DUSSELDORF, Germany -- As we wait for Mercedes to launch its $30,000 CLA250 this fall, there's a commodity Benz that has been on sale in North America for five years. The Sprinter came to the States first as a 2003 Dodge, then shortly after as a Freightliner, and finally as a 2009 Mercedes (the Dodge version is gone, of course).
The question is why fleet or small-business truck buyers would pay $8000 to $10,000 more for a Sprinter than a competitive Nissan NV, Ford E-series, or Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana van. Even with only a 7.3-percent market share, the $36,000-plus (outgoing model) Sprinter has a high profile in the U.S. due to its distinctive design in a segment dominated for decades by plain Detroit boxes. The Sprinter's influx seems to have spawned a Euro-design movement, with Chrysler's Ram about to sell a line of Fiat-based Ducatos, Ford beefing up its Transit/Transit Connects, and even GM badge-engineering the smaller Nissan NV200 into a Chevrolet.
In 2012, Mercedes and Freightliner sold 20,929 vans in the United States, a 26-percent increase over 2011. In fact, Mercedes sold twice as many Sprinters as sub-$15,000 Smart ForTwos. (The Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter split is about 80/20 percent in the United States.) The split is 60 percent to construction fleets -- for vans delivering materials, not the chassis truck available with a pickup bed -- says North American marketing chief Claus Tritt. Delivery services account for 15 percent of sales, and another 15 percent are used as passenger vans, such as airport shuttles. The remaining 10 percent are sold to retail/wholesale customers, including recreational vehicle conversion. Federal Express is the Sprinter's biggest fleet customer in America.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner Sprinter, which goes on sale this fall, undergoes a major facelift with a bigger, bolder front end integrating better into the tall box behind it. The new base engine, a 2.1-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder, is mated to Mercedes' 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic and is expected to boost fuel efficiency by 18 percent over the 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V-6. Highway mileage should make the upper 20s, but that number is not official, as this class of truck is not tested for EPA fuel mileage. The V-6 diesel engine continues as an option and is coupled to a five-speed automatic. It is rated at 188 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. The new BlueTec four, with a 2000-bar Piezo direct-injection system, Add Blue emissions aftertreatment, and two-stage turbocharging, is rated at 161 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. It also has a new driveshaft and rear axle.
The 2.1-liter engine is plenty for a delivery vehicle. We drove two four-cylinder models, neither exactly U.S.-spec. One had the 188-hp engine but was mated to a six-speed manual that isn't offered stateside, while the other featured the automatic transmission but had a lower-powered four-cylinder diesel for the European market. The automatic struggled in 60-to-80-mph acceleration exercises on the autobahn, but the 188-hp manual had plenty of oomph for such a big truck. Handling is good and safe for a big truck, with lots of play in the slow, hydraulically boosted steering and suspension travel and compliance that makes you feel most comfortable taking freeway off-ramps at sedate speeds.
Mercedes loaded both Sprinters with moderate payloads for our drive. The cargo van is offered in two seating configurations (two or three front seats), three body lengths, and two roof heights (three in Canada), with gross vehicle weight ratings of 8550, 9990, and 11,030 pounds.
Delivery-fleet buyers will be comfortable ordering the fuel-saving diesel four, which is sufficient for merging onto freeways, at prices in the upper-$30s. On the other hand, buyers of $60,000 RVs undoubtedly will go for the diesel V-6.
Mercedes can claim the highest level of safety features, most of which will be bundled into a $1780 safety package in the U.S. This includes a new crosswind-assistance package that uses the Sprinter's active suspension to keep high winds from blowing the truck into the next lane (our drive was comfortably stable despite fairly heavy winds in Northern Germany), high-beam automatic headlamp dimming, lane-keeping assist from 40 mph, blind-spot monitoring, and forward collision-prevention assist.
Unlike the CLA250, which tries to exude the luxury feel of traditional Mercs, the new Sprinter's fabric interior and dashboard plastics don't aspire to be any more than what could be found in a Nissan or a Fiat-Ram. The fold-down, inside-seat armrests are plasticky, and the much-needed lumbar support is manually controlled. American fleets that choose the Sprinter over cheaper alternatives buy or lease them for Mercedes' reputation for quality and stout reliability, and get both a dose of modern Western European ambience and Benz taxicab-style utility in the bargain.