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.
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.