Sprinter exec sees Euro-van boom in U.S.

Brand will add models, options, dealerships

The Sprinter introduced the sloping-front, high-roof look to the U.S. commercial van market. This is a 2014 model.

The newly created Mercedes-Benz Vans USA unit that sells the Sprinter van will add dealers and models and will increase sales in the next few years, says the business unit's leader.

Bernie Glaser, Mercedes-Benz USA vice president and managing director of the van unit, says that the Sprinter is the ideal vehicle to capitalize on the growing popularity of European-style vans in the United States. These vehicles are taller and lighter and get better fuel economy than the vans they're replacing.

"The Sprinter is the benchmark and the norm of the Euro-style vans," says Glaser. "There is a revolution happening in the segment and big changes coming that were caused by the Sprinter -- vans with a smaller footprint but big cargo volume."

Several automakers, including Ford, Nissan and Chrysler, have or are preparing new van entries.

The Sprinter generates revenues of nearly $1 billion in the United States, said Glaser.

Mercedes plans to accelerate growth with:

• A new four-cylinder turbodiesel engine from the E-class sedan teamed with a seven-speed automatic transmission.

• Standard electronic stability control, plus options from cars such as collision prevention, blind-spot assistance and a crosswind stabilization feature.

• An all-wheel-drive variant of the Sprinter commercial van that debuts this week at a truck show in Indianapolis. It goes on sale in the spring of 2015.

• Thirty additional U.S. Sprinter dealerships over the next five years, adding to the current 188. In addition, 57 dealerships for Freightliner -- the Daimler AG commercial truck unit -- sell the Sprinter.

Also, a small 12-passenger van is being considered for sale in the United States. Glaser said a decision will be made soon.

Mercedes-Benz set up a worldwide van division last year as part of an internal reorganization. Each market now has a car, van and commercial vehicle unit.

Bernie Glaser: “There is a revolution happening in the segment.”

"We had dedicated resources in development and in production," said Glaser. "There is now more focus and dedication for vans on the sales side."

Last year Mercedes-Benz sold 21,816 Sprinters in the United States, up 4 percent from a year earlier. Glaser said Sprinter outperformed the segment, which had sales of about 259,000 vehicles last year and grew 3 percent.

Mercedes-Benz had an 8.4 percent share of that segment, in which Ford and Chevrolet are the leaders.

In January, Sprinter sales were up 20 percent to 1,288, reflecting the upturn in the economy and increase in the housing market, said Glaser. The majority of Sprinters are sold to small businesses such as bakeries and contractors. One-third of total sales are to large fleets such as Federal Express and UPS, he said.

This year marketing will be expanded to further boost sales, possibly to TV in addition to print and radio, said Glaser, who previously was vice president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA.

Glaser calls the Sprinter "the Swiss Army knife of the segment" because of its versatility.

The Sprinter is available in two wheelbases -- 144 inches or 170 inches -- three lengths and two roof heights. It is sold as a four-seat crew van, two-seat cargo van, cab chassis, 12-seat passenger van or a minivan with as many as 18 seats.

The 2014 Sprinter got a freshening and a new base engine: a 2.1-liter BlueTEC inline four-cylinder turbodiesel that generates 161 hp and 265 pounds-feet of torque. It is combined with a seven-speed automatic transmission.

Fuel economy is about 20 percent better than that of the optional 3.0-liter BlueTEC V-6 turbodiesel, which produces 188 hp and 325 pounds-feet of torque and is available only with a five-speed automatic transmission.

Glaser said the V-6 gets about 25 mpg on the highway. The EPA does not rate commercial vehicle fuel economy.

The Sprinter starts at $35,920 for the 2500 cargo van with a 144-inch wheelbase and standard roof. The price increases to $45,400 for the 2500 passenger van with a 170-inch wheelbase and high roof. Prices include shipping.

You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at dkurylko@autonews.com -- Follow Diana T. on Twitter: @dianakurylko

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