This NV didn’t do too badly on gas, according to a small readout in the dash. It said 15.2 mpg upon delivery, and that dipped to 14.9 around Columbus, Ohio, then settled on 15.2 while cruising at 70 to 72 mph on I-70, during which the tach read 2,200 to 2,300 rpm.

Returning home I took U.S. 40, the old main east-west route, and expected economy to drop. But it actually climbed, to 15.6 mpg, even with stops and starts as I passed through numerous towns and a few cities. More important, apparently, was that I cruised at 60 mph and 2,000 rpm or so on the highway, a much more economical speed for the engine and 5-speed automatic transmission. Now, load the truck and crawl around town and it might dip to 12 mpg or less.

Did I mention that the 5.6-liter, 317-horsepower Nissan V-8 really hauls? This truck is fast. No, I didn’t do any tire burnouts and I never timed the seconds from 0 to 60 mph, but I moved away from stoplights briskly enough to beat any other car or truck I wanted to. That’s what most drivers want, and it’s why Ford and General Motors still put big V-8s in their vans and pickups. No, there was no weight aboard except me and my luggage, but I think the Nissan engine would also haul cargo and pull heavy trailers without breathing too hard.

A colleague who drove an NV1500 with the standard 261-horsepower, 4-liter V-6 described it as “doggy.” He added, “Whatever the price is for the V-8, get it, especially if you’re going to drive it. Let your employees drive the Six.” Spoken like a boss, hey?