Commentary: Because Commercial Vehicles

2012 Ram 1500 Tradesman 5
All photos by Randy Stern

The question was asked on Lavender magazine in reference to my review of the 2012 Ram 1500 Tradesman: "Um, wait, why is there a pickup truck appearing in Lavender this week?"

It is legitimate question. The risk of putting something that may fit only a small pocket of the target demographic is huge. However, the way I presented the Ram was to gear it towards LGBT small businesses. I think it may have worked.

There is some logic here considering the big story several pages ahead of the Ram. The cover story was an interview with Minnesota Vikings' Punter Chris Kluwe based on his public stance to defeat the state’s Marriage Amendment. A professional football player and one of the best pickup trucks in the market sounds pretty "butch" to me.

Then again, I know a few folks in the community who have pickups – Rams, in particular. It seems apt, I suppose, to contrast the two in the LGBT publication of record for the Upper Midwest.

It also seems apt that a truck would symbolize another stream of consciousness in this political season. We ask our candidates to discuss jobs and creating the environment for small business to flourish. We want to know if our economy will continue to improve after the global financial crisis and will the automotive industry remain solvent through the next administration and Congress.

By discussing the notion of a pickup truck as a working asset for small business owners – contractors, landscapers and other related businesses needing such a vehicle – is not foreign to me. I had a keen interest on commercial vehicles and how they are indeed part of this continent’s cycle of commerce.

The genesis of this interest came before I discovered a merit badge I could earn while I was in Boy Scouts – Truck Transportation. Came right after C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” became a one-hit wonder, it was my first lesson on how the big rig was indeed a part of the business cycle. Now, I work at a place where big rigs are commonplace alongside everyone else. How things go full circle sometimes.

Yet, my focus would not be on Medium or Heavy Duty vehicles. Light Duty vehicles fit better with all businesses, big and small. Vehicles we recognize daily from chromed-out pickups to the Ford Transit Connect. It is an important market that yields profits for both the manufacturer and the customer – an honest win-win for these products.

2011 Freightliner Sprinter

This is the right time to look at light duty commercial vehicles as we are witnessing a renaissance by all manufacturers involved. While Daimler AG lead the way in cargo and large passenger vans with the Sprinter – both in Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner guises – Ford is about to release its North American version of the big Transit. This opens the door for another global van product yet to be announced by Chrysler and Fiat under the Ram brand. While some may argue that this will dilute the van market, bringing European-type vans – including Nissan's NV series – have certainly changed the way North American business views these cavernous carriers of repair parts, tools and broken down appliances or bathroom fixtures.

Sadly, it leaves General Motors out in the cold. How long will the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savanna remain competitive against their rivals by not offering a choice of roof heights and stuck with old school engines? Will they be the ones swept aside for shiny new Transits, Nissan NVs and Rams?

Coming up is the new smaller van – led by the Transit Connect. This van also changed the way we view smaller commercial vehicles on this continent with its high roof and generous cargo hold. Again, word has it that Chrysler and Fiat will have a Ram competitor against the new Transit Connect. They will also be joined by Nissan's NV200.

With small businesses looking to downsize their fleet by being more concentrated on what they need for the job, as well as hedging fuel costs, we could see a boom in the small van market. That is what I hope would happen, as we are seeing some valuable uses for the Transit Connect from catering to plumbing to floral businesses. This is where Nissan and Ram need to also have a presence.

It is worth noting that the minivan-based Ram Van might soldier on after Fiat Professional provides the brand some new arsenal for its burgeoning business. However, the minivan is due for replacement in a couple of years, which would probably see Ram’s new vans debut by then – just speculating here.

However, North American business is still rooted in the pickup truck. The full-sized trucks are pretty much set – including the forthcoming replacements for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. Five manufacturers offer up their lines, including four heavy-duty models and their cab-and-chassis companions. This business continues to yield over 125,000 units a month from plants across the NAFTA zone.

What may surprise you is the lack of small-to-medium sized pickups here. They were once a big business in the USA 25 or so years ago. We are down to two – the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. With GM bringing their global pickup to this side of the Pacific, the medium-sized pickup market might get interesting. However, will the new Chevrolet/GMC mid-sizers attract business consumers?

It all comes down to what business consumers need for their fleets. It also comes down to how much of a hedge does using new diesel engines and/or smaller vehicles will do for their bottom line. By speculating this potential growth in the commercial market – private vehicles sales, included – may be the jumpstart this economy needs.

Business needs to invest in both updated equipment and talent acquisition to get through this low in the economy. The money is returning to the fold, but it will take a balanced risk to ensure profitability during economic improvement. The wrong mix of government policies and reactionary practices by both financial institutions and key business sectors could thwart this growth in the commercial vehicle sector.

2011 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD 4

You might not see a lot of reviews of commercial vehicles on here. Maybe a pickup, but perhaps that might change. What you will see going forward is a perspective towards business owners and the self-employed who uses these vehicles for commerce. A perspective rooted in a context of its true intended purpose of these vehicles.

After all, the economy depends on the man or woman with a truck…or van…these days.

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