It is hard to believe the first Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans debuted in North America almost 20 years ago. The move was considered a bold one: At the time, Daimler’s Freightliner division was beginning to make its opening bid to dominate the North American trucking industry, and needed a medium-duty vocational van offering to round out its product portfolio.
The Sprinter was a European mainstay, but a decided oddity by American standards. But Daimler executives felt American van designs were outdated, and Sprinter offered advantages that would appeal to medium-duty fleet owners operating in congested cities. And so, the first Sprinters, badged as Freightliner and Dodge (which was owned by Daimler at the time) models, were introduced.
It took time. Americans, after all, can be stubborn. But today, with European-style vans dominating the market, it looks like Daimler’s Freightliner bet has paid off in spades.
The inner values of the Sprinter were always apparent in terms of an agile and responsive driving experience, combined with excellent payload capabilities, combined with the ability to stand up inside the van — especially in high-roof versions, according to Mathias Geisen, general manager of Marketing and Product Management for Mercedes-Benz USA. Then, of course, there was Sprinter’s Old World European heritage, which yielded some solid benefits for New World American fleets.
“Due to narrow medieval streets in Europe, a narrower design was needed, and this ends up making for a more efficient package that also works in North America for narrow alleys and overall tight conditions on a construction site or in an urban delivery scenario,” Geisen said. “When combined with load-adaptive electronic stability (ESP), the higher stance remains stable on the road, greatly minimizing chances for tip-overs or spinouts.”
Geisen said Daimler was able to leverage its electronic capabilities across its entire vehicle portfolio to give Sprinter additional advantages over older American van designs.
“The addition of ESP is one example,” Geisen noted, “because it greatly reduces the chances of tipping and slip-outs. Keep in mind that Sprinter is equipped with load-adaptive ESP, meaning as the loads change on a daily and hourly basis, the van adjusts its stance and suspension and yaw parameters to ensure that it stays shiny side up and driving safely.”
When combined with Sprinter’s sophisticated direct steering, Geisen said the van proves to be a “great” daily driver that reduces fatigue and increases effectiveness, for both a local in-town tradesman/woman and long-haul courier and delivery services.
Another feature wasn’t exactly “new.” But, in a medium-duty market dominated by V-8 gasoline engines, the Sprinter’s economical diesel engine was a definite departure from American vans — one that proved to be timely as fuel prices began to climb over the next few years.
“Having more efficient diesel engines — especially with a responsive 7-speed transmission in the base four-cylinder version — has done well for us in terms of courier services and also city driving due to a responsive driving experience as well as fuel efficiency,” Geisen noted.
Thanks to many of the defining attributes first showcased by Sprinter, European vans account for more than half of all vocational models sold in North America today, and Geisen predicts that trend will accelerate.
“Fleets today are choosing ergonomics and modern driveability combined with a very sturdy package that can deliver lots of payload with Sprinter,” he said. “And, as technology and connectivity in the Sprinter improve, we will have a universal approach in a capable van package to help companies and customers be more efficient in every way possible.”