By Daniel Brock
Published April 8, 2010
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van line is now a quartet, as company officials have unveiled a shuttle version of the vehicle.
The announcement Wednesday came as part of a two-day media event across the Charleston area during which Mercedes-Benz executives hoped to jump-start the Sprinter’s rebranding.
Mercedes-Benz officially entered the U.S. van market at the beginning of the year, having sold Sprinters under the Freightliner and Dodge brands since 2001. The Sprinter line is now being sold as Mercedes-Benz and Freightliners, a change that took place after a distribution deal between Mercedes-Benz’ parent company, Daimler, and Chrysler lapsed at the end of 2009.
The shuttles will be assembled as cargo vehicles at the Daimler Vans Manufacturing plant in North Charleston before being shipped to Greensboro, N.C., for modifications and then back to the Lowcountry for final inspections, officials said.
The Sprinter Shuttle features four seating configurations — airport, commuter, hotel and paratransit — aimed at specific clientele groups. The airport design, for instance, boasts an 80-inch, two-tier luggage rack, while the commuter shuttle seats 16 passengers and features video equipment.
“It’s a very special market, but for a certain segment, it will do a lot for their bottom line,” said Claus Tritt, the commercial vans general manager for Mercedes-Benz USA.
Tritt said the company was keeping the shuttle’s sales expectations low in the first year, projecting between 100 and 150 units being moved in 2010. The shuttle joins the Sprinter line cargo and passenger models and Sprinter cab chassis currently produced by the company.
More than 110,000 Sprinters have been sold in the United States since 2001, according to Mercedes.
Sprinters are now being offered at a combined 117 Mercedes and Freightliner dealerships across the country, a number that company officials said should reach about 160. There are about 360 Mercedes dealerships nationally, officials said.
Baker Motor Co. of Charleston was one of the dealerships selected to sell the Sprinter. General manager Joe Lynch said Baker Motor Co. has sold five Sprinters since February.
Aftermarket “upfitters” often customize Sprinters for clients, outfitting them for such uses as construction work, delivery service or recreation, officials said. Mercedes also offers myriad industry-specific packages and options on its cargo vans.
In the United States, the Sprinter is targeted toward small businesses, while the Freightliner version continues to be geared toward commercial operators, company officials said.
“Freightliner has a very well-established brand name in the vocational sector as work vehicles,” Mercedes-Benz spokesman Dan Barile said. “On the other side, there might be some places that a Freightliner might not necessarily fit in quite right.”
Barile referenced high-end hotel chains as businesses that might prefer the Mercedes-Benz brand over the Freightliner offering.
The shuttle and cargo vehicles are manufactured in Dusseldorf, Germany, before being disassembled and packaged for shipping by an outside service company there. The vehicles are then transported to the North Charleston plant at Palmetto Commerce Park, where they’re put back together in less than six hours.
Mercedes-Benz ships the cargo vans in pieces to avoid a 25% tariff on commercial vehicles, officials said.
The reason the vans are assembled and then broken down for shipping, as opposed to just being shipped in parts is twofold, according to Barile. First, the Mercedes-Benz plants are set up to build complete vehicles, and removing van components would be inefficient. The second reason is quality control.
“That way, they meet the same build quality and same level of inspection” as the rest of Mercedes-Benz fleet, Barile said.
The North Charleston plant, which employs about 100 people, assembles 28 vans daily on average, or about 8,000 each year. It also processes Sprinter passenger vans and chassis, which are sent to the factory fully built.
Plant production manager Phillip McMillan said that increased employment at the facility would happen “as necessary,” though no firm number has been reached.
Mercedes-Benz assembled the Sprinter at a Freightliner plant in Gaffney from 2001 to 2006 but moved that operation to the Lowcountry when a second generation of the vehicle was launched in 2007.
Reach Daniel Brock at 843-849-3144.