SAN DIEGO -- According to the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, California's second-largest city is home to a little over 3 million people, and the downtown area alone is host to over 5000 businesses. That somewhat crowded nature makes downtown San Diego a natural setting for us to take a spin in the 2013 Nissan NV200, a compact cargo van designed for urban settings.
Rise of the Small Vans
American cargo vans may have risen from compact car roots in the 1960s, but quickly grew to full-size truck proportions in the 1970s and 1980s. Van manufacturers didn't really think small again until relatively recently. The introduction of Ford's Transit Connect to the U.S. market in late 2009 resonated with a surprisingly large segment commercial van buyers seeking a practical, nimble, and fuel-efficient van instead of making do with a standard full-size model. Since its introduction, Ford has sold more than 120,000 Transit Connects in the U.S. -- prompting Ram to bring Fiat's Doblo to our market.
That Nissan wants in on this growing action isn't surprising at all. Not only does it already have a line of work vans and a network of commercial vehicle dealers established in the U.S., it had a small van design waiting in the wings. The NV200 first launched in Japan and Europe in 2009 before going on sale in other global markets in 2010.
An American Translation
Like those vans, the North American-spec 2013 NV200 rides upon Nissan's global front-wheel-drive B platform, which also underpins the likes of the Juke crossover, Cube subcompact, and the previous-generation Versa. Despite this commonality, our NV200 isn't just plucked from a showroom overseas -- they've been stretched. U.S.-market NV200 cargo vans measure 186 inches in length and ride on a 115-inch wheelbase. In contrast, NV200s sold elsewhere on this planet are 173 inches long and use a 95.5-inch wheelbase. That extra length adds about 600 pounds, but beefier suspension hardware -- MacPherson struts up front and leaf springs out back -- allows the NV200's payload to remain close to the 1500-pound mark.
More importantly, the stretch increases the space inside. The load floor itself can accommodate items up to 82.7 inches in length, although a fold-flat passenger seatback helps the NV carry items up to 9'8" with the rear doors closed. The cargo hold is 54.8 inches wide, while the load floor between the rear wheel wells measures 48 inches -- just enough to accommodate a standard-sized palate. In all, there's 122.7 cubic feet of load space. That's roughly seven cubic feet shy of the current Ford Transit Connect, but the NV200 may have the edge in terms of agility: not only is it a half-foot shorter overall, but its turning radius is 2.3 feet tighter.
U.S.-spec NV200s also differ from their global siblings in terms of powertrain. While a range of small gasoline and diesels are offered abroad, a 2.0-liter I-4 -- rated at 131 hp and 139 lb-ft of torque -- is the sole engine option here. While other markets receive a manual transmission option, U.S.-spec NV200s are only offered with a continuously variable automatic transmission. That combination allows the NV200 to earn a 24/25 mpg city/highway rating from the EPA, along with a 24-mpg combined figure.
Looks Aren't Everything
There's only so much a designer can do with a wedge-shaped box that lacks tumblehome, but the 2013 NV200 isn't the most unattractive cargo appliance we've seen on the road. The slender headlamps remind us of the Versa subcompact models, although the chunky grille insert is patterned after Nissan's truck line. Grey-colored bumpers are standard fare on all trim levels, but the upper-crust SV trim is available with body colored panels. 15-inch steel wheels are standard on all grades, though SV models are available with argent hubcaps, if so desired.
If you mistook the NV200's exterior for anything other than a commercial vehicle, a quick look at its cabin extinguishes those misconceptions. Door panels and dashboard alike are trimmed in petrified, inexpensive plastics; seats are trimmed in a durable but banal cloth and vinyl blend, and the steering column does without any tilt or telescoping adjustment. Power windows and locks are standard, as are side curtain airbags.
What the NV200 lacks in flash it makes up for in functionality. A large, angled cubby atop of the dash is perfectly sized for holding clipboards, tablet devices, or binders. Another large cubby placed between the front seats can hold a laptop computer or hanging file folders. The aforementioned fold-flat seat can also double as a writing surface, and a pull-out-drawer beneath the seat cushion. SV models include six floor-mounted D-ring cargo lashing points, while all NV200s boast integrated internal cargo and external roof rack mounting points, which expedite the installation of aftermarket storage equipment. SV models are also available with the NissanConnect infotainment system, which incorporates navigation, Google-based POI search functions, and a Bluetooth hands-free phone interface.
Although Nissan is preparing a taxi variant of the NV200 for New York City and other livery fleets across the country, Nissan representatives tell us there is no plan to bring a non-taxi, NV200 passenger wagon model to the North American market.
Small Car Charm
We didn't have an opportunity to toss a few pallets of landscape brick in the back or load the NV200 down with a sizable amount of cargo, but we were allowed to exercise it around the metropolitan San Diego area.
About town, the NV200 behaves like a tall, windowless Versa. That's unsurprising, given its roots, but that car-like nature is quite important, especially to businesses attempting to acclimate new drivers to the NV200. The NV's slender body, tight wheel cut, and small turning radius make threading through traffic and down narrow alleyways an absolute breeze. Acceleration off the line is brisk, but the 2.0-liter and CVT labor slightly when merging onto high-speed freeways.
Drivers, who will likely enter and exit the cockpit dozens of times each day, will appreciate the ability to step up into the NV200, instead of ducking down. Even in its lowest position, the NV200's driver's seat is placed rather high, allowing for impressive forward visibility. Ducking is certainly required when using either of the side sliding doors: because of the upper sliding rail, the side door openings are roughly 2-3 inches lower than the front doors. The 40/60 split rear doors awkwardly block rear visibility when rear windows are equipped, but there's a method to their madness -- when both doors are opened to their full 180-degree position, the driver's side barely sticks out into traffic.
The NV200 may not have much competition at the moment, but the field will quickly be changing. Ford's second-generation Transit Connect range will launch in North America early next year, Ram's Doblo should arrive in the middle of 2014, and Chevrolet will even attempt to cash in on the segment by badge-engineering the Nissan NV200 itself. That said, the NV200's capacity, fuel economy, agility, and low price point are attractive to commercial buyers -- and will likely remain so for quite some time.