Mercedes’ Sprinter fights notion that it’s unaffordable

The total cost of ownership, especially for fleet owners, will also be an important selling point for the 2014 Sprinter.
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DETROIT -- The Mercedes-Benz badge may be too fancy for Sprinter van buyers in the United States.

So Mercedes has begun advertising the sticker price on the refreshed 2014 Sprinter van to negate its luxury appeal. The move comes as Mercedes attempts to gain market share from rivals by reaching individual and fleet customers who are not accustomed -- or even averse -- to driving a Mercedes-Benz vehicle.

In the latter case, Mercedes’ parent Daimler can sell Sprinters through the van’s second sales channel, Freightliner.

“We do have contractors in some cases who know that their customers would prefer for them to show up in a non-Mercedes-Benz vehicle, so those people buy Freightliners, and that’s also the case for some municipalities,” said Antje Williams, MBUSA Sprinter brand manager. “New York is a good example.”

Bernie Glaser, Mercedes-Benz USA vice president and managing director of the newly created van unit, says that consumer wariness of Mercedes prices has also been a challenge.

Feedback from trade show customers, who assumed they could not afford the van, also revealed some misconceptions over costs and pricing. Buyers in key segments such as construction and freight believed that the van was more expensive than its actual price, Williams said.

“When we would follow up and ask them why they think they can’t [buy one], they say, ‘Well, I’m just not in that league,’” she said.

Sprinter pricing 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.

As the new van unit expands marketing efforts, Glaser said it plans to focus more advertising on the price tag to “debunk” the perception the Sprinter is “unobtainable” while still delivering the Mercedes-Benz brand-promised customer service.

He says the total cost of ownership, especially for fleet owners, will also be an important selling point for the 2014 Sprinter. The van has a new base engine: a 2.1-liter BlueTEC inline four-cylinder turbodiesel engine that generates 161 hp and 265 pounds-feet of torque. The refreshed van achieves 20 percent better fuel economy than the 2013 3.0-liter BlueTEC V-6 turbodiesel.

U.S. sales of the Sprinter have tripled since it was introduced under the Mercedes-Benz name in 2010, he said.

Besides adding six dealerships in the United States since Jan. 1, Glaser said Sprinter sold 1,915 units in March, up 25 percent from March 2013. February sales rose 18 percent to 2,709 units.

Mercedes-Benz sold 21,816 Sprinters in the United States last year.

The van, first sold in North America as a Freightliner in 2001, was badged as both Freightliner and Dodge during the DaimlerChrysler marriage.

Two badges

Mercedes-Benz continues to build the Sprinter with two badges. The optional chrome grille on the refreshed 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is the only feature that sets it apart from the Daimler AG commercial truck unit Freightliner Sprinter.

Mercedes-Benz had an 8.4 percent share of the large van segment last year, which Ford and Chevrolet dominate. Several automakers, including Ford, Nissan, Chevrolet and Chrysler, have or are preparing new van entries.

There has been talk of Mercedes-Benz bringing the V-class minivan and Vito commercial vehicles sold in Europe to America. Glaser said Mercedes-Benz is “closely monitoring” forecasts for sales growth in the smaller- to medium-sized vans.

Mercedes-Benz uses a two-brand marketing approach to sell the Sprinter, which includes a joint-dealer network with 246 Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner stores. The Freightliner franchises, which sold about 3,500 units last year, give Mercedes-Benz access to different customers and regions.

“Probably 3,000 [of Freightliner sales] were fleet, big fleet deals,” Glaser said. “That gives you one indication of where fleet deals happen, under what brand. The other thing is the location of Freightliner dealers. Freightliner dealers are located in areas where there are no Mercedes-Benz dealers close by and are located close to the larger fleet accounts we have.”

5-year plan

Increasing the number of Sprinter dealerships by 30 is part of MBUSA’s five-year growth plan. Glaser said only certain dealerships qualify for the Sprinter franchise despite many hand raisers.

Dealers chosen to sell the Sprinter must have passenger-car dealerships in specific geographic regions and meet various brick-and-mortar requirements. Foremost, the dealer must have high customer service and sales satisfaction ratings.

Glaser said adding a Sprinter franchise to a dealership is “very sexy” in terms boosting profitability.

“They line up right in between with a C class or E class,” he said. “So, it’s a very profitable enterprise.”

You can reach Ursula Zerilli at uzerilli@crain.com.


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