NEW YORK – Nissan’s NV large cargo van celebrates its first birthday this spring with the launch of a passenger version.

“We started sending them out to dealers March 28 and eight of them sold last night,” Joe Castelli, vice president-commercial vehicles and fleet for Nissan North America, tells WardsAuto on the sidelines of an event here celebrating the smaller NV200 van’s role as New York City’s next official taxi.

Castelli dubs the first year of NV cargo sales a success but says that despite all of Nissan’s advertising touting the vehicle, available in standard and high-roof configurations and with two engine choices, consumer awareness is an issue.

“I still hear, ‘I didn’t know Nissan was in that business,’” Castelli laments. “So we’re hoping that a second year – now that we’ve had the first birthday candle – we’re really looking forward to our awareness improving and our sales continuing to take off.”

Nissan delivered 6,444 NVs in the U.S. in 2011, a fraction of what competing models sold, including the industry-leading Ford Econoline. But demand is picking up, he says, with March volume reaching 1,200 units.

Castelli puts Nissan’s share of the segment, which also includes the Chevy Express and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, at 8%-10%. “For our first year of business, I would consider that very successful.”

While most commercial vans are sold to fleet customers, the NV’s situation is flipped, with just 35% going to fleets. “So we’re doing the smaller, local businesses,” he says. “That’s fine. Joe the Plumber? We’d be more than happy to (sell him an NV).”

At Tuesday’s event, Nissan and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated that an electric version of the smaller NV200 taxi van is a possibility. An EV model is coming to the U.S. in the 2016-2017 timeframe, Castelli says, but a taxi version is uncertain.

Nissan this summer will be testing its Leaf electric car as a taxi, which will help determine whether an electric NV200 is practical for livery service.

“Everybody now has a little bit of range anxiety, whether it’s the taxi industry or the commercial industry or Joe Public,” Castelli says. “But I think we’re very confident (that with) the right usage in the right situation, it’ll be very successful.”

A quick jaunt around Manhattan would be doable, he adds, but not from Battery Park to Newark airport.

The NV200 goes on sale in the U.S. next February, ahead of its October 2013 debut as New York’s “Taxi of Tomorrow.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com