MIAMI – They’re everywhere: lurking in your neighborhoods, parked at businesses you frequent, maybe even in your driveway now. They are…commercial vans.

Although an ugly, utilitarian box on wheels to some, commercial vans are a critical work tool to the thousands of Americans who drive them every day.

Yet, it turns out commercial-van owners are some of the least-satisfied customers in the auto industry, Nissan research finds.

For that reason, the Japanese auto maker is “investing big” in the segment, hoping it can steal U.S. market share from Detroit and Germany with its new ’12 NV large commercial van.

Nissan has discovered the right formula to do so, imbuing the body-on-frame van with just about every user-friendly aspect it could think of to give it a competitive edge.

Nissan is confident in the NV because Ford and General Motors’ segment-leading models have aged, with few major changes, barring GM’s 2003 switch to a fully-boxed frame and some smaller updates to both in 2007-2008.

Ford’s E-Series – comprising 57% of all 2010 large van sales, according to Ward’s data – and the Chevy Express/GMC Savana right behind haven’t been fully updated in at least 15 years, Nissan reminds.

While the F-Alpha ladder frame underpinning the NV is no spring chicken either, dating back to 2003 when Nissan introduced its Titan fullsize pickup, the auto maker claims it’s been bolstered for the NV.

Despite its age, Nissan considers the NV’s chassis to be “all-new” as engineers redid the F-Alpha into a heavy-duty platform to meet the durability standards and criteria for commercial-van ride and handling.

Related document: Power Train Specifications for '11 MY U.S. Large Vans

The NV’s frame shares just one cross-member with the Titan’s. It is longer and wider than the Titan’s and taller, with a different, stiffness-boosting, cross-member layout.

However, like the ’11 Titan, the NV has a solid, albeit different, rear axle with rigid leaf springs and a stabilizer bar, as well as a double-wishbone front suspension.

As expected, the NV is monstrous, exceeding the length and wheelbase of competitors’ non-extended vans. There is no extended wheelbase version of the NV.

Like another competitor, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the NV has an optional shorter roof, reaching 106.0 ins. (269 cm) on an NV 3500 model. The Sprinter is 4.8 ins. (12 cm) taller.

The Mercedes’ standard roof model also bests the similar Nissan.

With the lower roof, Nissan claims the NV can make it through a U.S. car wash and drive-thru without worry. Prospective owners will have to weigh the merits of fries vs. accommodating floral arrangements.

Still, Nissan says its high-roof NV fits a non-crouching 6-ft.-3-in. (191 cm) person. It also handles hot-water heaters, whose manufacturers require upright storage.

’12 Nissan NV 3500 HD SV
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger cargo van
Engine 5.6L DOHC V-8 with aluminum block, heads
Power (SAE net) 317 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 385 lb.-ft (325 Nm) @ 3,400 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 98 x 92
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 146.1-ins. (371 cm)
Overall length 240.6 ins. (611 cm)
Overall width 79.9 ins. (203 cm), 102.8 ins. (261 cm) with mirrors
Overall height 106.0 ins. (269 cm)
Curb weight 6,143 lbs. (2,786 kg)
Base price (standard roof, not incl. $980 d&h) $24,590 (NV 1500); $25,590 (NV 2500); $28,190 (NV 3500)
Fuel economy NA
Competition Ford E-Series, Chevy Express/GMC Savana, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Pros Cons
Frame like new Still a stiff ride
Big rear door opening Sprinter’s is bigger
Cheaper than rivals New kid on block

The vehicle is plenty roomy during a media event here. But Nissan is outdone in the height test by the high-roof Sprinter, which Mercedes says accommodates a 6-ft.-4-in. (193 cm) individual.

A person used to softer-riding passenger cars will find a commercial vehicle like the NV uninspiring, perhaps even uncivilized. Its suspension is characteristically stiff and acceleration poky.

The NV’s tip-in is not feeble by any means, but a short test drive of a V-6 Chevy Express exhibits quicker feedback.

The hydraulic recirculating-ball steering system is speed-sensitive, and Nissan claims a best-in-class curb-to-curb turning diameter of 45.2 ft. (14 m). Although, that is higher than GM’s claimed 43.4-ft. (13-m) radius.

Nissan warns testers that prototypes driven here lack the heavy steering feel it was aiming for. But the steering in two NV 3500s seems just right, straddling the line between not-enough and too-much assist.

The NV is powered by either a 4.0L V-6 (NV 1500, 2500) or 5.6L V-8 (NV 2500, 3500), both engines already used in Nissan’s light-duty SUVs and trucks.

Despite its underwhelming tip-in, the 317-hp 5.6L allows stress-free merging onto Miami highways, making 385 lb.-ft. (522 Nm) of torque at a decent 3,400 rpm.

On paper, the 5.6L bests most rivals in both horsepower and torque.

Also putting the NV ahead of Ford and GM offerings is its interior versatility, especially when coupled with Nissan’s no-charge upgrades.

The auto maker carefully researched commercial-van buyers’ wants and needs in developing the NV.

Because some remove the front passenger seat to install a file cabinet, Nissan has space for handing files in the lockable center console.

Should its interior cargo length be insufficient, the NV’s passenger seat has a hard plastic back with a notch; when folded down, a board can slide right in. The seatback also works as a writing surface.

The NV’s cargo area boasts vertical walls and a flat load floor, which Nissan says fits a 54.3-in. (138-cm) sheet of plywood side to side. A full 8-ft. (2.4-m) sheet also fits lengthwise. A hard plastic floor covering is in the works.

Cargo volume is ample, with 234.1 cu.-ft. (6.6 cu.-m) for standard-roof models and 323.1 cu.-ft. (9 cu.-m) with the high roof. But the Sprinter’s specs show it has more space.

A variety of side-wall mounting points on the NV, pre-drilled to prevent corrosion, are a great feature, as are six floor-mounted D-ring mounting brackets capable of holding 1,124 lbs. (510 kg) each.

Rear lighting is not standard on all competing models, so Nissan is smart to include it, as well as standard pre-wiring to make customization with aftermarket products easier.

Nissan offers a free up-fit via Adrian Steel that includes shelving and a bulkhead, or a ladder/roof rack and a bulkhead. NV buyers have a choice between the Adrian Steel package or a free exterior wrap with their business information from Original Wraps. NV buyers also can opt for a $300 rebate instead.

NV ergonomic touches include adjustable bucket seats, which we find comfy if not a tad wide for a small female; wide-opening front doors; and 243-degree-opening rear doors, the latter to simplify removing and placing items in the cargo hold. However, the Sprinter bests the NV with 270-degree-opening rear doors.

Optional creature comforts, part of a technology package, include Bluetooth hands-free dialing, XM satellite radio and navigation with a rearview monitor.

It’s a nice add-on but looks quaint when compared with Ford’s optional Work Solutions package, which, albeit pricey, includes a $1,400 in-dash computer and wireless mouse and printer, with the ability to access files stored in a remote personal computer.

The NV also offers nothing that approximates the Chevy Express’ Access package, with side panels that open up, eliminating the need to climb inside.

The NV’s dash is predictably austere: few controls, lots of hard plastic. But we find no evidence of flashing or askew panels, and trim is low-gloss.

The NV is most similar in interior thoughtfulness to the 10-year-old Sprinter, which also boasts lots of tie-down and mounting points.

But with an $11,000 upcharge for a Sprinter comparable to a high-roof NV 2500, the Nissan has an advantage. It also undercuts the E-Series and Express/Savana.

Still, winning business from fleet companies familiar with the established players will not be easy. Perhaps that’s why Nissan expects 60% of sales to come from small-business/personal-use buyers.

Either way, the NV deserves a look from fleets. It offers lots of bang for fewer bucks.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com