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The Sprinter: Still in the race

February 15, 2006, by Bill Cawthon

First, in case you missed it, I have some bad news: The John Deere 7920 tractor about which I wrote last time will not be available in North America. Herpa's license covers just the European Union.

A little over four years ago, I wrote about the Sprinter van's arrival in America (New Century, New Vans). At that time, about the only thing we knew for sure was that 1,900 Sprinters had been sold to FedEx and that they would wear a Freightliner badge instead of the three-pointed star.

Earlier this month, I received a note from Dave Lemmon, a reader who was curious about what had happened to the Sprinter, so I thought I would update my earlier piece. It's especially timely as DaimlerChrysler has just introduced the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Herpa has just announced a model of it.

Originally offered only as a cargo van, the Dodge Sprinter is now available as a van, bus or chassis cab with single or dual rear wheels. Images courtesy of DaimlerChrysler. Copyright 2006 DaimlerChrysler.

In my article from 2001, I said the Sprinter would be primarily sold as a Freightliner, but future plans also included some sales of a Dodge version. There's an old saying that no battle plan survives the first engagement, and that seems to be true of DaimlerChrysler's strategy, as well. Of the 28,100 Sprinters sold in North America last year, 19,662 wore a Dodge badge. Outside of the contract units built for FedEx, UPS and other fleets, the Freightliner version is a relative rarity sold in only 24 states.

While last year's sales are actually a bit above the 20,000 units originally envisioned, the Sprinter still has not come close to the sales of the Dodge B-Series van it replaced. In 2001, the last regular sales year for the Dodge full-size vans, buyers bought or leased a total of 54,858 Ram Vans and Ram Wagons.

Some of this shortfall might be attributable to the fact the Sprinter is still a marked departure from competing full-size vans from Ford and GM. It's only available with a diesel engine, still a tough sell outside of large fleets, its European styling is rather radical for what remains a very conservative market segment and it's more expensive than vans from Ford or GM.

However, a more likely explanation is that the Sprinter has been as successful as DaimlerChrysler would allow. As was true in 2001, all American Sprinter commercial vans are still assembled in the Freightliner Custom Chassis plant in Gaffney, South Carolina which is running all-out to produce enough Sprinters to meet demand. Conversion of another facility in Ladson, South Carolina, about ten miles northwest of Charleston, will boost production to about 32,000 trucks annually.

That's still not much compared to sales of the other full-size vans. Last year Ford sold 179,543 E-Series vans and GM sold a combined total of 162,350 Chevrolet Express/GMC Savanna vans. On other words, better than nine of every ten vans sold in the United States in 2005 was a Ford or GM. Still, it's a lot better than the 5500-6000 Sprinters per year envisioned by DaimlerChrysler just a couple of years ago.

Perhaps one of the things that has helped the Sprinter's popularity is the rising price of fuel. The Sprinter gets better real-world mileage, a major consideration when you realize how many miles these vans rack up in a year.

Of course, I still wonder about DaimlerChrysler's waffling about the U.S. market. From the timid forecast of a few years back to plans for a whole new plant in Pooler, Georgia where 140,000 Sprinter and Vito vans could be built each year then back to a relatively small bump in production capacity of the Sprinter alone. The company has created and scrapped various marketing groups and reorganized their van operations to the point it's almost impossible to say who is doing what with any degree of certainty.

Since I mentioned the Vito, it deserves an update as well. Originally due to come to America following a 2004 refresh, it now appears any plans to bring the smaller Mercedes commercial van to the U.S. have been shelved. Considering that GM has dropped its small Astro and Safari commercial vans, this may be a good move. It may be there just isn't enough of a market for that type of truck in North America.

The new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in its long-wheelbase, highest roof version. Image courtesy of DaimlerChrysler. Copyright 2006 DaimlerChrysler.

Among other projections that need updating are possible Euro-van plans from DaimlerChrysler's competitors. Contrary to what was being rumored in 2001, Ford has made no move to add the Transit van to its North American lineup and, despite over-optimistic statements from Fiat, GM never followed through on plans to assemble the Iveco Daily van in the U.S. GM does have its own European van, the Opel/Vauxhall Movano, which is also sold as the Renault Master and Nissan Interstar, but once again, no plans to bring it to America.

While we may not have foreseen it in 2001, the reality of the full-size van market is that there's precious little reason to invest in many major changes. It's a mature market. In 2001, one of the best sales years in automotive history, Dodge, Ford and GM sold a combined 349,111 full-size vans. That total dropped to 335,485 in 2002 and again dropped just 323, 478 sales in 2003. Volume increased to 337,513 in 2004 and grew again last year, when the total was 361,876 but even that number is only about 5% above the average. Since it's unlikely there will be many conquest sales from other market segments and most people who need vans will continue to buy them, why change? I am sure that was a large part of the thinking at DaimlerChrysler when they opted to import the Sprinter rather than investing in a much-needed overhaul of the Dodge Ram Van.

Although our crystal balls were more than a little cloudy in 2001, there are still some projections that can be made. First, the new Sprinter will definitely be a Dodge when it comes to the U.S. in early 2007. Stateside production is already slated to begin in late 2006.

Second, the Sprinter will continue to be a very versatile full-size van. Panel van, bus and chassis-cab are on the market now. There are multiple wheelbases, multiple van heights and, with the next-generation model, some new engines. Winnebago and Itasca already offer Sprinter-based RVs and a number of aftermarket firms are offering van conversions.

The Volkswagen Crafter is a new Sprinter clone that replaces the previous Sprinter clone VW marketed as the LT van. Image courtesy of Volkswagen. Copyright 2006 Volkswagen AG.

Third, with a conviction bordering on absolute certainty, I predict that Herpa, despite the fact it will produce the Mercedes and Volkswagen versions of the Sprinter (the VW version is called the Crafter) in several variants, will not make a Dodge version. Sigh.

However, all is not lost. Herpa will be introducing at least a couple of new models that will have fans of classic sports cars cheering.

One of these is the nifty little Fiat X1/9. The world's first mass-produced mid-engine sports car, the X1/9's roots extend back to the Autobianchi A112 Runabout concept car first shown in Turin, Italy in 1969. After seeing the overwhelmingly positive response, Fiat decided to make a street-legal variant of the Marcello Gandini design. The new Fiat X1/9 made its debut in 1972. The X1/9 remained in production as a Fiat until 1982 and as a Bertone until 1988. Most of the Fiat X1/9 variants were available in America and, in fact, the X1/9's body was designed to meet American crash-test standards. Hard as it might be to believe of such a small car, the X1/9's exceptionally sturdy body did better on the tests that some larger American cars. Unfortunately, the mechanicals were not quite as bulletproof as the body and many X1/9s had troubles with overheating, transmissions and fuel systems. Fortunately, as a Herpa model, one can enjoy the car's beauty without dealing with the hassles of keeping the real car running.

Another treat coming in 2006 is the Volvo P1800ES, a car that a lot of model fans have wanted for a long time. Introduced in 1972, the P1800ES was the last of the P1800 series. Though it was in production for only two model years, 1972 and 1973, many consider it one of the best-looking Volvos ever built. That's all the more surprising when you consider the 1800 was mechanically the result of the marriage of the prosaic Amazon's chassis and a modified truck engine. Come to think of it, the 1800 series had such an interesting history, it's worthy of a future column all by itself.

Herpa continues to branch out in creative directions with their 1:87 scale model lines. One of the new products shown in Nuremberg was a Cessna 172, a small airplane that would be perfect for a lot of HO layouts. Real 1:87 airplane models are in short supply and it's nice to see Herpa addressing the need.

While there wasn't much in the way of new American cars or trucks from the German modelmakers, other than a diecast Ford Mustang GT from Schuco, there are lots of interesting models coming in the months ahead, including a bonanza of American cars and trucks from other sources. All in all, no matter what your preferences, 2006 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for all fans of 1:87 scale.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.

 

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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: February 15, 2006