The gear-heads among us may fantasize about speedy sports cars or high-performance luxury SUVs, but sometimes you just need your vehicle to be a workhorse. Sometimes you need a van. But beware: not all vans are created equal. So to help all you field service pros and fleet managers ensure you get the most van for your money, we called up Allyson Harwood, who reviews trucks and vans for Motor Trend magazine, for the skinny on new developments in the world of that under-loved — but essential — vehicle, the van.

Nissan has introduced a number of service vans recently. How do they compare to Ford and GM, which so many people equate with tough, durable vans and trucks?

Allyson Harwood: I think the Nissan is a lot more refined. You know, it’s hard to imagine that a cargo van would be fun to drive, but the Nissan NV absolutely is. Aside from that, though, it has plenty of capability. It can tow a significant amount. It can carry a significant amount, so it’s quite comparable to the GMs and the Fords, and in a lot of ways it’s better. They’re definitely competitive in the segment and I think over time you will see them more and more on the road.

The NVs actually come with the advantage of being a more recently designed vehicle. So, for example, [the NV’s back cargo doors] open very wide and there are magnetic catches to keep those doors open. But what they’ve done is when those doors are all the way open, you can still slide the side doors back and they wont’ hit [the cargo doors]. So they’ve looked into little details like that to make it easier for the service industry to use these vans. And let’s be honest, the guys and women who are using these are going to beat them up pretty bad, so they need to design them to make sure they have that durability to handle being treated like a tool.

What is going to be changing somewhat is that Ford is going to be coming out with a new full-sized van in the next couple of years, so it’ll be really interesting to see how that compares with the full-size NV line.

Any disadvantages to the NV line compared to competitors?

For those who like diesel, they would be disappointed because the NV doesn’t offer it. That could possibly change in the future but as of right now they have a choice of gas-powered V-6 or V-8.

There is one other thing. If a company has a large enough fleet that’s, say, Chevrolet-specific, Ford-specific, that kind of thing, they might already have a service system set up with a particular dealer. And switching over to Nissan may not be as [simple] to because it means they would start having to go to a different dealership for maintenance.

Where do you think the future is heading for fuels?

When it comes to vans I think it depends on the use of the vehicle. So for example, if a company is mostly doing deliveries around town, they might be very happy with something like an electric or hybrid-based vehicle. However, if they are doing longer hauls, say on the open road, that’s where diesel really shows its advantages, fuel economy and lots of torque. So if the price could come down, what I think could be the future for service vehicles in particular are hybrids that are diesel and electric. That way you get the advantages of electric around town and the great fuel economy and torque out on the open road.

Are electric plug-in cars at the stage yet to be feasible for those sorts of businesses?

That’s the problem right now. They need to improve the [battery] range, but I think in the future, they could probably have some success with that. Another major factor here is the initial cost of the vehicle. That can be a problem for the diesel-electric hybrid because that is fairly new technology and I don’t think it’s cost effective yet for service vehicles. It can be a problem for those who are buying vans that are diesel because the added cost of the diesel can be prohibitively expensive.

What do you see happening to the price of these kinds of vans in the near future?

I think over the next five to 10 years you’re going to see ranges improve on plug-in electric vehicles. I’m hoping that prices will eventually come down on diesels, but I’m just not sure that’s going to happen. I think those vehicles are also very sensitive to is the price of the fuel itself, because when someone is buying vehicles for a fleet, they have to consider how long they anticipate holding on to those trucks and how much it’s going to cost on a daily, monthly and annual basis. Now I personally like diesel very much for the reliability factor, so in that way it can very well be worth the price of admission.

What other features are foremost in the minds of field service firms when they’re considering what vehicles to buy for their fleets?

I think, as weird as it sounds, being able to take the van completely for granted. You don’t have to think about it, it just works. [Things like] different types of materials used inside that wear very, very well; features that ensure that the van can last a long time even under tremendous amounts of abuse, so that they can use it for towing or if they accidently run it over curbs, or maybe not accidentally, it’s just fine. So, yeah, how rugged it is. Handling and acceleration, that kind of thing, are certainly nice, but maybe not as important.

Are there any sorts of features that you’ve seen on vans or light trucks that are underappreciated?

The last time I drove an NV was probably the only time I’d been in a full-size van that had both navigation and a back-up camera, and I do think that the back-up camera is very, very, important, especially if someone gets a vehicle that does not have the side window package. There’s not a lot of visibility out of the back.

A navigation system is pretty nice, but generally speaking if it’s a delivery service they might not need that as much once they get to know the grid of a city. That one’s obviously up to the owners.

ABOUT Jessica Stillman

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @EntryLevelRebel