CHELSEA, MI. For the past two years, sales of larger heavy-duty vans experienced double-digit growth even though sales in the small van segment in North America has plateaued, according to David Sowers, head of Ram Commercial Truck.

During an interview with Fleet Owner at FCA’s What’s New event at the Chelsea Proving Grounds earlier this week, Sowers attributed larger van growth to low fuel prices and fleets’ need for better payload capability.

Sowers explained that over three to five years of use and operation, vans get heavier and heavier a little bit at a time with more vocational use. So where a fleet manager may have spec’d the vehicle properly to start with, over time, it starts to stretch the limits of the payload.

“With cheap fuel prices it’s easier to go back to a large van and solve that problem,” Sowers stressed. “What we’re seeing now is that there are some customers that switching back into large van and certainly from a growth perspective the large van segment is growing more than the small van segment.”

Because of this trend, Ram has seen a significant uptick of its ProMaster vans. Sowers noted that its van segment experienced growth of over 30% year to date in its sales from last year.

From the early 1970s through 2000s, Sowers explained that the overall market didn’t offer much of a choice for commercial vans. For 30 years, all vans included body on frame, rear-wheel drive, and a mostly V8 front-engine offering.

“You basically were picking from a brand,” he said. “There wasn’t that much functional choice to those; they all did about the same thing. And now you’re seeing a lot of different choices come in. Now there’s multiple unibody vans on the market, and you even have solutions like front-wheel drive that we have.”

Ram TruckThe Ram Commercial brand started in 2012. And in 2014, Ram started incorporating front-wheel drive on all its van models, which Sowers explained is a unique offering in that segment.

According to Sowers, front-wheel drive gives ProMaster vans better turning radius, lower load floor height in the back for better payload capability, and better traction. He also noted that front-wheel drive is beneficial for any industry that hires untrained drivers.

“We see that across many industries where the driver is hired for another reason – so they’re a good plumber, they’re an expert at catering, whatever their skill might be – they’re being hired for that and then driving is more or less, ‘Hey do you have a valid license or not,’” Sowers explained. “And then you’re putting [untrained drivers] in a big commercial vehicle and expecting them to drive throughout the day. So that’s something we’ve really tried to impress upon people is the uniqueness of the front-wheel drive and the predictable driving characteristics from a traction and handling standpoint it gets you.”

Another trend Sowers has seen at Ram is that fleets are making more rational decisions when it comes to purchasing commercial vans because there are more choices in the market. Fleet managers are now focusing more on a van’s capability, efficiency or cost of ownership, and reliability.

“They will look at those different attributes and pick the right vehicle where in the past because they were all about the same, and it might have been about brand preference,” Sowers explained. “That’s actually good news for us because we’re the new guys to the block, relatively, from the commercial space.”