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Should Ram go postal? (Updated)

by Bill Cawthon on

Opinion/analysis. The United States Postal Service is looking for new rides for its carriers — around 180,000 of them. Solicitation No. RFI-NGDV is a request for proposals for small vans to replace the ubiquitous Grumman Long Life Vehicle (LLV).

The postal service wants (but does not require) an aluminum, composite or fiberglass van-style body with an interior that has no nooks and crannies to swallow up wayward mail.

Existing vehicles that match the requirements most closely are the Nissan NV2000 and its clone, the Chevrolet City Express, the Ram ProMaster City, and the Ford Transit Connect. All are steel-bodied.

Ram-ProMasterCity-USPS-Web

The Post Office stated in the RFP (request for proposals) that it had good reliability and durability experiences with the particular aluminum body of the Grumman LLV, which was based on the General Motors S-10 small pickup chassis.  Grumman Olson went belly-up and was acquired by JPBCO, which makes makes aluminum walk-in van bodies under the Morgan Olson name. So does Ultilimaster, which bought Union City Body in 2005.

The specifications call for a 1500-pound payload, which all the small vans meet, but the ProMaster City is the only one that is rated for a driver and 1500 pounds of cargo.

Hybrids and electric power are among the things to be examined, and all three manufacturers can handle that requirement.

While the USPS would prefer a US-built vehicle, none of the small vans are built here; the full-size Transit is, though, as is the Nissan NV. Both the Ford Transit Connect and ProMaster City would have a potential 25% tariff if sent from their plants in Spain and Turkey, respectively.

Larger vans could work, though the payload requirement is fairly small, but the big vans do not have the parkability or maneuverability, and they would have lower fuel economy, which matters over thousands of vehicles and 20 years.

The contract is worth up to $6.3 billion over the full term but the question must be asked: Is the game worth the candle?

The previous winner of the USPS contract went bankrupt in 2001. Whether it’s done as a solo effort or in a partnership, the investments to produce a vehicle that hits every point on the USPS wish list are going to be big, including the development of a suitable platform for the aluminum body (if one is used).

So perhaps the ProMaster City isn’t the ideal candidate.

FCA does have one platform that could be suitable: the next-generation, aluminum-bodied Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. The current model doesn’t have the required 1,500-pound payload as it comes from the factory, but stripping out seats, 4-wheel drive, and some amenities, it’s likely to be able to meet the specs, and a lightweight aluminum or plastic body would increase the payload. If vehicles are needed earlier, FCA could partner with Morgan Olson, Utilimaster, or another supplier for the aluminum body for the moment.

The Wrangler is produced in Toledo, taking care of the preference for U.S.-based production. Right-hand drive isn’t an issue since Wranglers are made that way.

CRVs get terrible gas mileage because they are driven with frequent stops and some idling, though letter carriers generally turn off the engine whenever they exit the vehicle.

GM has a possible solution in the Colorado, which has a traditional perimeter frame and is produced in Missouri. The four-cylinder Colorado gets better mileage than the V6-powered Wrangler. The wheelbase is over two feet longer than the LLV, while Wrangler is six inches shorter and Wrangler Unlimited is around 15.5 inches longer in wheelbase.

Ford could use a domestically produced version of the T6 Ranger body-on-frame chassis; it’s not sold in North America. The required investment would likely be significantly higher than it would be for FCA or GM, both of which which could use existing U.S. production facilities.

FCA and Ram could produce a ProMaster or ProMaster City that met the USPS requirements, but creating almost an entire vehicle for what would amount to a total of a few years’ production, setting up production in the U.S., and all the other costs would make margins slim, even at the $35,000/vehicle maximum price. It would be far less costly to adapt the Wrangler.

UPDATE:  Patfromigh wrote that the request for proposals does not make aluminum, composites, or resins mandatory, but holds them as a distinguishing factor because of the reliability and durability of the aluminum-bodied LLVs.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for just-auto.com, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.


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