Wheels and Deals

The 2006 vehicles hit the road with more power, better options . . . and lower prices.

With 2006 on the doorstep, it could be one of the best years to buy light commercial vehicles for your business. Ford and General Motors are lowering prices on some of their new models, and there are plenty of incentive programs available if you're in the market for a fleet. But before you put your money on the table, let's take a look at the trends and changes in store for commercial vehicles in 2006.

Dodge, Ford and GM dominate the light trucks/commercial vehicles market this year, with Toyota leading the imports and Honda debuting its new half-ton Ridgeline. Honda's first pickup, the four-door Ridgeline, has already earned the best rollover resistance rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ford's F-150 garnered a five-star frontal crash rating from the NHTSA, and the company's bestselling compact pickup, the Ranger, has more choices of packages and powertrains. Another new import is Mitsubishi's midsize Raider pickup, in extended and double-cab versions. And GM's top-selling Silverado is updated with a new extended cab/short box model, more towing power and a two-wheel drive model.

For 2006, Nissan adds an optional vehicle dynamic control system with locking differential and a tow package to its Titan, and a power package is offered on the Frontier King Cab XE. A unique crew cab is a perk from Chevrolet, whose Avalanche bed and cab are integrated.

There's also more room for passengers in pickups. Dodge's massive six-seater Megacab boasts the biggest cab ever built, while Honda's five-seater Ridgeline boasts an integrated cab and bed. GMC's Sierra adds an extended cab/short box and a two-wheel drive/four-wheel drive SL crew cab to its 2006 lineup, and its Duramax 6600 V-8 turbo-diesel engine is now available on the Savana and Sierra. Dodge's Dakota Club Cab has full-swing access doors and a best-in-class tow rating. All these factors point to vehicles that can handle extra cargo and additional crews, which could preclude having to buy two trucks instead of one.

Fuel economy savings in 2006 come from Dodge's eight-passenger Durango SUV and Ram 1500 pickup, which shut off four cylinders in their V-8 engines when not needed. Dodge's Dakota pickup line expands with four new high-performance models, and diesels are showing up as options in Ford's E-150 Wagon, E-350 Wagon and E-350 Super Duty Extended Wagon. Jeep reports that demand for its diesel-powered Liberty SUV is outstripping supply.

Manufacturers consider conversion vans an untapped market segment and they're pursuing it with more welcoming and luxurious interiors with leather seats, front and rear air conditioning, and sedan-like driver compartments. Ford's E-Series and Dodge's Sprinter vans offer a greater variety of interior furnishings and upfits, easier access and low step-in heights. GM's full-size Uplander Passenger and Cargo crossover sport vans are ideal for fleet and commercial buyers who are looking for smaller, more nimble vehicles. Some work-vehicle manufacturers are replacing carpeting with hard rubber flooring that can be hosed down. Dodge's Caravan cargo van has commercial suspension, so carrying heavier loads won't mean sacrificing a comfortable ride, and Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana buyers can even add a slide-out sofa and reading lights for long hauls.

GM made major changes to its minivan group in 2005, retiring the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari. However, GM plans three new minivans by 2009 and is already selling the mid-van crossovers Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Pontiac Montana SV6. Chrysler and Dodge have made a few changes to the Town & Country and Grand Caravan, including better access to storage bins.

Toyota has a boxy new SUV, the FJ Cruiser, and Mazda steps up with a six-seat microvan, the Mazda5. Hummer adds a more affordable, smaller H3. Want a less commercial-looking delivery vehicle? Check out the Jaguar X-Type Superwagon, Mercedes-Benz's gigantic new R-Class SUV/ wagon, and Chevrolet's HHR SUV. Upscale SUVs include Buick's Rainier and Rendezvous, and Land Rover's Freelander.

Federal tax credits are on the menu for hybrids, reaching as much as $2,000 per vehicle. Eligible choices include the Ford Escape, the GMC Sierra, the Lexus RX 400h, the Mercury Mariner and the Toyota Highlander. An even higher credit, up to $3,400, is available beginning next month if you buy newer diesel-powered vehicles. Credits are based on the vehicle's weight, fuel efficiency rating and emissions level. Another benefit: Hybrid vehicle drivers with no passengers can now use carpool lanes.

In the power department, 46 percent of Dodge buyers are opting for HEMI engines that are available in several light-duty trucks, including the Ram 1500. The Dodge Ram SRT has a Viper-powered V-10 engine. With all these changes--and choices--you're sure to find the best vehicle for your business in 2006.

Get on Your Fleet
Commercial fleet management programs are friendlier in 2006, especially to small businesses. Over 14 million companies, from florists to giant re-tailers, own business vehicles, and auto-makers are eager to match up your light-duty truck needs and manage their operations for you. Saving busy business owners time and effort, these programs take over the day-to-day running of your fleet vehicles. Whether a van needs scheduled brake testing, a pickup needs an oil change, or it's the end of the month and you need to figure out the financial costs of keeping your fleet up and running, the management program kicks in and reports to you. Once you've signed up, you can manage your transactions online and receive copies of your vehicles' travel, financial and repair records. Automakers are accommodating even the smallest number of fleet vehicles to qualify for fleet management services. Most accept five trucks, and some as few as two. Toyota's fleet policy is 10 or more. Almost all automakers offer incentive programs for signing up.

Programs are geared to specific needs and can be custom-tailored to your business. GM has several options, including FleetTrac, which takes charge of the day-to-day monitoring of your fleet. Their Fleet Service Card allows entrepreneurs to decide which of their employees are authorized to buy what products and services within set limits, provides an analysis of fueling and maintenance costs to identify operating inefficiencies, and spots irregularities in use.

Verizon Wireless debuts Fleet Administrator, a turnkey program for small and midsize businesses. The company installs a $550 wireless device in fleet vehicles along with software for your office computer. The program tracks your vehicles at all times, helping to improve your operations and use of transportation, all for $50 a month.

To get started, both fleet and commercial customers can access auto manufacturers' easy-to-navigate websites and learn about every aspect of how they manage and serve a fleet, as well as how to buy need-appropriate fleet vehicles. Manufacturers' websites detail one-stop service information and maintenance programs as well as provide general advice. GM's site provides a new personal customer-service number you can call if you need an answer quickly. Log on to www.fleet.chrysler.com , www.fleet.ford.com , www.gmfleet.com and www.fleet.toyota.com for more specific details. In addition to warranty programs from dealers, there are independent fleet-management companies you can find online. Be sure to check out their credentials.

Showing Serious Incentive
Automakers' incentives hit a high earlier this year. Chrysler, Ford and GM averaged $3,942 per vehicle, with full-size SUVs averaging incentives of $5,164, according to www.edmunds.com . Those very popular employee-discount programs for everyone may have ended by now, but buyers have become accustomed to such deals, and small-business owners in particular welcome them. While rebates and cash-back promotions come and go weekly and monthly (check your local newspaper), fortunately, fleet incentives are usually constant and negotiable. At Ford, your fleet ID number entitles you to off-invoice incentives and other benefits. Dodge offers $3,000 off its 2006 Ram and $1,000 off the MegaCab, and Toyota slices $2,000 off the 2006 Tundra V-8. And don't forget that several states offer incentives for hybrid light-duty trucks. In New Jersey, it's up to $4,000.

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This article was originally published in the December 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Wheels and Deals.

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