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The Sprinter is a full-size van equipped like you’d expect from Mercedes (assuming you’d expect a van from Mercedes). The 2.7-liter, five-cylinder turbo diesel engine and five-speed automatic transmission are from the E-Class and also used in the M-Class. The base model has four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, and traction control. Plus there are packages that include everything from power locks, windows, and mirrors to heated front seats and a CD player. It’s a Mercedes all right, in everything but name: it’s coming to North America under the Freightliner brand to take a chunk out of the cargo- and passenger-carrying markets currently served by the domestics.
“The van market hasn’t evolved beyond a box on wheels since the industry began,” says Tim Reuss, president and CEO of DaimlerChrysler Vans (DCV). “We feel the Sprinter will change that by providing an OEM vehicle that’s easy to load, can be used as a mobile workshop, or that can carry 10 passengers in comfort. It’s not designed to fit in your garage. It’s designed to do commercial jobs better than any other full-size van on the market. That’s what you expect from Mercedes.” Or a Freightliner, as the case may be.
The main differences between a Freightliner Sprinter and its European counterpart are confined to the grille, Freightliner emblem, and the “Powered by Mercedes Benz” badge on the front fender. Both are built in Mercedes’ Dusseldorf, Germany assembly plant.
Passenger versions come over complete, but cargo versions are shipped in a semi-knocked-down state, and completed in a 75,000-ft2 extension of Freightliner’s Gaffney, SC, assembly plant. In simplistic terms, workers in Gaffney open one box, which contains the complete body, chassis, and interior, and unite it with the contents of a second box, the powertrain. Why? All to save some tariff money. It must be difficult to keep the boxes straight, especially since a completed Sprinter looks something like the box in which it arrived. And a big box it is. Three wheelbases are available–118-in., 140-in., and 158-in.– as are two roof heights for the shorter versions. (Long wheelbase Sprinters come in high-roof trim only.) The short wheelbase Sprinter cargo van has a 247 ft3 cargo bay, the normal wheelbase version carries 321 ft3, and the loading area of the long wheelbase van will hold 473 ft3 of stuff. The flat-roof model is 64 in. from floor to ceiling, the high-roof model 73 in. “The high roof version isn’t your typical ‘cut-and-shut’ job done by a conversion company,” says Georg Weiberg, v.p. of Development at DCV. “It is fully integrated into the normal build process, which means we can be certain each vehicle is built to the same standard.” No wonder FedEx ordered the first 1,900 off the line in Gaffney to replace domestic vans for deliveries within cities.
Safety issues also are addressed. Weiberg notes the Sprinter chassis has a closed bulkhead between the engine and passenger compartments (which also cuts down on noise transmission from the engine compartment into the passenger area), high side sills, a high seating position, a floor that reduces side intrusion by directing crash energy along pre-determined paths, braces between the inner and outer seat shells, front airbags, and optional side curtain airbags that emerge from the trim around the front door glass. Sounds just like a Mercedes, you say? Exactly.
It sounds even more like one (well, a European market Mercedes, that is) when you start the engine. The inline five-cylinder turbo diesel has a cast iron block, forged crank with six main bearings, aluminum pistons, common rail injection, and a variable-vane turbocharger. Weiberg says the engine meets all current emission standards, and should have no trouble meeting the tighter 2004 regulations, even though low-sulfur fuel won’t be mandated in North America at least until 2006.
The reason for the diesel engine and five-speed automatic transmission is obvious when you consider the Sprinter’s estimated average fuel economy of 22 mpg, nearly double that of its competition. “Domestic full-size vans get 10 to 12 mpg with gasoline engines, and 15 to 16 mpg with their optional diesel engines,” says Tim Reuss. “Plus they require maintenance more often than the Sprinter,” he says, adding that the Sprinter’s oil changes take place every 10,000 miles and scheduled maintenance every 30,000. “With the optional ASSYST maintenance calculator,” he continues, “maintenance needs are calculated by the condition and amount of motor oil [it also checks the condition of the oil in the transmission], so these limits can be stretched even farther depending on how the vehicle is used.”
According to Weiberg, experience with the European-market Sprinter (introduced in 1995) suggests long-term costs should be low, as well. “The average mileage we’ve seen in real-world use before 10% of the vehicles report any failures is 240,000 miles,” he says, “and 480,000 miles go by before 50% have any failures to report.” It’s this longevity that DCV officials feel will make the Sprinter less expensive than conventional vans over time, and help justify its premium price. (A base cargo van runs $26,300, a loaded passenger van nearly $37,000.) DCV officials must be confident the market will respond since the Dusseldorf facility will continue to supply 20,000 Sprinters per year even as an American plant–scheduled to come on-line in 2006–adds upwards of 130,000 units to the mix by 2010. Don’t laugh. In less than six years, the Sprinter became the full-size van market sales leader in Europe.