For 60 years, Mercedes-Benz has burnished its image in North America as a manufacturer of luxury automobiles. Now, out of the rarefied blue, it has introduced the former Dodge Sprinter jumbo van to its mix.
It’s a bold venture, culturally and socially fraught, this outing of the truck side of the company legend.
Introducing the behemoth Sprinter as a Dodge – its three-pointed-star badging replaced by two-pointed rams– made sense in 2003 given the DaimlerChrysler corporate marriage of the day and Dodge’s respected Ram truck line.
Selling the same vehicle alongside S-Class luxury sedans since January, 2010, is something else. Mercedes-Benz traces its history to the world’s first car in 1886 – and claims the first truck in 1896 as well. But who knew the latter?
Picture a plumber, a drains specialist, let’s say, with a whiff of interest in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter after hearing about its fuel efficiency and high resale value. Walking into a swank dealership, he’s advised by the receptionist to take a seat until an executive – a salesman, actually, but one who dresses and certainly looks like an executive – shows up to discuss gross hauling capacity.
Not every tradesman would relish the experience.
Now picture the reactions of other clients, Rosedale ladies some of them, when some hard-working Sprinter owner appears in rubber boots and soiled coveralls, seeking service for his truck at Toronto’s Eglinton or Dundas stores.
Some of these estimable clients may have second thoughts about the exclusivity of the Mercedes ownership experience.
In Europe, no such challenges exist. There it’s understood Mercedes-Benz has been in the truck business as long as it has been selling cars. M-B operates truck centres separate from its automobile showrooms, while in Canada and the U.S. they are unlikely bedfellows as Mercedes begins marketing the heavy haulers.
“Way down the road we’d love to have commercial vehicle centres here as in Europe,” admits Miki Velemirovich, van manager for Mercedes-Benz Canada. Separate showrooms at automobile dealerships in Laval, Que., and Vancouver point to the future, he says.
Certainly the company is serious about increasing van sales. Already it claims 12 per cent of Canadian sales of medium-duty vans with close to 2,500 sold in 2011, and Velemirovich’s goal is 20 per cent of the market, even as new competitors are anticipated from Ford with a larger model of its Transit and Chrysler with some version of a Fiat.
Any visit to Germany quickly acquaints a Canadian with a plethora of Mercedes-Benzs that are designed for labour rather than luxury. A first impression is made at the airport, where rows of three-pointed taxis turn out to have industrial-quality interiors, the kind that can be hosed out if necessary, just like more prosaic taxis at home.
The Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart showcases vintage buses, car haulers, snowplows, tankers, in fact trucks of all kinds, sharing space with imposing sedans and winning race cars. The company’s chronological story begins on the top floor with the 1896 Daimler truck adjacent to the 1886 Benz three-wheeler automobile, with the notation that breweries were among the truck’s first buyers, for beer deliveries.
The streets are full of present-day counterparts of all of the above commercial vehicles: huge snub-nosed Actros transport trucks, Zetros dump trucks, Vito, Vario and Sprinter vans competing with similar heavyweights from Renault, Volkswagen, Volvo and others.
At a testing complex adjacent to the museum, Daimler vehicles of all kinds – Daimler being the corporate name following the split with Chrysler – share such durability tests as being driven 2,500 kilometres over a rough road, said to be the equivalent of 350,000 km of regular usage. In a laboratory, a six-piston rig repeatedly stresses a van rear axle, painted white to reveal cracking.
Generations of Daimler employees have made nothing but trucks. The Worth factory employs 11,800 making heavy-duty units. “With Daimler Trucks, we want to grow much faster than the market as a whole and sell more than 500,000 trucks in 2013,” Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz cars, said when the latest model of the giant Actros tractor came off the line in September.
Sprinters are manufactured in Dusseldorf – as well as Ludwigsfeld for passenger versions, China and Argentina – along with Volkswagen Crafters (same vehicle, different badges) and Freightliners (same vehicle, as sold by the U.S. truck company Daimler acquired in 1981) at an average rate of 492 per day.
They command $42,900 as a cargo van or $47,900 in passenger mode. Or, $41,900 for a cab and chassis to be completed as a recreational vehicle or whatever.
Global revenues from 2010 underline the significance of trucks and vans to the company. Car sales accounted for €53.4-million, trucks €24-million, vans €7.8-million and buses €4.6-million.
Little to no chance exists of Canadian and American operations importing the big trucks from Germany, because Daimler also owns Freightliner and Western Star, two of the larger names in the history of North American trucking. Van sales, though, are thought to have strong potential as Velemirovich’s department finds ways to entice more trades and business people through the stately dealership doors.
“We’ve been working toward being able to offer closed leases in the first quarter of 2012,” he says. “Previously our lessees had to buy the vehicle, but with these they’ll be able to walk away at the end, and service will be included so they’ll know all costs from the beginning.
“Another goal is establishing a service partner so that in places like Fort McMurray, remote from our dealerships, a customer could take a Sprinter in for service.”
At this point, 49 of 53 Canadian Mercedes-Benz dealerships sell Sprinters, and 43 service them. By the end of 2012, the company hopes to add two more as sales outlets and four as service points. The fact that some dealerships are unable to service Sprinters because their doors aren’t tall enough is but one indication, perhaps, of the complexity of adding large vans to a luxury car lineup.