It seems that more Plumbers, Electricians, Handymen, Heating and Air Conditioning Technicians, and General Contractors are showing up on the job with an unusual vehicle, the Sprinter. And after spending a week with one, (Read my review over at Automobile Traveler) performing the jobs that these guys do, it no wonder that you are seeing them everywhere. However, Daimler takes a long and torturous route to bring them to these shores (along with Ford’s Transit Connect, and the soon to be introduced Mahindra Diesel Pickup) because of a piece of 60’s legislation. Join me on a voyage of discovery about imported commercial vehicles, with an emphasis on the Sprinter.
The Sprinter is built in Dusseldorf, Germany by Mercedes-Benz, and is one of the most popular vans on the continent. Daimler also produces the van for Volkswagen which is called the Crafter. However, Daimler had to set up a system to avoid the 25% import duty levied on finished commercial vehicles (Ostensively called the Chicken Tax). The Sprinter started showing up on these shores wearing Daimler’s North American Truck Brand, Freightliner, However, they had to be shipped to Belgium to be dismantled (ripping out the engine, drive train, and rear axle) and placing these components and the body in separate cargo containers, only to be re-married once they hit North America. As a side note, the new Ford Transit Connect follows a similar path, as will the Mahindra pickup when it becomes available later this year.
One of the first customers for this “do-it-all” van is Federal Express in 2002, and it was a revelation. Compared to the GM and Ford vans, the Sprinter was modern, and fuel efficient. The 2.7 Litre, Diesel, 5 Cylinder inline engine that produced 156 HP, and 244 Lb Ft of torque, with an Electronically Controlled Mercedes-Benz 5 Speed Automatic. The engine and transmission worked flawlessly together, helping the van keep up with traffic, while returning over 22 MPG. Along with this increased efficiency, the Sprinter van offered something that GM and Ford couldn’t offer, stand up room. There were two roof heights, with the option of more than 6’ of interior head room. This was crucial for package delivery companies that needed room for parcels, without a lot of weight.
At about this same time, Daimler’s newly acquired car company, Chrysler, finally put the stake in the heart of the long lived Dodge “B” van, a vehicle that only saw incremental changes since its introduction in 1971. This van received at least a dozen face lifts throughout its life, with the last update that saw a complete redesign of the dash board, and the installation of dual front airbags, along with enhancements to the front end for crashworthiness. However, Chrysler became increasingly aware that the van was non competitive with the more modern, yet still dated, GM and Ford vans. When Chrysler went public with the news that they were about to euthanize the “B” van, the dealers collectively went ballistic. To placate the dealer body, they simply put a new grill on the Sprinter, and in a matter of no time, the “B” van was replaced.
The Sprinter underwent a complete re-design for the 2007 model year, when almost everything changed for the better. Instead of a five cylinder diesel, a new 3.0L V-6 diesel went under the hood, which actually took up less room than the five cylinder motor. While not producing any more horsepower than the original power plant (154 HP @ 3,400 RPM), there is a substantial uptick in the torque rating (280 lb ft, available anywhere in between 1,200 to 2,400 RPM). The engine is almost as quiet as one that is fueled by gasoline, with smooth power, matched precisely to a five speed automatic with a manumatic feature. The van also grew in size during the redesign as well, offering increased height, increased wheelbase length, and increased overall length, though surprisingly, width stayed about the same.
The interior height is what sets this van apart from the competition. The standard roof model, available only in the 144” wheelbase version, offers over five feet of interior height. The tested van features an interior height of over 6 feet, while the super high version offers a staggering seven feet of headroom, and is only available as the 170” wheelbase extended version, which offers an astounding 14.5 feet of cargo room from the optional bulkhead to the back doors. Standard equipment in these vans include Power Windows, Keyless Entry, Traction Control, Tilt and telescoping steering wheel, AM FM Stereo with CD, automatic temperature controlled air conditioning, driver and front passenger airbags, as well as a state of the art Adaptive Electronic Stability Program. This particular system includes the ABS system, acceleration skid control, load adaptive control, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, roll over mitigation, and understeer control.
There are a few options that add to the safety and comfort of the van, including industry exclusives like; Optional thorax and side curtain airbags; Park Sense front and rear parking assist system; Self Adjusting Bi-Xenon high intensity headlamps with a high pressure power washing system; And a rear backup camera in which the display is integrated with the radio. There is virtually a myriad of optional equipment available, that is not offered by the domestic vans, like 3 different sized alternators, auxiliary heating systems, heated seats, quick defrost windshield, automatic rain sensor wipers, rear wipers for cargo doors, various window groupings, 2 person passenger seat with storage, and a choice of 20 different colors.
All this technology doesn’t come cheap. The test van had an MSRP of $41,915 (2008 pricing), which includes the $1,965 High Roof option, the $1,865 Crew Van Option, $980 destination charge, and another $1,900 is miscellaneous options. You could say this van was well equipped. Average fuel mileage that I saw while I had it in my possession was 20 MPG, which included mostly highway travel. The diesel versions of the Ford E-250, and the Chevrolet Express 2500 isn’t that much cheaper, when you remove both the High Roof and Crew Van options, and they come nowhere near the fuel economy the Sprinter delivers. Overall, this van offers unparalleled economy, maneuverability, and cargo capacity. Couple this with one of the most eye catching silhouettes on the market today, and it’s no wonder that high end contractors are choosing the Sprinter as their van of choice. Having a big truck name associated with the van is pretty cool too!