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V is for Versatile

For years, vans did one thing. But now manufacturers offer broader options.

You’ve been putting off replacing — or expanding — your service-vehicle fleet because of the economy. You’ve been diligent with maintenance and are pretty sure you can get by another season. You’ve had other things to spend money on.

But maybe it’s just time: The old rig is on its last legs, the
odometer has more mileage than Zsa Zsa; the scuffs, scrapes, dents and dings have reached such a critical mass that you fear customers are judging you. Your van looks more at home down by the river than in their driveways.

Even if you’re not in the market for a new van, perhaps you know it’s simply smart to shop. “You need to make sure you’re on top of things,” says Ed Schamber of North Shore Pool and Spa in Northbrook, Ill.

Wherever you find yourself on the buy-a-van spectrum, you should know about new vans on the market, whether your service-vehicle fleet is a dozen or more vans or just one.

Dave Schultz is general sales manager at Lithia Ford in Boise, Idaho. Lithia owns 100 dealerships in 13 states. Schultz knows his vans. He says an explosion of choice is taking over the van market.

“Before,” he says, “it was one size fits all, almost.” From Ford, the workhorse Econoline was your van, and about the only variations were side doors or windows or fully enclosed.

“Now, we have choices 12 deep,” he says: everything from engine size and type to van height, wheelbase and dual rear wheels. He also says their fuel economy is better.

And that’s just Ford. Nissan has the NV; Dodge has the ProMaster. All are offering their own takes on the cargo van.

Commercial-fleet owners like the new vans for many reasons. Schultz says business owners buying them range from plumbers to mobile bicycle-repair services.

Kurt Lorey is fleet and commercial vehicle manager at Uebelhor and Sons Commercial Trucks in Jasper, Ind., which bills itself as the largest commercial-vehicle dealer in the Midwest, serving a market that spans three states. He says the Nissan is one of the main vans they sell, and he echoes Schultz on the better gas mileage. In addition, he says, the vans are functional and can do serious work.

Schamber likes them for the extra height, but not for the reason you might think. You can stand up inside, but it’s not that. Some have more interior cubic-foot capacity, too, but it’s not that either.

“They are moving billboards on the highway,” Schultz says. “They are so visible. It’s our No. 1 marketing tool right now. People come in and I ask, ‘How’d you hear about us?’ And they’ll say, ‘I saw one of your vans.’ ”

Norm Coburn, president of New England Spas in Massachusetts, says he’s sticking with Econolines for his six-vehicle service fleet. “We’re pretty used to them and the way we rack them,” he explains — but he bought a Ford Transit for spa valet service. “We completely deck out all of the white space” on the Transit, Coburn says, with a gloved butler’s hand holding a picture of a spa to convey a high level of service.

Schamber has a fleet of 15 vans and rotates two new ones in every three years. North Shore has two new Ford Transits and Schamber says, the racking system is “awesome” for North Shore’s needs. Schamber has them both wrapped in graphics and works with a designer. He says families are his target audience for pools, and the vans’ message reflects that: “A pool is a place that not only attracts other neighborhood kids, but also keeps your kids at home, so you know what they’re doing,” he says. Schamber says he also prefers vans because you can get a lot inside; they keep things dry; they’re safe to drive; and they keep tools and supplies from being stolen.

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