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NORFOLK -- For decades, small business owners have reluctantly bought full-size American vans for their businesses. Given that these vehicles were last redesigned during the early Jurassic period, their fuel economy is gluttonous and their size is usually gargantuan.

But tightening federal fuel economy standards are forcing these ancient wonders into extinction with the rapidity of dinosaurs. In their place are not only new full-sized vans, but also smaller vans that auto manufacturers sell overseas.

Exhibit A: the Nissan NV200 compact cargo van. It's four inches longer than a Sentra but five inches shorter than an Altima. Yet it can carry 1,500 pounds of stuff thanks to a cargo hold that measures 82.8-inches long, 54.8-inches wide, 53 inches high and offers four feet of space between the rear wheel wells.

Accessing the cargo is easy thanks to sliding doors on each side. In the rear, the doors are a 40/60-split design, with the 60-percent side on the curb side for easy access from a sidewalk. The 40-percent left side door is shorter, to minimize intrusion into the street. Both rear doors swing open up to 180 degrees. All doors are solid. A 'Rear Door Glass Package' is a $190 option and includes a rear-view mirror.

Throughout its interior, Nissan has designed standard integrated mounting points, which allow installation of racks and shelves without drilling into the sidewalls. In addition, the passenger's seat folds down to serve as a worktop, lunch table, or extend the cargo space for hauling longer items. A 15x13-inch tray built into the seatback fits most laptops and includes a penholder for use as a desk. In addition, there's an under-seat storage tray under the passenger's seat, which augments the meager storage offered on the open center console.

Given its mission as a commercial vehicle, standard equipment isn't generous. Base S models receive power windows with auto up/down, power locks, a 12-volt power outlet, trip computer, two-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with auxiliary input and remote keyless entry. Up-level SV vans also get power heated outside mirrors, power door locks with auto-locking feature, remote keyless entry with two key fobs, cruise control, steering wheel-mounted controls, an additional 12-volt power point in the rear of the center console and six floor-mounted cargo hooks in the cargo area.

Nevertheless, Bluetooth is optional, as is a rear-view camera. Given this vehicle's mission, both items should be standard. Other options include a $950 Technology Package that combines those options with an upgraded audio system and navigation system, and a $190 Exterior Appearance Package that adds a chrome grille, full wheel covers and body-colored bumpers and mirrors.

Regardless of model, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission are standard. This makes for commendable fuel economy, but acceleration is merely adequate, although at speed, the NV200 seems lively enough. Given this vehicle's payload capacity, driving in the left lane will not be an option. Considering its mission as a delivery/work vehicle, that may not be an issue.

The NV200's suspension is fairly soft, so body lean is evident in corners. Braking was very good, despite the lack of rear disc brakes, although there was some nosedive. But the ride is far from punishing, with the NV200 soaking up bumps without transmitting too much harshness to the vehicle's occupants. There is a bit of engine, road and tire noise, although it wasn't objectionable.

The NV200's safety gear includes front and side-impact curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, stability control and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

The test model, an SV, was equipped with the Technology Package, which adds a bit of civility to the NV200's Spartan interior. This nets buyers hands free text messaging, Pandora radio capability, voice recognition, Bluetooth, navigation, steering wheel controls and a USB port. This helped mitigate the interior's hard plastic ambiance and lack of small amenities, such as visor vanity mirrors, assist handles and covered center console.

There's little that's glamorous about the NV200, but that's not its function. This vehicle was meant to work, while offering a modicum of comfort and utility. That said, before you opt for the NV200, be sure to try the Ford Transit Connect, the Nissan's only competitor in this segment.

Regardless of which one you buy, once you sample them, you'll realize that good things do come in small packages.

Stats:
Powertrain: 131-horsepower four-cylinder, continuously-variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 115.2 inches
Length: 186.3 inches
Weight: 3,260 pounds
Cargo capacity: 122.7 cubic feet
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 24/25 mpg
NHTSA safety rating: Not rated
Base price, base model: $20,290
Base price, test model: $21,280
As tested: $23,645

Where to buy it: Charles Barker Nissan, Norfolk; Hall Nissan, Virginia Beach; Nissan of Chesapeake, Chesapeake; Nissan of Newport News, Newport News; Pomoco Nissan, Hampton; Alliance Nissan, Elizabeth City, N.C.

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