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New Century, New Vans
December 15, 2001, by Bill Cawthon
Change is coming to one of the most unchanging segments of the American automotive scene: the traditional full-size American van.
Unlike the spy photos and other tricks usually necessary to peek into the automotive future, all that’s needed to see the next step in the evolution of the big van is a tour through the catalogs of German modelmakers like Herpa. Because the change is coming from Europe, where the new vans are already on the road.
That European vans represent a probable future for light commercial vans in America shouldn’t be a shock. After all, the prototype for the modern American van also came from Europe. The Volkswagen T1 Transporter was the brainchild of Ben Pon, Volkswagen’s Dutch distributor, and it created a revolution. Unlike the Metro and other big commercial vans in use since the 1930s, the Transporter was a true multi-purpose vehicle, suited for both light commercial and family use and built in a wide variety of configurations. Older readers will remember when the first small American vans were introduced in the early 1960s, they were also offered in pickup form as well as cargo and passenger versions. When Ford introduced the 1968 Econoline, the paradigm shifted. The pickups disappeared and the vans began to grow. Then time seemed to stop. Except for styling, today’s Ram van, Econoline and Express are largely unaltered from the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Big 3 replaced their last cab-forward designs.
The most recent upheaval came in 1984 when two vehicles appeared offering an entirely new vision of the van. Dodge’s Caravan and the Renault Espace were designed for family transportation. They were small, low and nimble and became instant hits. The Caravan and Voyager took large chunks out of the conventional van market. Outside of RV and other conversions, sales of full-size vans for personal use almost dried up. Fortunately, there was a need for cargo vans and small buses, so the big vans soldiered on.
While American vans have frozen in time, the same is not true overseas. In Europe, where the full-size pickup is almost unknown, light commercial vans are offered in an almost bewildering variety of forms. Big and small, cargo van, bus and chassis cab are all standard catalog items. While both American and European vans offer multiple wheelbases, modern European vans also offer different roof heights and crew cab chassis, eliminating the need for aftermarket conversions and specialized bodies.
As you probably know, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is the first of the Euro-vans to make the trans-Atlantic trip. Since August, Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation’s newly expanded plant in Gaffney, South Carolina has been churning out Sprinters to fill a 1,900-van order from FedEx. By now, you may have seen them on the streets and you have probably seen them on in FedEx ads on TV.
In early December, with almost no fanfare at all, the Sprinter went on general sale through selected Freightliner dealers. The big rollout won’t come until the first quarter of next year, but the factory is ready for new orders. Incidentally, all Sprinters, Mercedes or Freightliner, come from Düsseldorf, Germany. Those destined for the U.S. are shipped as knocked-down kits and assembled in South Carolina.
The Sprinter will replace the Dodge B-Series van in the DaimlerChrysler American vehicle lineup. The big Ram van is scheduled to be phased out at the end of 2002. Even before Chrysler ran into its current problems, company executives had decided the huge sums needed to refresh the Dodge’s aging design were not a good investment. Besides, DaimlerChrysler believes they have a winner in the Sprinter. Since its introduction in 1995, the Sprinter has risen to the top of the European van market. Even the French voted it “Van of the Year.” Not long ago, the 750,000th Sprinter rolled off the assembly line in Düsseldorf and was delivered to a waiting customer. FedEx’s order is no surprise when you consider the company already operates thousands of Sprinters in its worldwide operations.
In spite of its success overseas, the Sprinter will have some convincing to do over here. For one thing, it’s available only with a diesel engine and an automatic transmission. Outside of the major fleet operators, Americans aren’t big diesel fans and associate them with painfully slow acceleration. For another, the Sprinter is visibly narrower than the vans to which we’re accustomed. In fact, it’s 2.5” narrower than a Dodge Caravan. However, given a chance, the Sprinter will surprise the skeptics. Thanks to advanced common-rail diesel technology and a specially designed transmission, the Sprinter has acceleration comparable to a conventionally powered van and a top speed of about 100 mph. And its handling is the equal of any American van. In its high-roof configuration, it also offers something not available on any American full-size van: six-foot high rear doors. When you factor in the superior fuel economy and reduced maintenance, the Sprinter offers some compelling advantages. However, tradition is very hard to overcome, especially among truck buyers. One additional handicap the Sprinter must live with is its price; it’s about 10% more expensive than a conventional van.
If it is successful, the Sprinter will be just the first of a number of Euro-vans to appear on American shores. Ford has the very successful Transit and is rumored to be considering assembling them over here. If this happens, the Transit will probably complement rather than replace the E-Series. Between the Econoline and Club Wagon, Ford controls 45% of the conventional van market. General Motors does not have an equivalent vehicle, but it has already explored the feasibility of a joint venture with Fiat to produce the popular Iveco Daily van in the United States. According to Fiat, the project has been fast-tracked. (Unless GM does something unheard of in its corporate history, it will probably keep the Chevy and GMC full-size vans.) Thanks to increasingly stringent emissions and safety requirements in the European Union, the Euro-vans don’t require a lot of modification to receive U.S. government approval. Actually, state approval of the diesel engines is probably the major hurdle. Due to the regulatory processes of state environmental agencies, Sprinters can’t be registered in California, New York and a few other states until 2002 or 2003.
Both Herpa and Wiking make models of the current Sprinter. The Herpa models include model 044684, a standard van and 044677, a passenger version with high roof. Wiking offers only a passenger version in civilian form. It’s model 285 01 22. It’s interesting to compare the Sprinter model with Trident’s early 1980s Chevrolet G-Series Van. While I am happy with the models, purists will note the new Freightliner versions have a different grille and a trim strip on the leading edge of the hood where the cutout for the Mercedes star would be. Other than those items, the only difference between the Mercedes and Freightliner versions is a badge on the left rear door.
The Sprinter is not the only DaimlerChrysler van scheduled to come to America. Recently, Dan Minick passed on a story by Diana T. Kuryko that appeared in the December 10 online edition of Automotive News. The headline reads, "Dodge will get Mercedes van." In it, Ms. Kuryko writes about two Mercedes-Benz vans, the Sprinter and Vito, and DaimlerChrysler's plans for them. While the article confirms DaimlerChrysler has broadened its original distribution plans, Ms. Kuryko does make a mistake that is fairly common over here. She confuses the Vito with the V-Class. In a moment, I will try to set the record straight.
My favorite European industry source is Daniel Howes, German Bureau Chief for the Detroit News. Not long ago, he had an opportunity to speak with Rolf Bartke, a DaimlerChrysler senior vice-president and head of Mercedes-Benz vans. Dr. Bartke said that if the American market accepts the Sprinter, other Mercedes products will follow. The company has set up a new business group, DaimlerChrysler Vans, LLC, in South Carolina. It is headed up by Tim Reuss. As I mentioned earlier, distribution has already begun through a network of Freightliner dealers that was set up months ago. Future plans include expansion through Dodge dealers as well as the construction of new assembly facilities or the conversion of existing Chrysler plants. The Gaffney plant's capacity is limited to about 20,000 units a year. In addition to the Sprinter, one of the products likely to be built in a new facility is the Mercedes Vito. And this is where a lot of confusion lies, because many people use "Vito" and "V-Class" interchangeably.
The Vito is a minivan that leads a double life in the Mercedes product line. The Vito itself was introduced in 1996 as a light commercial van built in both cargo and passenger versions, including a family model called the Vito F. Officially the Vito is a Mercedes model W638. There is also the V-Class, Mercedes model W638/2, which was also introduced in 1996, but at a later date and in a much different forum. While they share a common platform, they are different vehicles. Mercedes markets the V-Class with its passenger cars and classifies it as a “Large Saloon.” The V-Class is much more luxurious, and much more expensive than the plebian Vito. When Mercedes provided a shuttle fleet at some of the Formulas One races, the V-Classes were reserved for the drivers and a chosen few VIPs. The press and everyone else got to ride in Vitos. The V-Class is also much rarer than the Vito. Mercedes builds both vehicles in a state-of-the-art plant in Vitoria, Spain (that’s where the Vito gets its name). But there are five Vitos produced for every V-Class. So all V-Classes are Vitos, but only one in six Vitos is a V-Class. You can see the difference in the two vehicles right here at Promotex Online. Herpa model 043328 is a Vito passenger van and model 032131 is a V-Class. One of the differences you’ll notice immediately is the seating arrangement. The Vito has conventional seating while the boxier V-Class has the second row of seats facing aft with a small table between it and the third row of seats. By the way, while both are in stock, the Herpa has discontinued production of the V-Class model. If you are interested in expanding your collection, you might want to order soon.
In any event, it looks like the vanilla Vito is the next Mercedes scheduled to cross the big pond, possibly in 2004. When it reaches the U.S., it will also wear a Freightliner badge. The V-Class won’t make the trip. Instead, we will get an entirely new American-built vehicle called the Grand Sport Tourer or GST. It will be based on the next-generation M-Class and will combine the best features of a minivan and 4WD SUV. It will definitely be a Mercedes complete with all the luxury fittings, three-point star and matching price tag. James Collins, a market analyst in the London branch of UBS Warburg thinks the GST will be a trendsetter as the American market moves away from the big SUVs and into the developing crossover vehicle market. You’ll be able to see it at the North American International Auto Show next month in Detroit.
One of the most important aspects of the plans to bring the Vito to America is the fact it will compete with Chrysler’s flagship minivans. When Daimler-Benz and Chrysler originally merged, both companies decided to leave the American minivan market strictly to Chrysler products. However, times change and sometimes the rules do, too. One of the goals of the Vito may be to compete with the Chevy Astro and GMC Safari, which right now have the commercial minivan market pretty much to themselves. Ultimately, DaimlerChrysler hopes to be able to field a team of vans the competition can’t match. The lineup will go from the Vito, which is smaller than a Dodge Caravan, to the biggest Sprinter with its 6-ton GVW.
Two Mercedes products that will not be making the trip are the Vario and Vaneo. The Vario is a larger van that would compete in a limited market with existing Freightliner products. The Vaneo is the newly introduced “micro-van” based on the little A-Class. Dr. Bartke said there are no plans to bring the Vaneo to America in the foreseeable future. In truth, the Vaneo is a bit of a gamble and Mercedes is going to see how it fares in the home market before entertaining any ideas of shipping it out of the European Union.
In addition to a select group of Freightliner dealers, DaimlerChrysler Vans is training a small group of Dodge dealers to sell the Sprinter. For now, the Sprinters sold by those dealers will still wear the Freightliner badge, but perhaps in the future a Dodge version will be produced. Perhaps at the Pillette Road plant in Ontario where the B-Series is built today.
If you would like to add some of the next-generation vans to your collection, they are all available. As mentioned, Herpa and Wiking make the Sprinter. Herpa is the only one producing Vitos, but several are offered. Wiking also makes a V-Class (model 288 03 23) and the Iveco Daily (286 01 27). Rietze produces models of the new Ford Transit in a variety of forms. The Rietze models are distributed in the U.S. under the Noch name and are also available in Rietze form from World Trains Unlimited of Calumet, Illinois.
My thanks to Daniel Howes, for a lot of good material and for asking the right questions. Thanks also to Dan Minick, a fellow Mopar commentator, for sending the Automotive News article and Dr. Dave Zatz, proprietor of Allpar.com, where all the latest news and rumors relating to DaimlerChrysler are reported and discussed.
Merry Christmas, everyone. See you in the New Year!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.
In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.
Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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