Photo Courtesy of Nissan North America
The Nissan NV200 is the latest entry into the compact work-van market, with segment-leading fuel economy but not as much cargo room as other competitors.
Photo Courtesy of Nissan North America
Inside, the cabin is basic yet sturdy. Prices start at $20,000.

With high fuel prices continuing to batter bottom lines, many contractors that depend on a van—or a fleet of vans—are beginning to question the conventional work-truck wisdom that says bigger is better.

This industry-wide reexamination comes just as the commercial van segment is about to get a number of new options. One model is the 2013 Nissan NV200, a compact van designed to be less expensive to buy and more fuel-efficient to operate than the full-size models that have dominated the category for decades.

"Commercial fleet operators are getting smart about the composition of their fleets and realizing you don't always need to send out a full-size van," says Peter Bedrosian, Nissan North America product manager. "It's like every other aspect of a contractor's business—it comes down to choosing the right tool for the job."

The problem, says Bedrosian, is that, with the exception of the Ford Transit Connect, contractors looking to trim their monthly fuel bills just haven't had many alternatives to choose from.

"Globally, commercial vehicles are a big part of Nissan's business, and when we explored the U.S. market, it was clear that the needs of commercial customers for a more fuel-efficient van were largely being ignored," says Bedrosian.

This summer, ENR test-drove the NV200, which is built on a beefed-up version of the same unibody as the Nissan Cube crossover's. The award-winning work van has been a strong seller in Japan and Europe since its 2009 global debut. For American work-truck buyers, Nissan made a number of modifications, such as stretching it nearly eight inches overall.

Even so, the NV200 is still slightly smaller than its two compact competitors. With 122.7 cu ft of cargo room and a 1,500-lb maximum payload, the Nissan doesn't quite measure up to the Ford Transit Connect or the Ram C/V, which are rated at 129.6 cu ft/1,600 lb and 144.4 cu ft/1,800 lb, respectively.

On the upside, the NV200 offers easy access to the cargo hold via twin sliding side doors and rear doors that split 60/40 and open up to a full 180°. The rear-door openings are squared off, making it possible to load cargo using a forklift. The rear-wheel wells are designed to make room for a standard 48-in.-wide pallet. The cargo area also features reinforced mounting points, designed to make easier upfitting with shelves, bins and tools.

Under the hood is a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that puts out 131 horsepower and 139 lb-ft of torque. A continuously variable automatic transmission and front-wheel drive round out the power train. Though our test vehicle lacked cargo, the engine pulled strongly enough that it should haul the rated load. Fuel economy estimates are 24 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined—numbers that give the NV200 a slight edge on its compact competitors in mixed driving. Starting at $20,000, the van has a comfortable, car-like ride and tight steering radius that makes a difference on city streets and construction sites.

Inside, there's an abundance of hard plastic, but the gauges are easy to read and controls operate intuitively. The outside edges of the seats—where upholstery often shows premature wear—are trimmed with vinyl reinforcements. The high seating position offers a commanding view, though the lack of a tilt-adjustable steering wheel may make it more difficult for some to find an optimal driving position. The flip-up armrest on the inside edge of the driver's seat is a plus, but the steeply slanted windowsills on the opposite side of the seat make it difficult to find a comfortable position for your left arm when driving with the window open.