Small work vans were once considered a golden opportunity for many automakers, but it looks like the glow is fading. It appears that the Ram ProMaster City is the latest on the list of small vans that are soon to go away, amid reports that the Ford Transit Connect and Mercedes-Benz Metris will do the same. When that happens, it’ll pretty much be the end of the compact commercial van market on our shores.
According to a report by Automotive News, Dave Sowers, who heads up Ram Commercial, told the publication the ProMaster City won’t be sold in the U.S. once the 2022 model year runs out. He said the segment has shrunk annually over the last four or five years and that it’s also difficult due to the “regulatory environment.”
ProMaster City sales in the U.S. peaked at 15,972 units in 2016, and fell to 10,409 in 2020. They rose in 2021 but have fallen again in the first half of 2022 to 8,593 units. In Canada, Ram sold only 521 units in 2021, versus 3,008 copies of the full-size ProMaster van. While the ProMaster is sold only as a cargo van, the ProMaster City comes as a passenger wagon or cargo van.
Earlier this month, Automotive News reported that Mercedes-Benz will discontinue sales of its Metris – the only midsize van in our market – in the U.S. late in 2023, once it finishes honouring a contract with the U.S. Postal Service; and that Ford will also discontinue the compact Transit Connect after 2023.
The ProMaster City is built in Turkey and the Transit Connect in Spain. That adds a layer of complexity when they’re imported into the U.S., thanks to a nearly 60-year-old customs dispute popularly known as the “chicken tax,” which adds a large levy to commercial vehicles. To get around it, the automakers import the passenger-wagon versions at a lower tax rate, and then rip out the seats and reconfigure the vans for cargo use. Mercedes-Benz imports the Metris (known as the “Vito” in global markets) as a disassembled unit at a lower rate, and then reassembles it at its facility in South Carolina.
Canada wasn’t part of the tax dispute, and so our cargo vans are imported as they were built. Ford intended to get around the European tax issue by building a next-generation Transit Connect at its Hermosillo Assembly Plant in Mexico, based on the same platform as the Bronco Sport and Maverick that are built there, but reportedly has now cancelled the plan.
2019 Ford Transit Connect Van Photo by Ford
Nissan left the commercial van market last year. It built the full-size NV van at its plant in Canton, Mississippi, based on the Titan pickup truck – which has also been discontinued in Canada, although still sold in the U.S. – and the compact NV200 van in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The NV200 started production at that facility in late 2013 after New York City selected the passenger version as the “Taxi of Tomorrow.” Under a ten-year contract with Nissan, cab owners replacing their old cabs would have to buy an NV200, but the city later opened it to other vehicles following a lawsuit. General Motors rebadged the NV200 cargo van as the Chevrolet City Express through a deal with Nissan, starting in 2014, but dropped it in 2018 and didn’t replace it with any other small van.
The full-size Ram ProMaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter – which gets a makeover for 2023 – will continue, and all will be offered with fully-electric drivetrains in addition to gasoline or diesel. General Motors has also entered the EV delivery van market with its new BrightDrop. Sowers said that many customers initially went to smaller vans for their fuel economy, but could likely opt instead for a full-size van that uses no fuel.