A decade ago, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter was an outlier in the U.S. van market, as the Ford E-Series and Chevrolet Express dominated the segment.
But the Sprinter gained a lot of fans with its capacious cargo capacity and fuel-efficient diesel powertrains. Fast-forward to today and there are a lot of similar-looking and similarly configured competitors. But, according to an Automotive News report, Mercedes-Benz isn’t content on resting on its laurels with the Sprinter and, in fact, plans on expanding its network of commercial dealers in addition to possibly adding another, smaller van below the current Sprinter to the U.S. lineup.
Mercedes-Benz USA vice president Bernie Glaser, who is in charge of the company’s van unit, said the Sprinter sub-brand is well positioned to take advantage of the growing popularity of European-style tall vans. Mercedes recently debuted an updated V-Class rear-drive van in Europe, which is slightly smaller and lower than the Sprinter, more oriented toward passenger duty than cargo hauling. The Sprinter currently generates $1 billion in revenue for
Mercedes’ U.S. operations, and MBUSA is planning on adding 30 more dealerships that carry the Sprinter from the current total of 188. The 4×4 model that recently debuted in Europe has been announced for sale in the U.S. market starting in calendar 2015.
Daimler AG announced its plans to increase the number of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter commercial van dealers in U.S. by 27% to as many as 250, according to a report by Nitrobahn.
The vehicle, which is a popular platform for RV builders, was introduced by the automobile manufacturer’s U.S. commercial van manufacturing unit two years ago. Before that, the Sprinter was sold by Dodge and Freightliner from 2001 to 2009. The announcement was made by Claus Tritt, vice president of Daimler Vans USA.
Tritt said that the company plans to have their dealers in places and markets where there are customers with a need. “About 197 Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner dealers are all set to sell the Sprinter model in the United States. Our plan is to increase the number between 230 and 250 in the course of time,” he said.
He said that as part of its efforts to improve customer experience the company wants the dealers to understand how to handle commercial customers. For this, the company will train the dealers and “set them up right,” he added.
“Sprinter is a separate franchise from Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and Freightliner and hence its dealers need to meet specific requirements. Other than preparing staff to sell and service the commercial van, dealers must have a dedicated salesman and display area for the Sprinter, either in the showroom area or an outdoor setting,” Tritt said.
He also said that for servicing the vehicle, the new dealerships will have two dedicated Sprinter-trained technicians, two vehicle lifts and an alignment rack. For proper servicing existing dealerships will have to raise ceilings and expand entryways to accommodate the Sprinter.
Walk the aisles of any RV show and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans are a regular sight as a stylish, fuel-efficient chassis option for Class B and C motorhomes in the Great West, Roadtrek, Fleetwood and Airstream displays, among others.
They’re also under Winnebago’s diminutive Winnebago Via and Itasca Reyo Class A, and spokesmen for Mercedes-Benz USA LLC (MBUSA), a division of Daimler-Benz AG, predict that show-goers will see even more of them in the future.
First offered in Europe in 1995 to replace the dated Mercedes-Benz T1 van, the Sprinter has been dual-branded in the U.S. since 2001. It was initially sold through Daimler’s Freightliner truck dealers and from 2003 through 2009 by DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge retailers until the two companies separated.
Now, in addition to 61 Freightliner retailers, some 123 MBUSA dealers have been handling the Sprinter since 2010 in passenger, cargo and RV applications. “It’s a select dealer network,” says Claus Tritt, general manager of commercial vans for MBUSA. “Our network plan going forward is to end up in 2012 with 220 (dealers) or so.”
And while Sprinters in five models are popular among business fleets, Mercedes sees motorhome sales growth in this post-recessionary era due to its shorter 19- to 24-foot length, less costly operations and fuel-efficient BlueTEC V-6 clean diesel engine. That engine gets 24.9 mpg, reports Dan Barile, a product and technology PR specialist for Mercedes who attended the Louisville Show. And these, adds Tritt, are among the reasons why U.S. Sprinter sales to the RV market are currently up 16%.
“That is absolutely correct,” noted Tritt. “I think also that an RV at the end of the day is a toy and not necessarily something you need in your day-to-day life and people are generally a lot more cautious in spending for things like this these days. If they actually buy a car, for instance, it should not only be economical, but also fit their needs size-wise. We’ve got a lot of empty nesters.
“The days where you and your four kids and two dogs would go on vacation are gone,” maintained Tritt, a 25-year Mercedes veteran who previously worked for Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. “Most of the time, it’s a couple and a pet. There’s a natural trend, which we see in the overall RV industry, for downsizing, which has to do with economics as well. You don’t need a big diesel pusher if it’s only you and your wife. A small Class B or Class C more than does the job. It’s more versatile than a Class A pusher.”
Indeed, Tritt, based out of MBUSA’s Montvale, N.J., headquarters, sees Mercedes continuing to hold on to an 80% share of the Class B market and a 10% slice of the Class C sector as the U.S. economy emerges from the global economic recession. And he feels the Mercedes reputation for quality will figure into the equation.
“I think people are more cautious about how they are going to spend their money, especially that segment not looking for the size, but the right size,” he added. “People are looking for fuel economy. They are not looking for the next gas station. But if the economy stabilizes and we put the Euro crisis behind us pretty quickly, people are willing to invest more money in these types of vehicles again.”
All in all, says Tritt, Mercedes values its business in the RV industry. “The story I want to tell you is that it’s a very good business for us,” Tritt explained. “It’s a business that gives our brand exposure. On the other hand, for the RV manufacturers, it’s a reliable chassis to build on, and we’ve built this organization over the last 2 1/2 years not because we didn’t have anything to do, but because we are here to stay – unless there is Armageddon.”
The following is an article from Autoblog, authored by Chris Paukert, examining a smaller Sprinter van platform.
Mercedes-Benz has been sufficiently pleased with the performance of its Sprinter van that it is now seriously considering importing a smaller sibling for its full-size load lugger.
Benz has offered a smaller commercial vehicle, the Vito, in various world markets since 1996, and the second-generation model underwent a mild facelift in 2010. Available with a range of CDI diesel engines in both cargo and passenger-carrying configurations, the Vito has recently been testing in all-electric E-Cell guise. If the Vito does make it to North America, we’re unlikely to get the complete range – this light commercial vehicle is available in three lengths, two roof heights and in both rear- and all-wheel drive.
While the Vito is indeed smaller than the Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter carryall, it’s not as diminutive as the Ford Transit Connect we’ve come to know in the States. In its smallest form, the baby Benz spans 187.5 inches, nearly seven inches more than the Turkish Ford. In extra-long format, the Vito rings up at 206.2 inches, which is still well shy of the aged Ford E-Series van (216.7 inches in its shortest form), making the Vito something of a tweener in size.
For the moment, our source tells us that the idea of importing the Vito is in “an early stage,” and even though consumer clinics have been held to judge market interest, the van has not yet been given the green light.
Winnebago Industries Inc. CEO Bob Olson was generally upbeat during a third-quarter investors’ conference call today (June 18).
Despite a major thunderstorm that struck Forest City, Iowa, during the call and the specter of the just-completed third quarter, in which the company experienced a net loss of $8.6 million on a 63% reduction of sales, Olson contended that the RV industry has brighter days at hand.
For many months now, Winnebago dealers have not been matching sold units at the retail level with wholesale purchases on a one-to-one basis, depleting their dealer lot inventories to record-lows, Olson said.
At the end of May, dealer inventories totaled 2,324 units, compared with 4,341 units a year ago. Olson said he thought the replenishment would kick in when inventories fell below 3,500 units.
But he thinks a change is imminent.
“My gut tells me we’re an eyelash away from this replenishment cycle starting,” he said.
Dealer inventories were down 47% in April from a year ago and are near the lowest in Winnebago history, Olson said. “There is a point where this is not sustainable, where replenishment must begin again,” he said.
”That would make a huge difference if we could just equal where retail is right now,” he said. The lull in orders has sent Winnebago factories down to just a 18% utilization rate at the end of the quarter.
While retail and wholesale credit remains tight, Olson cited several factors to support his optimistic outlook.
Winnebago scrapped its traditional new product introduction in Las Vegas and instead introduced its 2010 lineup via a DVD sent to all 243 dealers. The DVD is being followed up with personal visits to all the dealerships this month.
“This was quite a deviation from what we have done in the past,” said Olson, who sat in on several of the presentations. “The first thing said after it was over was the dealers were impressed how Winnebago is innovative in a depressed year. They didn’t expect new product but just a facelift.”
The Via, the industry’s first Class A motorhome produced on an importered Mercedes-Benz Sprinter chassis, has been well-received, Olson said, though the company is just beginning production. The Via on the 11,030-pound GVWR Sprinter chassis equipped with a 6-cylinder 154-hp turbocharged front diesel engine averages 14-15 mpg, Olson said.
The company also “stepped up a notch on its other diesel motorhomes with new interiors and exteriors based in part on feedback from its dealers,” he added. Winnebago also is offering a new “bath-and-a-half” on some floorplans, as well as some with tag axles. He said he also heard a good response from dealers about its revamped Sunstar Class C motorhome, which sports a new front end and more amenities.
“We’ve invested a lot in our 2010 product,” he concluded. “I was impressed they noticed the fact that innovation at Winnebago is alive and well.”
In the present environment, Winnebago has been able to increase its market share in both Class A and Class C motorhomes, he noted. The company had an 18.4% market share in both classes through April, up from 17.3% a year, he added.
Olson acknowledged that he once feared now defunct or bankrupt manufacturers would flood the market with “huge, huge, huge discounting” of new units, but that has not come to pass. ”There is still have a very large discounting environment out there,” he said. ”For the retail customer it’s a great time to buy an RV. Really, when you look at what it could have been, it didn’t end up as being as bad, so far.”
Olson also maintained that the large pent up demand for RVs should begin to show up at dealer lots as interest rates loosen and consumer confidence rises. The industry enjoyed a record year in 2004, he said, and with RV owners typically holding onto their units for four to six years, RVers are ready to trade up.