The Reach commercial van from Indiana-based Utilimaster and automaker Isuzu is advertised as delivering 35 percent better fuel economy than its conventional counterpart—a fact that, with rising gas prices, has lured delivery giants UPS and FedEx, among others.

Using composite materials for the body and cab areas, the van saves an average of 600 pounds per vehicle over more conventional materials, according to Utilimaster. When combined with an efficient engine and aerodynamic design, this reduced weight, results in a reduction of the vehicle’s carbon footprint by up to 11 tons per year.

The side panels, usually made from aluminum or steel, are made from polyethylene skins with a honeycomb core. “It’s a very lightweight way to achieve strength and stiffness,” says John Knudtson, vice president of product development at Utilimaster. “The composite panels also provide better thermal and acoustical performance than its metal counterparts.”

The floor of the van is made from two-inch-thick urethane foam core polyethylene panels, which gives it more rigidity than the side panels. They are also easier to remove and replace than conventional steel panels, according to Knudtson. Structural molded plastic elements like the dashboard panels and molding around the windshield lower the van’s weight and limit the number of parts used in the van, lessening installation labor. In the long run, this saves fleet owners money and limits the downtime.

Post-industrial recycled content also appears throughout the van, in molded plastic panels where “you’re not very concerned about appearance,” says Knudtson. Rubber from recycled tires is used on rear side bumpers, protecting the van from loading docks.

The lighter weight of the vehicle means less wear and tear on the chassis and other components, which require replacement or repair less frequently. Composites are also corrosion resistant, says Knudtson, which give them a distinct advantage in snowy environments, where the road salts used are increasingly corrosive.

FedEx is currently testing five of the vehicles in Detroit, Jackson, Tennessee, Jonesboro, Arkansas and Memphis. The company is also testing all-electric and hybrid vehicles in denser, urban routes. The gasoline-powered Reach van, however, is better suited to rural and suburban routes with less starting and stopping and longer stretches between fueling or plug-in stations.

UPS liked the Reach van, but worked with Utilimaster and Isuzu to customize it, developing a prototype van called the CV-23. The UPS-specific van features modifications to the cab and several other details, and, like the standard Reach van, uses a smaller engine, lighter chassis, and lighter composite body than a conventional van.