The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van was the first European-style full size van sold in the United States. Ford has added the European-style Transit van to its huge plant in Kansas City, Missouri. Ram is importing ProMaster vans from Europe. Nissan manufactures its NV vans in Canton, Mississippi and it is somewhere between a traditional American van and a European van. Only General Motors is left with a traditional American van with the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana. In the overall scheme of things, Ford is the top dog by a wide margin and Mercedes is in fourth or fifth place depending on the month.
Mercedes Sprinter Update for 2015 For 2015, the Mercedes Sprinter is getting a minor update including new front end appearance with more distinctive headlamps and grille. Optional safety features now commonly found in cars are available: blind spot assist, lane keeping assist, collision prevention assist and highbeam assist. On the Sprinter 2500 model, Crosswind Assist is standard. Because big vans present a large flat surface to the wind, they are susceptible to being knocked around in crosswinds. The Crosswind Assist system alleviates Crosswind threats at speeds over 50mph.
Of significance, the Mercedes Sprinter receives a 4×4 model for 2015. The base 4×4 system is prices at $6,500 with an additional $300 for low range capability. The 4×4 will likely be popular in the Snow Belt and Mercedes predicts between 6% and 9% of its mix will be 4×4. Sounds a bit low.
Diesel Engines The base engine in about 50% of Sprinters is a 161HP 2.1L 4-cylinder diesel with 266 lb-ft of torque. The 4-cylinder diesel is mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission. The optional 188HP 3.0L V6 diesel has 325 lb-ft of torque.
Re-Assembly Strategy for US Cargo Vans Mercedes Sprinter cargo vans are “re”-assembled at a small plant in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina. The former Western Star/American LaFrance plant is now the sole source for Sprinter cargo vans in the USA. Only about one third of the plant is used at present with plenty of room for expansion.
Now with 3 Roof Heights
Chicken Tax Avoidance Strategy Because of the 25% “chicken tax” (tariff) in place since 1967, truck manufacturers have used various schemes to avoid the crushing price penalty. At one point, Toyota added pickup boxes to its small pickup at the port in Long Beach, California. Ultimately, the major Japanese truck manufacturers added assembly capacity for their trucks in the USA. Toyota manufactured Tacoma pickups at NUMMI (a joint venture with General Motors) in Fremont, California and now manufactures Tundra and Tacoma pickups at a plant in San Antonio, Texas. Nissan has a huge truck plant in Smyrna, Tennessee and another in Canton, Mississippi. Even Honda has truck capacity for its Ridgeline in Ohio.
Mercedes avoids the chicken tax by re-assembling Sprinter vans in the USA. They are first completely manufactured in a plant in Dusseldorf, Germany. They are disassembled so that the powertrain is separate from the body. The bodies are loaded into containers (one or two per container depending on configuration) and shipped to Charleston. The powertrain components are shipped separately in lots of eighteen. Unloaded at the plant in Charleston, the body moves through thirteen six-minute stations. The Charleston plant can re-assemble between 60 and 75 Sprinter cargo vans per day. In 2013, the plant produced over 14,000 units. The top customers for these vehicles are FedEx (who insisted Mercedes add the vehicles for the American market) and Winnebago.
Saving the 25% chicken tax results in a 12% to 13% increase in the cost of the Sprinter in the USA, but the savings are still 12% to 13% lower than if the tariff had been paid.
Future Mercedes Vans in the USA Mercedes is adding more vans to its lineup in the future. The European mid-size Vito van (with the “Metris” name in the USA and Canada) will be added in Fall, 2015 in passenger and cargo versions. Another passenger van – the V-Class – was introduced in Munich in January 2014 and on sale in Europe from Spring 2014. Think of the V-Class as a van equivalent to the Mercedes S-Class sedan. Also in the offing for the USA is the smaller Mercedes Citan van introduced in Europe in 2012. Given the capacity available at the Mercedes van plant outside Charleston, it would not be surprising to see the Metris cargo vans assembled there similar to the Sprinter cargo vans.
Telematics System for Vehicle Tracking and Management Ford is offering the Crew Chief telematics system on its fleet vehicles. Developed by Telogis, Crew Chief is a GPS-based system designed to monitor vehicle activity and improve efficiency. The Ford Crew Chief system is available on the F-150, F-Series Super Duty, E-Series, Transit and Transit Connect.
Black Box GPSThe Ford Crew Chief system includes a GPS receiver, or black box, mounted out of the way in the instrument panel. The GPS tracks the vehicle real-time and converts the data received from the vehicle into a visual dashboard that provides an at-a-glance summary of a commercial fleet’s performance. Knowing how a vehicle is being driven can help fleet management “counsel” drivers on how to improve their driving style and achieve better efficiency. When driving and vehicle operation improves, insurance rates can drop.
The Ford Crew Chief system measures a wide array of vehicle attributes. Measuring these attributes can help fleet management anticipate problems and correct them before a serious mechanical failure might occur.
Some of the attributes measured by Crew Chief include:
• Oil Life (% remaining)
• Tire Pressure
• Diagnostic Trouble Codes
• Engine Coolant Temperatures
• Water in Fuel of a Diesel-Powered Vehicle
• Excessive RPM
• Safety Belt Usage
• Air Bag Status
• Battery Charge
• Excessive Idling
• Hard Acceleration/Driving
• Driver Insurance Expiration Date
• Driver License Expiration Date
Clearly, the fleet can save a lot of money by reducing the time a vehicle is idling or whether or not the driver is abusing the vehicle by revving the engine unnecesarily, accelerating hard and driving hard.
Can Be Very Big Brother It might sound like Big Brother, but knowing what the driver is doing and where the vehicle is and has been can be a real advantage in managing a fleet. Here are some of the features Crew Chief can include:
• Find the Closest Capable Driver
• Develop Custom Map Overlays
• Add a Fuel Efficiency Module
• Satellite Imagery (helps identify landmarks in mapped locations)
• Provide Real-Time Alerts
• Provide Turn-by-Turn Directions
• Fast Mapping
• Automated Reports
• Animated Vehicle History Trails
• Maintenance Reporting
• Fleet, Driver and Team Management
• Search (finds any vehicle, driver, location or tagged group, improving asset utilization and making fleet management more efficient)
• Speeding Alerts (flags when drivers are over the speed limit. Can help reduce insurance costs)
Of course, Ford Crew Chief is not free. There is a monthly fee for each vehicle of $31.99 for the standard package and $39.99 for the professional package.
Once upon a time, I was the design engineer for the advanced vehicle package of the Ford Nantucket program. Nantucket was the code name of what would become the 1975 Ford Econoline full size van that was to continue in production with moderate updates through 2014 – about 39 years!. So, it was particularly meaningful to me to accept an invitation by Ford to attend the press preview for the Econoline’s (now “E-Series”) replacement in Kansas City, Missouri – the Ford Transit.
Hugely Complex Program – Lots of Choice Ford’s One Ford strategy dictates that vehicles be as common as possible around the world. While the E-Series has been the top selling large van in the USA for years, it was basically a North America only product. The European Transit van was completely different. Also, the American E-Series never had the breadth of product choices that the European Transit had. Now that has changed with the American-made Transit about as complex as the European model.
America has been introduced to the European white van offerings with the European Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner Sprinter van and the Ram Promaster (from Fiat). So the 2015 Ford Transit may not take the American eye by surprise, but its complexity is near mind blowing. The 2015 Ford Transit is available in two wheelbases, three roof heights in both cargo van and passenger wagon configurations. There is even a chassis cab and cutaway available. What this means is that you can have an empty box, or a high-roof wagon that can seat up to 15 people. Ford affectionately calls this one the “Jumbo”.
(General Motors has the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans that are sorely in need of updating. At present, The General has no vehicles in the USA facing these Euro-style competitors).
Initially, Transit is available with a sliding door on the passenger side of the vehicle. Later the van version will be available with a sliding door on the driver’s side as well. Because the second row seat would have to be narrowed to be two passengers only, the passenger version – the Transit wagon – is only available with a passenger side slider.
Maneuverable The Transit is very easy to drive with outstanding forward visibility through what has to be about the largest windshield in the industry. Europe-like turning radius makes the Transit very maneuverable in tight spaces. A tight slow-speed gymkhana course in a Kansas City parking lot helped demonstrate how nimble even the Jumbo was through narrow cone alleys.
Wide Powertrain Selection Power comes from a 275HP/260 lb-ft of torque 3.7L V6, a 310HP/400 lb-ft of torque 3.5L EcoBoost V6, or a 185HP/350 lb-ft of torque 3.2L I5 Power Stroke diesel. Of the three engines, the EcoBoost V6 has the most punch and is the most fun to drive – as if that is a major attribute a van buyer is looking for. All engines are mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The powertrains in the 2015 Ford Transit get much better fuel economy than the outgoing E-Series; a substantial operating cost savings commercial van operators are looking for.
Can Transit Be Rattle Free? We have all ridden in vans and shuttles that are consummate rattle traps. Of course, they probably have a couple hundred thousand miles on them and have been abused for their entire time in service. And, of course, the vans Ford provided for the press preview had been thoroughly prepped. The remarkable thing about these vans was how quiet and rattle-free they were. They were very tight and solid feeling. It will be interesting to experience one when it hits 100,000 miles.
Navigation Screen Snafu Okay, I can understand Ford’s rationale that few commercial fleet operators would spring for an in-vehicle navigation system when most of their drivers are equipped with GPS enabled smart phones with Google Maps, but the Transit solution to navigation is Sync with MyFord Touch and a relatively small screen. Other Ford vehicles have an 8-inch screen and the Transit loses out in comparison. I know, its a nit-pick, but worthy of mention.
E-Series Continues in Chassis Cab Versions Probably until the end of the decade, the old Econoline/E-Series will still be available in chassis cab configurations likely for airport shuttle use. They are built at Ford’s Loraine, Ohio plant.