2012 Nissan NV Van

When was the last time you thought about the commercial van business? Unless you're a plumber, the answer's probably, "Huh?" Nissan, on the other hand, has been thinking a lot about the commercial van business lately. More, in fact, than anyone has in years.

Nissan's been thinking so much about vans and the people who buy them because, not long ago, the company hatched a plan to revamp the modern, light-duty commercial box, a construct that's largely been frozen, like reruns of The Brady Bunch, in 1970.

Indeed, the unibody, truck-based 1971 Dodge Tradesman and 1971 ChevyVan laid a marker for the US domestic work-van market, using parts from pickup trucks instead of cars, as previous vans had. (Ford had made an earlier half-measure in 1968 with the E-Series, followed by a body-on-frame update in 1975.) Chrysler adopted the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in 2001 and ended the Tradesman-descended Ram Van in 2003. During the '70s those vans — converted into mural-sided, disco-balled palaces — saw more action than Gene Simmons, Wilt Chamberlain and Fidel Castro combined, and also got some work done.

2012 Nissan NV Van

The NV project, which has little to do with the street-van craze that gave the '70s its own, rolling billboards, was such a big deal to Nissan that the company put one of its top product managers on the job, the same guy who handled the company's spectrum-opposite GT-R. Why bother? Research, research, research.

Research that shows the full-sized-van market will rebound hard by 2013; research that shows current van owners hate their vans and are ripe for conquesting, and most important for the NV's design team, research that shows many former commercial van owners have abandoned the market altogether — fleeing to accessorized pickup trucks to meet their cargo-and-tool-lugging needs.

2012 Nissan NV Van

Getting these late-coming pickup guys to return to vans is key to the NV's design. From the B-pillar forward, it's a pickup. That is, it's got a nose large enough to fit an entire engine, where other vans still push the powerplant into the passenger compartment. Styling draws heavily from the company's Titan pickup and Armada SUV, but rises on a new, commercial-duty chassis and shares almost no parts with those vehicles, except for the engines and rear diff.

Those engines include Nissan's 261 hp, 4.0-liter V6 (in the base NV1500) or punchy 317 hp, 5.6-liter V8 (optional in the NV2500, standard in NV3500). Those who require the benefits of torque need the V8, which can drag 9,500 lbs' worth of worksite gear or weekend racecar with the optional towing package.

Like Chevy's and Ford's vans, Nissan went with a body-on-frame construction for the development cost-effectiveness and cargo-worthiness. Mercedes-Benz's Sprinter uses a modified unibody, so Nissan can claim the NV's the only high-roof van with body-on-frame layout. Indeed that high-roof model is high enough to let a guy walk around in a hardhat.

2012 Nissan NV Van

[That's Mike Levine from PickupTrucks.com]

Inside, the NV feels roomier than a Chevrolet Express the company brought along for comparison. Most notably, front footroom space is vast, with a foot well comparable to that in a pickup, not the cramped-by-engine boot space in a typical van. That's one of the details the company set out to address. Also revealed in the company's reverse-engineering of the work-van experience is the short life of most vans' front seat. The constant ins and outs wears out the beading, which ends up ripping within the first couple of years. Nissan solved this issue by beefing up the stitching on the seats to handle more usage cycles.

These are the kinds of details Nissan is hoping will win work-truck guys back. The company recently organized a trip for members of the press to deliver supplies from a Miami-area Lowes to a Habitat for Humanity building center so we could see how the NVs could swallow a 4' x 4' x 4' pallet, served by forklift, between the rear wheel wells with room to spare. Moreover, the rear doors fold nearly flat against the body, and held open by a magnetic nub. Details.

And while most vans split 70 percent fleets, 30 percent small-business and personal use, Nissan wants to flip that, and aiming to sell 60 percent of its NV vans to small business owners — a massive pool of customers, but one with specific needs. And here's where Nissan's plan gets interesting.

Buyers can get a no-charge graphics package that'll let them design and order business logos and other vanside advertising (an airbrushed mural of Conan the Barbarian holding a sword is extra), or a no-charge upfit of interior fittings, bins, drawers, etc. The market in which the NV competes is 3.5 million work trucks out there, and Nissan wants to win a piece of it — one detail at a time.