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Developing the Nissan NV

If you are an American, you probably don’t consider Nissan when you think “commercial vehicles,” even though it has a 75-year history in that segment.

If you are an American, you probably don’t consider Nissan when you think “commercial vehicles,” even though it has a 75-year history in that segment. Until now, commercial vehicles represented fully 20% of the company’s global volume, and were sold outside of North America. Now that’s changed.

When Nissan undertook the development of the Titan full-sized pickup truck, it hired engineers, marketing people, and others from the Detroit automakers who had experience with work trucks. Given that resource, Nissan management decided to leverage this resource so in 2004—the year the Titan was launched—the company put together a research group to investigate opportunities in the North American commercial vehicle market, as its market researchers felt it was underserved by Ford, GM and Daimler/Freightliner. According to Peter Bedrosian, senior product planning manager, Nissan Commercial Vehicles, “Over the years we’ve talked to literally thousands of customers about what they liked and disliked about commercial vans.”

As information was accumulated, concepts and models were developed. Foam and plywood interior bucks were built to encompass the ideas, and the customer group was called back to critique the result. This iterative process continued throughout the development of what became the NV, and resulted in a number of customer-driven ideas. They include:
•    A sliding arm rest/console top
•    Captured nuts on the sidewalls, floor and bulkhead, and factory brackets on the roof to make attaching shelves, ladders, dividers, etc. easier and less likely to introduce a pathway for rust
•    Flush-mount D-rings rated at 1,124 lb. each
•    Near-vertical sidewalls that increase storage area, and expand the size of the walk-through aisle
•    A rear step bumper and interior grab handles to ease entry and exit.
•    A center console large enough to hold
file folders and a laptop computer
•    Sliding trays on the sides of the seats accommodate tools workers normally keep in their back pockets, and thus reduce wear-and-tear on the seats
•    Moving the weatherstrip edge below the sill so it won’t get ripped off by work boots
•    Using water-repellant cloth seating surfaces with wear-resistant vinyl outer edges and lowered side seams, eliminating an area where damage, and a duct tape fix, are common in-service
•    Adding a high-roof model with a 76.9-in. walk-through height (55.8 in. on standard roof models)
•    Integrating the fuel filler door into one of the flat-topped inner wheel-wells to allow palettes, plywood or drywall to be loaded without damage.

The biggest change the Nissan engineers made, however, was to put a pickup-style nose on the NV van. This not only dramatically increased interior foot room, it removed a source of noise, heat and vibration, and made serviceability easier. “After nearly 60 years,” says Bedrosian, “we’ve finally removed the ‘dog house’ [the cover over the engine] from the interior of a full-size work van. That’s a big deal to this buyer..” It also was a big deal to Nissan management, who expected to take the Titan (or Dodge Ram when that option was in play during Cerberus’ ownership of Chrysler) pickup frame and drop a van body on top. It wasn’t that easy.

“Commercial vans are abused in ways pickup trucks aren’t,” claims Bedrosian. To handle the weight, duty cycle, and ensure the NV would have the expected durability, the engineers increased the height of the heavy-duty frame rails to reduce any tendency for them to twist. According to Bedrosian: “It’s a completely new fully boxed frame that shares only one crossmember with the Titan.” Designed and engineered by Nissan engineers (most of the work on the NV was done at the company’s technical center in Farmington Hills, MI), it is built by Tower Automotive at a satellite plant near Nissan’s Canton, MS, assembly plant, where the NV is produced alongside the Altima sedan, Armada SUV, and Titan pickup.

Durability testing included working hand-in-hand with outfitters like Adrian Steel to test the mounting points for things like shelving units under full load. Modifications were made to the NV along the way, and this collaboration also allowed Nissan to share ideas with aftermarket suppliers for improving the fit, finish and durability of their products, which were being tested to OEM standards. Test mileage totaled 700,000 km (434,000 miles).

American Axle provides the solid rear axles used on the three models (1500, 2500 HD and 3500 HD), which are coupled with leaf springs and an anti-roll bar. Up front, a double-wishbone independent setup is used. Four-wheel disc brakes are part of the package, with massive 14.2-in. ventilated rotors up front, and the added combination of 4-wheel ABS and electronic brake-force distribution. Vehicle stability and traction control also are standard. Other standard safety features include three-point front seat belts with pretensioners and load limiters, dual stage driver and passenger airbags, and available seat-mounted side airbags and roof-mounted curtain airbags.

Though the 1500 model comes only as a low-roof model, it shares its 4.0-liter VQ40 V6 engine with the 2500 HD low- and high-roof models. Also used in the Nissan Pathfinder SUV and Frontier pickup, the V6 produces 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque. Moving up to the optional V8 shared with the Titan pickup and Armada SUV bumps these numbers up to 317 hp and 385 lb-ft. Unavailable in the 1500, the V8 is an option for the 2500 HD and standard on the 3500 HD. All are mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.

“This vehicle was a significant investment,” says Bedrosian, “so we concen-trated on the heart of the market.” That means it will launch with one wheelbase (146.1-in.) and one length (240.6-in.). There are no dually or diesel variants. And while Nissan is planning on RV and commercial van applications for the NV, it won’t engineer those versions itself. Instead it will provide dedicated engineering help to outfitters looking to make these conversions. This doesn’t mean model proliferation is over: within one year, Nissan plans to have a 12-passenger version of the van available. It will be followed by longer wheelbase versions as market demand increases.

“We entered this market because commercial vehicles have the least satisfied customers, and two major competitors who have made very few improvements or created any real innovations over the years,” says Bedrosian. “Customers told us they wanted more utility and comfort, the option of a high-roof model, and better durability and serviceability. We saw the opportunity, and we took it.” As a result, Ford, GM and Daimler/Freightliner have every reason to be concerned.