Left Behind

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Stuttgart, Germany, at the invitation of DaimlerChrysler, to view the all-new version of the Sprinter van, and what I saw was a greatly improved version of a van that already towers—in some cases literally—above its American competition.

Let me just say that I have a great fondness for American built vans. I grew up in a big family, and we traveled everywhere in a big Ford Econoline van. It seems I spent half of my childhood looking down on the rest of the world from the wide, high windows of Ford vans, and to this day I regard them as just about the most practical, space-efficient vehicles around.

But then there's the Sprinter. The first Sprinters brought to the US by DaimlerChrysler, at the insistance of FedEx, definitely stood out from the crowd. With their long, narrow, boxy bodies and raised roofs, Sprinters—sold first as Freightliners and then as Dodges—immediatelty took the prize for practicality and space-efficiency. And the fact that they ran exclusively on Mercedez-Benz diesel powerplants (the American version offers a 2.7-liter I5 Turbo Diesel, producing 154 horsepower at 3,800 RPM) and came in three different wheelbases and two different roof heights made them eminently efficient and economical, the perfect work truck for practical-minded business operators.

Because the current version is so well thought out, it's not a surprise that the new version—being introduced in Europe this year and coming to the States in a year or two—is an even better product.

The new Sprinter, when it arrives on our shores, will set the bar for work vans even higher. For one thing, there will be even more configurations from which to choose—Mercedez-Benz claims there are around 1,000 basic versions of the Euro model. That sounds like a fun spec'ing project, doesn't it?

The new Sprinter also boasts bigger doors, more driver comforts, a six-speed transmission, and advanced electronic stability control.

The journalists were not given the opportunity to drive the new vans—that will come later—but the Mercedez-Benz folks are so committed to this vehicle that DaimlerChrysler has built them a vas new "Van Technology Center" at the corporate headquarters. Clearly, DaimlerChrysler plans to stay out in front with this product.

Perhaps the biggest surprise with the new Sprinter introduction was the announcement that the new van would be offered with a choice of both diesel and gasoline engines. The 3.5 liter M 272 V6 engine will deliver 258 horsepower, and will be mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.

My Mercedez-Benz hosts did not confirm that the gasoline engine option would be offered in the US, but they certainly didn't deny it. Could it be that DaimlerChrysler is attempting to "Americanize" the next Sprinter?

If a gasoline engine brings the next Sprinter even greater market acceptance in the US, then the folks at GM and Ford may start to feel left behind in a big way.