From a moving van to moving the stars
What does Mercedes-Benz have in common with facial tissue and soda pop?
Truthfully not much, but the German automaker’s popular Sprinter van has become synonymous with commercial vehicle the way Kleenex and Coke have come to dominate their respective industries. To stay ahead of the pack, this ever-versatile utility vehicle has received some important upgrades for the 2014 model year. Mercedes-Benz invited AutoGuide to a pre-launch preview at its tech center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The vehicle isn’t expected to reach showrooms until September.
DIESEL FOR TORQUE, DIESEL FOR EFFICIENCY
The biggest improvement for the new Sprinter can be found ahead of its firewall. Customers now have a choice of engine. A 3.0-liter diesel V6 has been a mainstay for years and it’s still available. This Stuttgart six-shooter delivers a healthy 188 horsepower with a very robust 325 lb-ft of torque. As in years past it’s matched to a five-speed automatic transmission.
A new addition to the lineup is a standard 2.1-liter four-cylinder powerplant. Just like its big brother it’s also compression-ignition. Output is a little bit less than the V6 but still perfectly respectable. It churns out 161 horsepower with 265 lb-ft of torque. Helping make up for the slightly lower numbers it’s matched to an advanced seven-speed automatic transmission.
Of course lower performance often translates into lower consumption as well, and that’s true of the 2014 Sprinter. While nothing is official at this time the company projects the diesel-four will be around 18 percent more efficient than the V6.
Fuel economy was also improved by optimizing other vehicle systems. For example, Mercedes upgraded the power steering unit and axle ratios; aerodynamics are better than before as well.
Not only can the 2014 Sprinter save customers money when it’s time to fill the tank but service should also be more economical as well. The standard interval has been extended 50 percent from 10,000 miles to a whopping 15,000. That translates into less downtime and greater profits for commercial customers.
In addition to the nuts-and-bolts improvements, the Sprinter has also received some styling upgrades.
“The changes really focus on the front of the vehicle, the A-Pillar forward” said Mercedes marketing manager Antje Williams.
Chief among these upgrades is a stylish new grille. Williams said “It has to fit into the family” since in many markets around the world Sprinters are sold right alongside the company’s S-Class flagship. The new look also helps differentiate between the Mercedes and Freightliner versions of the vehicle.
Not to be forgotten the interior has received a few small but important changes. The overall layout of the Sprinter’s cockpit remains the same but there’s a new shifter, a meatier steering wheel and perhaps most importantly a new radio display. Williams said the current head unit is “not so awesome,” noting that “it’s not very well integrated.”
The new system is much more modern, in fact it’s the same unit that’s offered on some Mercedes passenger vehicles.
Of course safety is every bit as important as fuel economy and utility. Thankfully the 2014 Sprinter is armed with the latest technology. All kinds of helpful features are available from lane-keeping assist to brake assist, collision-prevention assist to highbeam assist. If you need a hand the Sprinter is there to “assist;” about the only thing it won’t do is help load cargo.
A COMPETITIVE MARKET
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter plays in an increasingly crowded segment. “Our friends in Dearborn (Ford), our friends in Auburn Hills (Chrysler) are introducing similar products” said Claus Tritt, general manager of commercial vans at Mercedes-Benz USA. And they’re not the only ones. Nissan is also fielding competitive work vehicles in the form of its NV family.
The Sprinter was introduced to European customers in 1995, but since then it’s spread around the world. When it took a bow the vehicle was rather unique, offering a small, fuel-efficient engine with a tall, narrow body, but Tritt said “We are no longer the oddball.” Vehicles like the Ford Transit and Transit Connect as well as the Fiat Doblò underscore the Sprinter’s winning formula.
The vehicle has earned countless customers in the Old World but it’s proving to be very successful in the New World as well. Tritt said the European commercial van market is extremely crowded with manufacturers from Opel and Vauxhall to IVECO and Fiat competing in the segment.
In America the Sprinter battles some entrenched opposition. “If the U.S. consumer has choices they automatically have to look at us” Tritt said. Fuel economy is becoming more and more important on this side of the Atlantic. Vehicles like the Ford Econoline and Chevrolet Express vans may dominate the American commercial van market today but they aren’t going to cut it in the future. Greater efficiency is mandatory.
When asked about a smaller version of the Sprinter, whether Mercedes would ever offer a version of its Viano or Citan vans in North America Tritt said “We would be bad businesspeople if we didn’t look at every opportunity” but he also said “We’re going to wait, we’re going to study the market.” Competitors like the Nissan NV200 and Ford Transit Connect are strong players in this segment and they’re fighting for a relatively limited number of sales.
Demonstrating how far the company’s commercial vehicles have come, Mercedes had a beautifully restored L319 van on dispaly. This vehicle was first introduced in 1955 but the version shown was from 1960. Back in the day Tritt’s father actually owned one; it’s a vehicle he remembers fondly.
The 2014 Sprinter shares a lot of its DNA with this blue-collar workhorse. The original married a capacious interior with a thrifty engine. They were powered by either a 1.8-liter diesel that put out just 43 horsepower or a 1.9-liter gasoline unit that belted out a couple more ponies, a shockingly modest 65 horsepower. Solid axles and leaf springs were standard, safety features were not. It’s amazing how far the automobile has come in the last five decades.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY, RIGHT AWAY
In a lot of ways the Sprinter is a blank canvas. Third-party upfitters can add all kinds of options and other features to the vehicle. Its spacious interior, rugged chassis and surprising fuel efficiency allow for almost limitless possibilities. To demonstrate what the Sprinter offers some of Mercedes’ preferred partners were on hand to show off their special versions of the vehicle. They range from purely work-focused to obscenely luxurious.
Midwest Automotive Designs Corp. brought out one of its specially modified Sprinters and it was like a palace on wheels. The vehicle’s interior was richly appointed and very comfortable. It looked and felt like a private jet for the highway. Tim Gray, the company’s president said “This has been the platform of choice” because of its easy maneuverability and impressive economy. Averaging between 15 and 17 miles per gallon Gray said “The Sprinter is unparallelled in fuel efficiency.”
These vehicles are custom built to a buyer’s specifications and not surprisingly, Midwest Automotive Designs caters to a lot of celebrities and professional athletes, but businesspeople make up a huge part of their business as well. In certain situations a customized Sprinter can be a smarter transportation choice than a corporate jet since executives can travel and work at the same time.
“This vehicle will sell for about $150,000 (including the chassis)” Gray said. With internet access, big-screen TVs and other high-end amenities “It’s a way for people to travel in comfort and have their home comforts” he said.
Winnebago is also a member of the Sprinter family. This well-known maker of recreational vehicles and campers offers a leisure-ready version of the hard-working van. Kelli Harms, marketing and sales promotion manager for Winnebago said “The Sprinter chassis has afforded us brand recognition… that brand recognition is huge.”
People are drawn to the three-pointed star; it’s a symbol they’re familiar with and it’s a symbol they trust.
Compared to some of their other coaches Sprinters tend to attract younger buyers and people with families. The vehicle has been a boon for Winnebago, accounting for around 25 percent of the brand’s sales. Expect to see a sticker price around $115,000.
COMING TO A SHOWROOM NEAR YOU
Not surprisingly Tritt said “We think it’s the best Sprinter ever,” mentioning that the 2014 model offers a blend of fuel economy, driver comfort and safety that’s hard to beat. It should continue to be a big seller for the Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner brands. The U.S. is the biggest export market for Sprinters.
Production of the 2014 model starts in Germany this July and vehicles should start arriving at dealerships in September. Pricing has not been announced at this time but Tritt said “It will be very competitive,” and it better be, the commercial van market in the U.S. is about to get a lot more interesting as more and more companies enter the fray.
GALLERY: 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Discuss this story at BenzWorld.org