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Nissan NV200 is company's first foray into U.S. van market

The Nissan NV200 handles well and features a

The Nissan NV200 handles well and features a range of clever features for on-the-go office work. Credit:

If you've ever visited foreign countries, you've likely noticed unfamiliar nifty compact pickups and vans and wondered, "Why don't they sell that in the U.S?"

That's a good question, one which carmakers have begun asking themselves, especially when it comes to vans. It used to be that the U.S. van market tendered a wide variety of sizes and powertrain/economy offerings. Vans sold here were available with six-cylinder engines (cheaper to buy and, in most cases, cheaper to run) and of course there was always the four-cylinder VW, short on power but easy on gas.

Over time, the more economically minded offerings all grew larger or went away, giving us the seriously capable half-ton, three-quarter ton and one-ton full-sized models we have today. These vans can hold, haul and do nearly anything, but in some cases they're more than what's needed for a given job or too expensive. A passenger-car-based minivan with blacked-out windows just doesn't do the same work that a proper commercial van can.

Ford kicked the compact commercial van door open a few years back with the Transit Connect, its four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive van built and sold in other parts of the world. That affordable "little van that can" has proven to be a strong seller, and now Nissan has jumped into the fray with the philosophically similar NV200. Contrary to a common misheld belief, the NV200 is not a reconstituted Renault Kangoo. According to Peter Bedrosian, Nissan's senior manager of product planning, it was conceived and born as a Nissan all the way, and although smaller versions of it are sold in the global market, it's not a rebadged Renault. With the advent of its sturdy full-sized NV 1500/2500/3500 cargo vans, Nissan has demonstrated its commitment to the van business in North America, and the compact NV200 is merely the next step.

The NV covers about the same physical footprint as the Transit Connect and Ram C/V, boasting a worthwhile 1,500-pound maximum payload capacity and 122.7 cubic feet of cargo volume; fuel mileage is a claimed to be best in class at 24 mpg combined. Like the Ford and Ram, the NV is front-wheel drive, offering one powertrain, the familiar 2.0-liter Nissan DOHC four-cylinder that does yeoman duty in the compact Nissan Sentra. The engine's power curve has been retuned slightly, and it offers a credible 131 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, shifting through a continuously variable transmission specifically designed for smoother operation and maximum fuel economy. There is no manual transmission, nor is all-wheel drive offered. Torque is 139 pounds-feet at 4,800 revolutions.

What really wins points is the NV's array of clever features. Nissan rightly assessed that the small business owners who will buy and drive a compact cargo van like the NV200 practically live in their vehicles for several hours at a time, so Nissan made it comfortable and mobile-office friendly. There are several power points for charging devices, and the center console will hold full-sized file folders. The seats, although certainly not plush, are comfy and sturdy, and feature vinyl wear patches on the lower outside bolsters to protect against fabric chafing. The low load floor is flat, there is a sliding door on each side and wide-opening barn doors at the rear, so access is nearly unrestricted. The metal framing inside the cargo area is filled with "weld nuts" to which a wide variety of brackets, shelving or pre-made paneling can be affixed. Additionally, the front passenger seat folds flat to create a work surface, perfect for setting up your laptop when your van is serving as your mobile office or conference room.

You couldn't ask for a nicer driving van. The small wheel and tire combination and car chassis make for a smooth and quiet ride. The engine is willing but not thrilling, as it offers just enough power to do the job. We should add that the NV200 does not have a tow rating because of the light-duty nature of the chassis, which is designed to carry loads rather than pull them. We're seldom fans of CVTs, especially in work-duty vehicles, but this one works pretty well. It does take some getting used to (the engine will seem a little buzzier than usual for first-timers), but we like that it lets the engine wind up into its powerband, then feeds the power to the ground in a relatively punchy and efficient manner. The NV handles nicely; it never feels top heavy, offers a smooth, relatively quiet cargo-friendly ride and seems to have plenty strong braking (discs in front, drum in back). Finally, on our drive, the structure seemed impressively sturdy with no creaks, squeaks or rattles from the side doors as we cruised around town on open highways.

It's our guess the NV200 sales will ramp up slowly, most likely coinciding with the growing economy, but it won't help that these little vans will be sold only at Nissan commercial outlets instead of regular dealerships. We're guessing that could change. Also, we'd like to see more versions of the little van become available, like one with a taller roof, maybe a heavy-duty spring package and still another with just a single sliding door (now all NV200 vans must have sliding doors on both sides of the vehicle). Regardless, this looks to be a good start.

There are two trim levels available, S and SV, with several options including a fully integrated navigation system, cruise control and hands-free Bluetooth. The well-equipped SV level van we spent the most time in is base priced at $21,825 (including destination), and bottom lined at $23,060, which included nav, Bluetooth and satellite radio. The NV200 is currently on sale.

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