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The (Freightliner) Sprinter, and how Daimler (and other companies) Manage to Dodge the Chicken Tax

Jim Brennan December 5, 2009 Road Test Reviews
2008 Freightliner Sprinter Left Side Angled

My week with a Sprinter with the "Crew Van" Option Package. I thought it was kind of artsy to tilt the camera :)

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.

2002 Freightliner Sprinter

The 2002 Freightliner Sprinter. Image is from the Original Brochure.

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.

2002 Freightliner Sprinter Wagon

2003 Sprinter Passenger Van. Early versions didn't come with Deep Tinted Glass, nor did they come with Rear Air Conditioning!

scan0004

2007 Version of the 144" Wheelbase. Low Roof version of the Sprinter Van. Image from a 2007 Freightliner Sprinter Brochure.

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.

2008 Freightliner Sprinter Rear Emblem Shot

Another Artsy Shot. That's a Freightliner Century Class Tractor in the background.

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.

scan0005

A 2009 Sprinter 170" Wheelbase Extended Model. This one shows the $2,200 Extra High Roof addition, giving almost seven feet of interior height!

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.

scan0003

This is the 3500, 170" Wheelbase, Extended model. The Sprinter is the only van to offer Dual Rear Wheels.

2008 Freightliner Sprinter Low Left Front End with Trucks

My test vehicle, posing in front of a row of Freightliner Trucks.

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!

Currently there are "48 comments" on this Article:

  1. chrystlubitshi says:

    since these hit the U.S. shores, i have wanted a medium-length, full-height, panel body… to turn in to an RV… i can fit all i need in one of those.. and with a french-fry-fat sipping diesel i would make my way from shore to shore to shore, with some other stops in between… hell.. my g/f even likes the idea… now to just plan a route & brush up on my short-order cooking skills……

    i have also considered the transit/transit-connect possibility.. but i like the sprinter better….

    • CptSevere says:

      It's been done for you. Airstream and I think a few others have been building motorhomes on this platform for a couple of years now. http://www.airstream.com/products/2010-fleet/tour… Looks like a nice ride as well as a good place to crash.

      • Everyday on my way to work, I see one of those leaving the same residential neighborhood. It's a pretty nice setup, but I can't imagine it makes for a great commuter vehicle. 'Course, there's something to be said for stepping into the back at a red light for your morning coffee.

    • You could also build your own in a school bus for under $7,000:
      http://steampunkworkshop.com/bus1.shtml

    • You could also build your own in a school bus for under $7,000:
      http://steampunkworkshop.com/bus1.shtml

    • Maymar says:

      I had a similar thought – bunk beds on one half of a Sprinter, and a motorcycle rolled up in the other half, would be a pretty cool way to tour the continent.

      • Sportsmobile, if they're still in business offers customizable configurations, and for a lot less than the wonderful Airstream.

      • chrystlubitshi says:

        i probably wouldn't do the motorcycle part… because i'd be living in it… and i love motorcycles… but i can't bring myself to buy one… my dad's story of almost having to put a prairie dog out of it's misery (and the whole 'i don't need doors i have leathers') thing just keep me from riding them…. except the occassional dirt bike that friends own……

        (my dad's story- short version)

        travelling through SD on a goldwing with Mom on the back seat (mid 70s.. i'm of '82 vintage)… Dad was a small town Nebraska police officer at the time.. always carried his S&W .38 five shot snubby (1" barrel) in his boot… just like at work… right? (police officers are *always* on duty) ran over a prairie dog.. instantly pulled over and ran back to it… had the gun pointed at it's head (ground-level) and almost shot.. a second before he decided he had to do it….. she stopped kicking……

        they camped in yellowstone that night.. and played/sang songs wishing her well in her animal afterlife……

  2. coupeZ600 says:

    I fought tooth and nail to get our company to replace an aging IH/Bluebird bus and the two emergency back-up Ford E-350's with two of these and the passenger option. What sealed the deal (or screwed the pooch is more like it) was when a UPS driver showed up and I dragged the Boss out to look at it. After extolling it's virtues (MPG, no CDL required, proven durability, parts availability from the Freightliner shop right down the street), I achieved Epic Fail by asking the driver upon his return how he liked it. I had no idea how much they loved their regular ones. He launched into a diatribe that was like a fire-hose, about how the mechanics hated it, how uncomfortable it was, stupid this and stupid that, UPS would never buy another one, and how happy he would be if it broke down right then. Game Over. The Boss walked back into the office, we bought a Freightliner school-bus with a Cat 3126 that gets about 7mpg and needs a CDL, and UPS got rid of their Sprinters while everyone else was buying them. Darn.

    • This is positively true. I have a buddy that works at UPS as a mechanic. I also have hands on personal experience working on Sprinters. They are epic pieces of German over-engineered crap.
      UPS dumped them because they would break down almost twice as much as their previous Workhorse/GM step vans. I can't remember the exact time frame that UPS had them for but they agreed to take so many from Freightliner on a trial basis. It didn't take long for UPS to realize that what they had on their hands was more headache and expense (German parts are wayyyy more expensive than GM ones). They made Freightliner buy all of them back and never looked at them again.
      Having worked at a shop that did diesel work, when a Sprinter came in, technicians ran. Most of them don't last too long without major repairs. The 5cyl diesel is a nightmare. Glow plugs are steel, head is aluminum. After 100k they won't come out. Mercedes doesn't make a tap kit, you're stuck buying a new head if you can't tap it yourself.
      They're great vehicles when they're running. But when they break (as with any German car), and they will, you feel it. Most companies that we did work for regretted buying them as well. UPS just has enough pull and money to do whatever they want.

    • baldheadeddork says:

      No, epic fail would be having to face your boss every morning two years after talking him into buying these miserable pieces of crap. We had one at my last job – they won't be buying another. The transmission is garbage and when it starts to go your 22mpg disappears with it. Ours began to go out with less than 75K on the clock. For reasons known only to God, there is no transmission dipstick. If you think the fluid low you have to take it to the Dodge/Freightliner dealer, where in addition to an hour of shop time to check the fluid they'll charge $20 a quart if you need a refill.

      On the first gens, if a u-joint failed you had to replace the entire driveshaft. Let me say that again – you couldn't replace the u-joints on a commercial vehicle.

      The body has all the torsional rigidity of Reynolds Wrap. Even in Florida, hundreds of miles from the nearest pothole and with no crash damage – the body on ours was so tweaked after a couple of years that it was almost impossible to close any of the doors.

      The first gens had a tire size (14", IIRC) that was used by nothing else in the US market. No one ever carried tires in stock, so a tire failure meant your truck was out of service for a couple of days at least. The small diameter meant they wore out quickly and they cost a fortune, too. I remember signing a $750 bill for replacing two tires.

      • Tomsk says:

        This all bums me the hell out, as my dad and I have discussed dropping a Sprinter engine and trans into a W123 or W126 diesel Benz for some time now. Anyone know if the 2nd-gen models are any better?

      • coupeZ600 says:

        @baldheadeddork@aSoundofSleep: Well, thanks. I really wanted to trust that driver (he's not our regular one, who was rather non-committal, but that's because nobody drives his truck and he doesn't drive any other truck), but we had so many problems with the other 3126-powered Freightliners. It's the only Cat engine I know of that has sleeve-less cylinders, so if something bad (like the dropped injector) happens, your only choice is to bore the block out and sleeve that cylinder. The guy managed to do this in-frame (mainly), but we had to dis-mount it and roll the engine over about twenty-five degrees so his machine could get in there. Sucked. The whole time I was thinking, "Two Sprinters and I could be in the office sipping lattes (or whatever they drink) with the pretty office girls". Destiny, always messing up my shit and keeping me from flirting with the cute girls.

    • mike says:

      UPS is still getting sprinters so is fedex budget restraints shot down orders. 2009 was a hard on all.
      I upfit these units all day these are very good units the older body style had its draw backs but they're very good vans
      and know that Dodge has no ties even better units.

  3. Excellent review and write-up…! As UDMAN mentions in his full review, I wonder how well the three-pointed star will play out in North America on a tradesman's van. In the fly-over states, a plumber driving a Mercedes is obviously a plumber who charges too much… I have friends in Iowa who saw their CPA business drop after they started driving a new BMW sedan in their rural community (granted, this was a decade ago). The locals did not reconcile hard work and honesty with German personal luxury. Go figure.

    This could be a huge marketing transition for MB North America, who have struggled with "entry level" cars dragging down the prestige of the entire product line. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't dilemma: MBNA doesn't want buyers who look poor, and potential customers don't want to appear too wealthy.

    • cds says:

      That's what the 'Freightliner' bit is all about. Badge engineering to avoid Xenophobes & Mercedes dealerships.

    • Tomsk says:

      Judging by the number of Sprinters (particularly first-gen) I've seen with Mercedes grille conversions, I don't think it'll be a huge liability.

    • Merc in the US always had this dilemma for many years now. Unlike in the EU where it is common to see a MB van, an Actros truck and a top of the line S-class next to each other and the customers don't think twice about that we here in the US have bought so much into the whole premium image that the rich soccer moms in Orange country would be horrified if their plumber turned up at their house in a MB work truck/van. I hope they will be able to develop Frieghtliner into a full fledged brand which will carry a full line up of commercial vehicles all the way from vans to big rigs. On the face of it, this looks like the only viable solution here without alienating their rich clientele.

  4. Uncle_Bo says:

    I used to work for a small company that had a fleet of service van and trucks. I got to play Fleet Manager as part of my overall Ops/Sales manager job. It was one of my favorite things to do eventhough I have zero fleet management / ops expertise. Not like it matter much, we had 15-20 employees and 12 vehicles.

    Anyway, one of my roles (it wasn't a job) was to maintain a file of replacement vehicles in case we needed to expand our fleet or replace one due to an accident. I got paid (sorta…) to shop for commercial vans and trucks, keep an eye on prices for new and used, and do all the wannabe fleet manager stuff like get the latest Adrian Steel catalog and Knapheide brochures.

    We needed a couple of new vans and trucks over the years and I seriously looked at Sprinter but could never justify the cost. There was no way we could afford a $41,000 service van, especially since I could buy Chevy Express 2500's with the 4.8 for $22,000 OTD. Even when we needed a multi-purpose van I couldn't make the business case for a Sprinter and bought a new Chevy 2500 KUV for $28,000.

    I really like the idea of the Sprinter but for a small company where replacement vehicle budgets are almost zero, they are little extravagant. One of the main concerns I had was the cost of maintenance after the warranty ended, and where we could get a Sprinter serviced at a reasonable cost. I knew it was really a Mercedes but our little company didn't have a Mercedes fleet budget or a Mercedes level mechanic on staff. One of my service techs used to work on cars at Sears Auto Center, so he was elected to do all basic maintenance on the company vehicles. I'm not sure he could handle repairing one, the guy didn't even want to work on our ex-Ecolab Dodge Ram truck.

    I hope they become more common place in the US, along with the Transit Connect, as I think they are great ideas. They just need time to germinate in the US market. I would have loved to replace our worn out Chevy Express' and the POS Astro van with a couple Transit Connects in our little fleet.

    • I think Transit connect will make a great choice for small businesses that don't need too big of a space or load carrying capacities. It's compact, maneuverable and has great work tool options. It's a great option especially if your business involves working regularly in crowded downtown areas. I really hope Ford sells a boat load of them , bring down the prices in the long term. The existing Econoline trucks are positively ancient in comparison.

      The one thing (the key thing prolly) which makes the existing commercial vans (like the E series) from the big 2.5 competitive is the price. The platforms have been in production for so long that they have paid many times over the investment and as a result the domestics have been able to offer them at increasingly competitive prices. Like you mentioned, if you're a small biz and don't have that big of a budget, which one would you rather have, 2 of the domestic vans or 1 Sprinter? The versatility, new age ergonomics and conveniences not withstanding.

  5. [...] here: The (Freightliner) Sprinter, and how Daimler (and other companies … Share and [...]

  6. I saw a family of four pull into the Whole Foods parking lot in a blue Sprinter just like the one in the pic. Mom, Dad, two kids. Oh, and one big-ass dog who had his own lux bed in the back. Anyway, it was ridiculous. Seemed to be seven feet tall and about 30 feet long. Commercial vehicle? Maybe. Family van? Uh, no.

  7. Syrax says:

    What kind of agreement Chrysler got with Daimler? The Sprinter always was, and still is, a Benz here:
    <img src="http://www.privatefleet.com.au/images/upload/Image/new-cars/benz_sprinter.jpg"/&gt;

    • Chris J. says:

      The Dodge Sprinter will cease being sold sold as of Jan 01, 2010 when Daimler A.G. ends its Sprinter agreement with Chrysler. Daimler has established a new entity, Daimler Vans U.S.A. to oversee the sales, service and distribution of the van in the U.S. Daimler wants to sign up about 120 Mercedes dealers to sell and service the van and will continue to sell the Freightliner version at 45 Freightliner dealerships.

  8. engineerd says:

    I was at Ford when they were developing the Transit and Transit Connect. I kept asking why they weren't going to offer them in the US. The answer was that they weren't needed since everyone liked their Econolines. Plus, they had been designed for South America and Europe and it would be too costly to redo them for the North American regs. At the same time Mercedes came over here with the Sprinter, which seemed to weaken the arguments I was hearing from the Ford guys. Now, Ford is having some pretty good success with the Transit Connect and I wouldn't be surprised at all if the next Econoline is the full size (with both short and tall roofs) Transit vans.

    • I sincerely hope we get Transit-based full-size vans here – the load and towing capacity of the Econoline is overkill for most purposes (hell, the Transit's used for utility trucks, wreckers, small cranes and the like in the UK) and it's better on fuel than the large V8s. If we get it with the 3.2 Duratorq and the new Ecoboost six going into the F-150, it should do brilliantly.

    • Andy says:

      I am trying like h*ll to get Ford to bring us the full size Transit. Writing headquarters on a weekly basis! The Sprinter is a bit pricey, but if Ford could ramp up production here (to keep the price in check) by 2012 or so, it would keep me from being forced into a minivan (yuck!). Why wouldn't I want something that looks much better, handles better, holds more, and gets better mpg's with a small diesel than any minivan sold in the US? Oh, and I'd even spring for the sport version like Europe gets. How can I do a better job of convincing Ford??
      -Andy
      andy_george@yahoo.com

  9. LTDScott says:

    I am still confused about how I have seen several Mercedes-badged early 1st gen Sprinters around here. I know you can buy a Mercedes "conversion" kit (which includes a new hood!), but the ones I have seen were well used commercial vans. I seriously doubt a business would have spent the money to convert them.

    • udman says:

      Scott, these were all Freightliners in 2002 and early 2003 before Dodge Dealers cried like babies. There was a specialty company who supplied the Mercedes Conversion Kits, and you didn't have to remove the hood. You see, the chrome part on top of the Freightliner Grill (as well as the one used for the Dodge Version) covered up the indentation used for the Mercedes Emblem. Take the chrome piece off (Which really is a simple procedure) remove the rest of the grill, and voila, you have an opening that fits the Mercedes Grill perfectly. Add the emblem on the hood (with simple peel and stick tape), remove the center caps on the wheels, and stick the emblem on the steering wheel, and you have a Mercedes Sprinter! Oh yea, and remove the Freightliner Emblem off the back door….

      • LTDScott says:

        I was unaware of the Freightliner badge covering the notch in the hood for the Mercedes logo. But my point is I find it hard to believe that someone would have spent the money to convert an actual work truck to Mercedes badging. I have seen at least 3 of them and all three were well worn.

  10. Jeff_Glucker says:

    This was my LeMons chariot of choice for the Buttonwillow 2009 race…It carried tons of gear (including a compressor, a full tool box, and a squadron of easy-ups) and it also served as my hotel for the weekend.

    I daily-drove it the week I had it and I loved every second of it…

  11. udman says:

    Once again, I am honored by the reception I have received here at the Hooniverse. I have decided (with your permission Jeff) to call my series of postings "DieselFumes." I wish I could do a couple a week, but right now, I am so backed up with the real job, and with other commitments (CarDomain, Automotive Traveler, Chevy Enthusiast Magazine) that i can crank out one real good posting a week, sometimes a couple.

    I will try and surprise everyone with the next posting, so there will be no hints this time. Once again, thanks to everyone reading this!

  12. salguod says:

    I don't think that For is disassembling the Transit to beat the chicken tax. According to Autoblog, they bring in passenger versions (fully assembled), which aren't subject to the chicken tax, and then removing and trashing the interiors.

    • udman says:

      You are correct, however, Ford has to not only take the rear seats out, they also have to replace the windows in the rear part of the van, as well as the sliding doors if you wand a windowless van and replace them with sheet metal components. The seat belts, rear trim, and glass get recycled. The steel in the seats are also recycled, but the foam fr the seats is shreadded and used for landfill material.

      • Slow Joe Crow says:

        I thought Ford sidestepped the chicken tax by importing Transit Connects from Turkey instead of the EU, kind of like clothing that beats tariff by being assembled in Qatar. Putting steel back into the body seems extreme.

  13. karldotcom says:

    What is even better is that the Mercedes-Benz dealers are being forced to carry them, even though some service and other facilities can't handle the height.

  14. joeaverage says:

    That corporate idea that Americans don't want what the car companies sell in other countries is a big mistake by Detroit. I'd MUCH rather have a Sprinter than the old Dodge van having traveled long distances in the Dodge. I'd rather have the Transit over the Econoline. If they want to sell both the American style vehicle side by side with the "rest of the world" vehicle I say go for it but I generally choose the "rest of the world" vehicle.

  15. Andy says:

    I found a Mercedes Vito 111CDI that had been grey market imported on Craigslist in Minneapolis for $20,000 with 20k miles on it and promptly wrote a check for it. The Vito is the little sibling of the Sprinter, sharing many of the same mechanicals. The title says the purchase price was $34,000 new (in the UK, no less, where an Audi TT that costs $40,000 here costs $55,000), and I figure someone spent several thousand to get it over here and through the NHTSA and EPA regs. This van answers a lot of the concerns people are voicing here about size and cost. I get 32 MPG on the highway with that thing. I hope Mercedes will start selling them here not only because I think they would fill a gap, but because it would make it easier for me to get parts.

  16. DamaskinosWasRight says:

    The problem with the super high roof is that it is plastic. The problem with the 20 available colors is that the dealer will only stock 3 and the brochure and web site do not agree on what each color actually looks like. They sell a natural gas version that also uses regular gas with 1.8 liter engine but not in the USA. Hopefully when Mercedes takes over natural gas will happen. Ford should build transit here.

  17. [...] on Hooniverse, Corvair racer UDMan has untangled the threads that make up the Sprinter’s history, and [...]

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