Eight years ago, the small delivery van seemed poised to take over the American market. The combination of low MSRP and minimalist features, paired with impressive cargo hauling abilities was going to appeal to practical-minded Americans as a family vehicle as well as a commercial workhorse for businesses.
With Ford revealing Tuesday it plans to stop selling the Transit Connect in the U.S. and an earlier announcement from Mercedes about the demise of the Metris, it appears the bright future envisioned by automakers is now nothing but a dark chapter in product lore.
There were plenty of others before this, starting with Nissan leading the way in 2013 with the NV200, followed by the Ford Transit Connect and Chevrolet City Express (itself a rebadged NV200) in 2014. In 2015 Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis (then FCA) got into the game with the Metris and Ram ProMaster City. The Ram offering is a rebadged Fiat product called the Doblò in Europe.
The small vans had a lot in common. A small-displacement engine yielded adequate performance, but better fuel economy than a traditional van. The price was dramatically more attractive than traditional minivans, which had grown ever more luxurious and expensive being marketed as suburban “swagger wagons.”
Automakers offered these vans in a windowless cargo configuration, or with side windows and rear seats as people-movers. A whole industry of upfitters was ready to convert any of the available vans into anything from a mobile workshop to a luxury RV.
So what happened?
After launching with great expectations, the buyers never showed up — at least not in numbers sufficient to support the products. Chevrolet was the first to depart the segment in 2018, and Nissan followed in 2021, citing lackluster sales.
By the midpoint of this year, Mercedes-Benz sold just 4,934 Metris vans, while Ram moved only 4,044 ProMaster City vans. For Mercedes, that’s in line with 2021 totals in which the Metris sold 9,898 units. Ram’s ProMaster City moved 14,759 units for 2021, however, so the sales pace is down considerably.
In 2021, Ford sold 26,112 units of the Transit Connect, but that was down 25% from 2020’s sales of 34,596 vans. Ford recently announced that Transit Connect sales were down an additional 15% in the first half of 2022.
“The small van market is a relatively niche product offering with notoriously low profit margins in the U.S., with sales mostly relegated to the fleet market,” said Paul Waatti, manager of industry analysis at AutoPacific Inc. “Unlike other markets like Europe that have robust small van demand, the U.S. market largely prefers full-size vans or pickups for commercial needs.”
“Both the small and large van segments have seen sales declines each year since 2019,” Waatti continued. “Whether that is due to a natural decline in demand or a prioritization by OEMs to more popular and higher margin nameplates to traverse the chip shortage and difficult supply chain isn’t totally clear, but I suspect it’s a bit of both.”
Ford and Mercedes are out
In recent weeks, both Ford and Mercedes-Benz have announced the termination of their small vans at the end of the 2023 model year.
Ford, in particular, faced tariff challenges with the Transit Connect, which is made in Turkey. Ford has been importing the vans with passenger seats as passenger vehicles, and then converting the vehicles to cargo vans on arrival. The 1960s-era “chicken tax” tariff would apply to cargo vans, but not to passenger vehicles.
Ford is still embroiled in legal action but could face penalties of up to $1.3 billion on the practice. Ford announced plans to build the Transit Connect in Mexico, which is covered by the USMCA free trade agreement, but those plans may have been scrapped due to declining sales.
However, Waatti believes Ford’s reported decision to skip production of the Transit Connect in Mexico is “likely rooted in maximizing production capacity for the hot-selling Maverick and Bronco Sport, both of which have much higher volume and margin potential than Transit Connect.”
Last van standing
The market departures leave the Ram ProMaster City as the last compact commercial van to be sold in the United States, but even that model is showing signs of market disinterest. For the 2022 model year, Ram discontinued the higher-trim Tradesman and SLT trim levels.
The 2022 ProMaster City is now available only as a windowless two-seat cargo van or as a passenger wagon with a second-row bench seat, plus side and rear windows. The 2022 ProMaster City carries an MSRP of $30,475 in cargo configuration, or $31,170 as a passenger wagon.
As this generation of van ages out, it’s possible that manufacturers may return with new offerings in the future.
“Expect to see Ford and GM, and likely others, reenter the small van segment with electric versions later this decade,” Waatti predicts. “It may be a smaller segment in the U.S. but it still has a role, and an EV powertrain layout is an ideal fit for vans with the inherent flat load floor.”