Baked foods and snacks leave the manufacturing plant in trucks of all sorts. Big 18-wheelers and boxy step vans do most of the work and haul most of the goods. But more and more, you see smaller cargo vans emblazoned with bakery logos zipping around crowded city streets.

While these relatively lightweight vehicles provide better fuel economy, companies who have changed over to smaller vehicles have needed to reroute trucks and alter delivery schedules to see a cost savings, observed Bob McGuire, vice-president, transportation, Alpha Baking Co., Chicago, speaking as chairman of the American Bakers Association’s Logistics Committee. Yet the easier-to-handle vehicles may help bakers address problems in finding trained drivers and lessen the regulatory burden they face when operating large vehicles.

The automotive industry recognized this need several years ago. Developed by Mercedes, the Sprinter van’s second-generation vehicle was voted Van of the Year in 2007 and 2008 by Professional Van and Lightweight Truck magazine. Vincentric, an automotive data compilation and analysis firm based at Bingham Farms, MI, named the Sprinter Best Fleet Value in America for three years in a row, including the 2014 model.

Ford brought out its Transit Connect in 2009, which was named North American Truck of the Year in 2010 by an independent group of automotive journalists.

This January, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, Inc. introduced its 2015 N-Series low cab forward cargo vehicles, developed to serve the urban delivery market. Two companies plan introductions of vehicles in this category during the fourth quarter: GM will unveil the City Express cargo van, and Ram Truck will debut the ProMaster City.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand for vehicles of this size and flexibility,” said Nick Cappa, Ram Truck media relations, Chrysler Group LLC, Auburn Hills, MI. “Customers told us they needed better fuel economy and more cargo space. This vehicle has front-wheel drive so it operates like SUVs and smaller vans.

Versatility is key in this category. The Sprinter van, for example, combines fuel efficient yet powerful diesel engines with best-in-class payload and cargo capacity, according to Claus Tritt, general manager, commercial van operations, Mercedes-Benz USA, Montvale, NJ. “This allows bakery owners the flexibility to carry the large amount of goods that they’re used to in a vehicle with a smaller footprint that’s easier to maneuver around town while also saving on fuel costs.” In the US, Sprinter carries the badges of Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner, both subsidiaries of The Daimler Group.

Augmenting the fleet

The large step van, popularly called a bread truck, still commands the lion’s share of the baking industry’s fleet. “For baked goods deliveries, you still need step vans for bulk deliveries,” said Brian Tabel, director of marketing, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, Anaheim, CA, “but you can also need another type of truck to handle city conditions and emerging customer channels.”

What’s happening is that some fleets now buy both types of vehicles. “I’ve been seeing many fleets augment their large trucks with the smaller-size vehicle,” said Joseph G. Langhauser Jr., commercial product and sales support manager, vans and mobility, General Motors, Detroit. “It becomes an operations management issue.” The smaller size is also attractive for local bakers and artisan food producers moving into restaurant supply with customers needing more than one delivery a day. “They compete well for parking availability,” he added.

GM’s lineup, badged both Chevrolet and GMC, provides a spectrum of vehicles from small cargo vans up to large box trucks built on the company’s cutaway chassis. “The Chevrolet City Express at 122 cu ft is about half the size of our full-size cargo vehicle with 240 cu ft,” Mr. Langhauser said, “and the box trucks can be as big as a step van.

“We’ve seen mixing of fleets to minimize costs,” he added.

With the launch of Transit Connect, Ford emphasized choice. “It’s not necessarily that smaller vans are better,” explained Minyang Jiang, brand manager, Transit/Transit Connect/E-Series, Ford Commercial Vehicles, Detroit.

Choice is also a matter of what works best for situations faced by the baker and snack food manufacturer. “Our philosophy is to offer the right truck for the right operating conditions,” Mr. Tabel said. “We have three engine configurations for this vehicle. First is a gasoline engine, for low-mileage use. Second is the 4J for Class 3 trucks (12,000 GVW), a high-fuel-­efficiency diesel engine. Third is the 4H for the 14,500 to 19,500 GVW trucks. This is a 4-cylindar diesel engine with high horsepower.”

What do bakers want?

Consider the problems faced by a bakery in the Northeast who was branching out into foodservice supply. It opted for the new Isuzu N-Series line for its maneuverability. “They are able to get it into tight city conditions,” Mr. Tabel reported. “It’s easy to run multiple deliveries during the day, and its cost of ownership is low compared with step vans.” Nine months ago, this baker put 15 trucks on the roads and recently ordered 20 more.

Smaller vehicles may assist when building routes by giving driver salesmen time for customer development. Mr. Cappa noted that large vehicles tend to run long routes with many stops. “Consider a bakery that may now use three step vans,” he continued. “Because of the vehicle size, it may have routes so long that by the time it reaches its last stop, that customer isn’t getting timely service. This doesn’t allow the baker to easily add new customers.”

Instead, with one large van and three smaller ones, that baker could accommodate established routes with the large vehicle and do more intense customer development work with the others.

How a vehicle is used determines its value to the user, according to Joe Benson, head of Ram Truck commercial marketing, Chrysler Group LLC. “The ProMaster City is for a business that needs efficiency, not a big payload,” he said. “This is especially critical for the baker who delivers fresh, warm goods directly to his customers. If he uses a large van, by the end of the route, those breads are no longer warm.”

What bakers describe as distribution economics is what truck manufacturers mean when they talk about cost of ownership, but it all comes down to the price paid to get products to market. Lower cost of ownership reflects acquisition costs but, more importantly, fuel economy.

Fuel consumption figures large for this group of delivery vehicles. “When you load a full-size truck, it will cost you in fuel economy,” Mr. Langhauser noted. GM’s City Express delivers 24 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city, compared with a step van’s 10 mpg.

The choice of engine also impacts the cost of ownership. Here, Mr. Tabel had some advice. “For example, if a route van drives 12,000 to 25,000 miles a year, the baker could select a gas engine, and Isuzu uses the GM Vortec V8 engine. If the vehicle must go longer distances, then we recommend one of the two diesel options.”

As you might expect, the turning radius of these vehicles is very tight. “The distance varies because of the different wheelbase lengths in the N-series line, but they have a turning angle of more than 49°,” Mr. Tabel said. “Most cars don’t turn as tightly as this truck does.”

Ram’s ProMaster City offers a 36-ft turning radius, and its 159-in. wheelbase can accommodate a 14-in. extension. “We designed this vehicle with a large cubic capacity,” Mr. Benson noted.

Driver dynamics

There’s also the human factor. As Alpha Baking’s Mr. McGuire observed, that’s a much bigger problem than fuel economy or cargo size facing DSD operators in getting their goods to market.

“The baking industry, similar to the trucking industry, is dealing with a major driver shortage that limits the ability to look towards placing more vehicles on the road,” Mr. McGuire said. “I am repeatedly hearing that companies are turning away business because of their inability to recruit drivers. Demanding work schedules, aging corporate fleets, the deteriorating highway infrastructure and the added stress from federal regulation is making it harder for companies to entice more employees.”

Configuring the fleet to suit the available pool of drivers may seem like the industry is going backwards, but it’s a reality. “You will find drivers who like operating the large step vans, but an off-the-street driver will be more comfortable with something that handles like a car,” Mr. Langhauser observed. “These new urban delivery vehicles are more like driving a mini-van.”

Step heights are similar to passenger vans, so they help reduce driver fatigue. Mr. Benson noted that step vans typically have a drop of more than 20 in. to the ground. “That difference can save the driver the equivalent of walking up 10 flights a day,” he said.

While it may make sense for bakers to consider smaller trucks and vans for urban deliveries, it may not be cost efficient for all companies, according to Mr. McGuire. Bakers will need to evaluate the full range of operating costs, including insurance. Some products may be better handled by smaller vehicles, as are some customers. What’s important is the availability of choice.