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Put It in Drive

Whether you want a flex-fuel fleet, upfitted pickups or versatile vans, 2008's commercial vehicles have just what you need.

Cutting-edge clean and more user-friendly trucks? Those are the two major trends for 2008 and beyond in light commercial vehicles. Thanks to public pressure, it's all about decreasing emissions, increasing mileage and offering functional new features that make the vehicles easier to operate.

 

In the vanguard are hybrids. Although these gas-electric vehicles have been around for a few years, you'll be surprised at the new variety of hybrid, flex-fuel, diesel and even hydrogen engines in pickups, vans, SUVs and crossovers available this year and next year for your business.

 

Plug-in hybrid cars are just down the road, as is GM's Volt, an all-electric compact sedan. Not on the radar is the Honda Accord hybrid, which has been discontinued. In addition to winning the 2007 Green Car of the Year award for its full-size hybrid SUV Chevy Tahoe, GM's other gas-friendly hybrids include the Chevy Malibu and Saturn Aura sedans, the GMC Yukon SUV and Sierra Classic pickup, as well as the Cadillac Escalade SUV and Chevy Silverado pickup, which will both be available in 2009. With 16 additional hybrids debuting over the next four years, GM's wide spectrum of vehicles nevertheless includes a few with standard gas engines that get at least 30 mpg, as does Dodge's Avenger sedan.

 

The 2008 list of hybrids also includes the Chrysler Aspen SUV, Mazda Tribute SUV, Nissan Altima sedan, and Toyota Camry sedan and Highlander SUV. Dodge debuts its hybrid engine in the ferociously powerful HEMI Durango SUV.

 

Ford brings back the Escape hybrid SUV and adds a new full-size crossover, the 2009 Flex, with an interior refrigerator and second-row footrests. The Flex and the Lincoln flagship MKS sedan (also out in 2009) prevent fuel evaporation due to lost or improperly closed gas caps by eliminating caps altogether.

 

Volvo is preparing to launch its new wall outlet plug-in hybrid with an 80 percent lower operating cost than a conventional car. Other hybrids include the Lexus RX400h SUV, Mercedes-Benz S400 sedan, Mercury Mariner SUV and Porsche Cayenne crossover.

This summer, new-on-the-scene small manufacturer Phoenix Motorcars will offer electric plug-in midsize pickups and SUVs for fleets, with its NanoSafe all-battery power system, available first in California. Also going green are big manufacturers like Honda that are building vehicles with eco-conscious materials derived from plants in seat fabrics and interior trim, as well as alloys, aluminum, carbon fiber and other lightweight components to shed weight and increase mileage.

 

New nameplates include the 2008 Nissan Rogue and Volkswagen Tiguan compact SUVs as well as the 2009 Dodge Journey crossover. Lexus introduces the IS F and GS 460 sedans and the completely redesigned eight-passenger LX 570 full-size SUV, with 35 new features, including power tailgate, remote start, covered hitch, active height control and front/side camera monitors. Honda debuts the hydrogen-powered fuel cell FCX Clarity sedan, with a range of 270 miles and estimated 68 mpg, for lease in limited availability this summer. Another hydrogen-powered crossover, the Premacy RE minivan, which has a rotary engine, is in development by Mazda and will also be lease-only.

 

This year's commercial vehicles are much more user-friendly. Truck and van designers who listened to business owners have increased storage and cargo space and implemented handy features to make business transportation duties easier. The Ford F-250 pickup has a pull-out/fold-away tailgate step for easier entry into the truck bed to handle cargo. And if you're tired of arm-wrestling with heavy tailgates, the Nissan Titan and Toyota Tundra pickups feature damped tailgates that open slowly rather than falling quickly as many others do. The Toyota RAV4 SUV has a side-opening rear gate instead of a hatch-type liftgate for less strain on your muscles.

 

GM's tried-and-true Chevy Express and GMC Savana full-size passenger vans boast increased safety features and easy-to-grab, glove-friendly door handles. The cargo versions feature remote-control, push-button, exterior pop-up side panels to access custom storage bins that automatically lock when closed. Extra lighting under the access panels and on the cargo area ceiling is optional.

 

The Chevy HHR Panel van is a fleet favorite, with 63 cubic feet of cargo area, windowless side panels that provide space for signage and handleless side cargo doors that open with a dashboard button or keyless entry fob.

On the technology front, Lincoln and Mercury models feature Sync, a voice-command, hands-free communication feature that accepts most digital portable devices. Backup cameras, lane-change alerts and invisible-to-the-eye keypads that open vehicle doors are safety features on many trucks, including the Toyota Tundra. An optional business tool for Ford's F-150 pickups is the FordLink mobile office, an in-truck computer with a printer connection. It runs Windows XP Pro with Word and PowerPoint and is handy for on-site contractors and salespeople on the road who may need to review orders and print out receipts. Volvo's V70 wagon has three high-tech safety features: drifting alert, lane departure warning and auto braking to help avoid collisions.

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This article was originally published in the April 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Put It in Drive.

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