By Aaron Bragman
More often than not, the only three-pointed star on a vehicle at any construction site is the real estate developer's S-Class sitting by the curb, not a contractor's truck romping through the dirt. But that slowly may be changing as Mercedes-Benz makes inroads in the commercial vehicle market with its latest and greatest Sprinter van. The versatile and increasingly popular Sprinter (which we recently highlighted in our video from the 2013 Work Truck Show) is a European-style van — meaning it's tall, upright and exclusively diesel powered, a marked contrast from the traditional American-style full-size vans offered by Ford, GM and now Nissan that rely primarily on gasoline engines.
Slow and steady growth for the South Carolina-assembled Sprinter has followed a push to create more than 200 dedicated Mercedes-Benz Sprinter dealers nationwide — separate showrooms sharing space with the brand's luxury cars. Sixty percent of Sprinters are going to the construction trades market, according to Mercedes-Benz.
With the U.S. market poised to see new European-style vans arriving from Ford (Transit) and Ram (ProMaster), Mercedes-Benz believes the time is right to forge ahead with plans to heavily promote the Sprinter. "We were the oddball for more than 10 years," says Claus Tritt, Mercedes-Benz' general manager for commercial vans. "Now with Ford and Ram introducing European-style products, we are the benchmark."
Mercedes-Benz recently held a media briefing at its emissions testing center in Ann Arbor, Mich., introducing the updated 2014 Sprinter and showing off a handful of the 80-plus outfitters that take part in the official Mercedes-Benz equipment program. Also on hand was a restored 1960 L319 Sprinter — a beautiful, classic model with around 40 horsepower and all the safety features of a shopping cart — to give some historical perspective on how far the Sprinter has come.
The new Sprinter gets only mild styling updates for 2014, losing the high eyebrows and smiley-face look of the old model in favor of a more menacing, horizontal-themed appearance. LED running lights adorn the new headlights, which bear more than a passing resemblance to the units seen on the company's luxury cars. The rest of the van's styling, inside and out, is pretty much unchanged. Five versions will be available from Mercedes-Benz: a 12-passenger van, a basic cargo van, an 18-passenger minibus, a cab-chassis model and a four-passenger "crew" van — essentially a cargo van with an easily removable second row of seats. "This is our crew-cab pickup," says Antje Williams, Sprinter marketing manager.
Styling isn't all that different, but the big news is under hood where Mercedes-Benz is supplementing the 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel that carries over from the 2013 model with a new 2.1-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel as the standard engine. The smaller engine is rated at 161 hp and 265 pounds-feet of torque, considerably less than the 188 hp and 325 pounds-feet that the V-6 makes but still enough to easily motivate the truck, according to Mercedes-Benz, which says that the engine is popular overseas. The four-cylinder makes the most of that torque with the adoption of a new seven-speed automatic transmission; the V-6 continues to make do with a five-speed automatic. Mercedes-Benz claims that the new four-cylinder turbo-diesel results in an 18 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over the already-efficient diesel V-6. Exact EPA numbers are not yet available.
In addition to the new motor, the 2014 Sprinter offers several new options including electronic safety equipment found on the brand's luxury cars, a factory navigation system (a swappable unit that can be transferred between multiple vans in a fleet), Parktronic parking assist, blind spot detection assist, lane keeping assist, collision prevention brake assist and a load adaptive electronic stability program.
The Sprinter is turning out to be a versatile platform. More than 75 percent of all Sprinters leave dealerships with some sort of approved outfitting. The company's South Carolina assembly facility handles the program for North America, registering approved vendors who meet strict quality requirements. Mercedes-Benz had a half dozen examples for journalists to see, including an ambulance, a Winnebago motor home, a box truck, a delivery van and even a unique heavy-duty version by a Canadian company that has made a specific cab chassis with a fiberglass work pickup body for a major cable company.
Official pricing for the Sprinter (which will also be sold as an identically priced Freightliner for contractors who think showing up to give a quote in a Benz-badged work truck might give customers the wrong idea) has not yet been announced, but the company says the new four-cylinder entry model could be less than the 2013 V-6 model's roughly $36,000 starting price. As with many Mercedes-Benz products, a free hand on the option sheet can quickly double the price, with some versions reaching the $50,000-$60,000 range when loaded with electronics and safety gear. But with Sprinter residuals running an astonishing 51 percent or more after three years, the best performance of any Mercedes-Benz vehicle, Sprinter owners are apparently getting what they pay for.
To download the full 2014 Sprinter press release, click here.