By on October 7, 2011

Daimler’s Sprinter Van has been available in the US for ten years now, but thanks to high prices, inconsistent brand strategy (it’s been marketed as a Freightliner, Dodge, and now Mercedes), and some curious marketing choices, it’s never made a huge impact on the market. And with Ram announcing that it will bring Sprinter-sized Ducato vans to the US, it seems like a good time to reflect on the words of Paul Niedermeyer, who wrote back in early 2010

Yes, I can muster some appreciation of Econolines of yore. But the painful reality is that the current E-Series is an ugly, primitive and inefficient pig virtually unchanged since 1974.  The fact that the American light truck sector hasn’t had the same revolution that European design influences have had on passenger cars is a mystery. Case in point: Ford’s Transit (not Connect) vans are a (several, actually) giant development leap ahead of the Econoline, offering FWD, RWD and AWD variants in three wheelbase lengths, numerous configurations, and driven by the most advanced diesels that can get well over 20 mpg. The Transit outsells Mercedes Sprinter in Europe. What the hell is Ford waiting for?

According to C&D, Ford was just waiting for the new Escape to go into production in Louisville, in order to free up production of the Transit at Kansas City. Apparently Ford has even filed trademark applications for a number of “T-Series” names, so expect a full line of Transit vans to replace the decrepit Econolines. And with three offerings in the large commercial van segment instead of just one, expect more choices, more competition, more marketing, and a general van renaissance in the US. At a time when minivans have become so unloved they’ve given rise to the now-ubiquitous crossover, it’s nice to see that the van make something of a comeback.

 

 

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57 Comments on “The Battle Of The Euro-Van: Ford And Ram To Take On Sprinter...”


  • avatar
    dswilly

    Earlier this year I drove a new E Series van from KC to Seattle and back. It was a rental for a work presentation. To be honest it wasent a bad ride. It had plenty of power in the mountians and averaged exactly 15mpg both ways which I thought was pretty good for a 15 passenger van.

  • avatar
    threeer

    I wonder if this will signal a (somewhat small, I’m sure) revival of the full-size conversion van? Best road trips I’ve ever taken have been in conversion vans. It’d be nice to see some of these converted so folks can potentially enjoy full-size travel with respectable fuel economy. And yes, I know that the Sprinter has been used for some time now in the RV world, but those things are super-expensive. Give me two rows of captain’s chairs, a fold down rear bench, a decent entertainment system and the 20+ MPG…

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      For road trips in the mountainous West to be pleasant, US versions will need bigger, slower turning, engines than what the Euro versions normally get. Maximum city mileage and comfort pulling grades at altitude are difficult to achieve in the same engine and car.

      • 0 avatar
        tallnikita

        Euros get slow turning, sweet sounding, easily-driven-by-stick, diesel engines. Comfortable seating for driver too.

        Just don’t make them tall or they won’t fit in many city garages especially with ladders on top.

        Hopefully this is a trend to replace full size 24-26′ box trucks that are typically used for deliveries in big cities.

    • 0 avatar

      @threeer my thoughts exactly. When not in use on the road, I would keep it as a small home office… There I go again, living in my white trash fantasies.

    • 0 avatar
      Banger

      Our local Nissan dealer had one of their new NV vans all done up by a custom conversion company sitting in the showroom when we last had our Cube serviced. It looked like a supreme road trip experience just waiting to happen. Brought back some memories of a Dodge Mark III conversion van my grandparents took me on a few trips in.

      And for those commenters below saying the NV is nigh-on impossible to see in the wild? That same Nissan dealer has a slew of NVs in multiple configurations. Doesn’t hurt that they’re sitting right on Interstate 40, I guess. Must be trying to grab the attention of commercial van owners going up and down the big road.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Banger: I’m guessing you live close to the factory in Tennessee?

      • 0 avatar
        Banger

        @geozinger: I do indeed live in Tennessee.

        I was not aware the NV was being produced in my state, though. Wikipedia puts the production sites at Aguascalientes, Mexico and Canton, MS. The Frontier and Altima are produced in Smyrna, if memory serves. It will also be home to U.S. production of the Leaf sooner or later. I’m doing my best to try to convince Nissan to move production of the Cube, which is produced in Oppama, Japan alongside the Leaf currently, when the Leaf starts up production here. Maybe then it would make enough money for Nissan that it could actually be advertised and would become an honest competitor to the Kia Soul in the subcompact class. It so deserves it.

        Anyway, that was pretty off-topic. I digress… I really want to like the NV, but its Titanic (see what I did there?) nose is probably problematic in tight-quarters maneuvering. Iceberg dead ahead!

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @banger: My mistake. For some reason I thought the Titan was made in TN, it is the Frontier.

        Regardless, maybe since Nissan has a presence in TN, the local dealer close to I-40 would have some NVs and in different configurations. Around here (SWMI), I’ve only ever seen them on computer monitors.

        Good luck with the Cube. I’ve been petitioning GM to bring back the Malibu Maxx, hasn’t worked so far. I guess I’ll need more than seven people to buy one… ;)

      • 0 avatar
        KGrGunMan

        I’ve seen atleast 20 of them around my area of so cal…on dealer lots.

        I’ve only ever seen one NV driving around and it was the nissan dealer parts truck.

  • avatar
    darex

    I think you miss the point. These vans are the answer to the problem of tractor trailers driving through dense urban neighborhoods, and having to do 10-point turns to turn a corner.

    Full tractor trailers should be banned from the city core, and only these delivery vans permitted, and the more and various examples of these vans the better.

    Every European brand makes one, and they are all you see on the streets of Paris, in terms of commercial vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      It used to be that city deliveries were made with short cab-over-engine tractors with about 20-foot van trailers. The drivers knew how to back up to a loading dock in an alley in such a way that the tractor would be turned 90 degrees so alley traffic wouldn’t be blocked. I don’t know if that capability still exists nowadays.

      I’ve seen precisely one Nissan van, parked on the dealer’s lot.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    My previous employer got a turbodiesel Sprinter van back in 2003. They were still pretty reasonably priced back then. It replaced a GMC Savana, IIRC, we doubled the fuel mileage while increasing the payload 50%. It was a good deal for us at the time.

    If Fiat and Ford can undercut Mercedes in this market, lots of other small businesses will benefit from a new price war in vans.

    • 0 avatar
      mike978

      +1 – another impact of globalisation and a positive one. Plenty of good vans in Europe that could come over. Nissan could get in on the act too since Renault (their European partner) have a full range : http://www.renault.co.uk/vans/range/master.aspx

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Nissan already has a home-grown version, though it apparently doesn’t exist outside of product reviews:
        http://news.pickuptrucks.com/2011/02/first-drive-2012-nissan-nv-series-vans.html

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @mike978: Nissan has decided to make the NV off of the Titan chassis instead. I think it’s a mistake, as the other main players in this league have basically ossified.

        Unless something drastic changes with CAFE, I can’t imagine Ford or GM developing new versions of it’s existing vans. I believe that they will start introducing their European work vans over here, as Ford has already started to do. If Fiat comes in with their vans as it sounds they will, how long before GM brings over some Opel vans? Or the one they make with Renault (I forget the name)? Wouldn’t that be amusing?

        EDIT: Aww, bumpy beat me to it. Oh well…

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        @ bumpy, I’ve seen a NV on the road, it’s the local Nissan dealer’s parts runner. But other than that I haven’t noticed one in the wild.

      • 0 avatar
        benzaholic

        I saw an NV (not at a dealer) in Austin a week or two ago.
        Big beastie.

      • 0 avatar
        Augie the Argie

        @ geozinger

        Renault Trafic (small passenger or utilitarian van) or Renault Master (commercial van) also know as Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Augie: Thanks, I couldn’t remember the name of the van. I wanted to say Viva, but I think that’s an old Holden. I guess I was too lazy to look it up between jobs…

      • 0 avatar

        I saw a few NVs around. Actually, more than Sprinters, although both are rare. One NV was flame red. Dunno why anyone would buy them (e.g. if it wins over Express in payload or mileage, for example), but some do.

      • 0 avatar
        cafe

        The current Renault Master is also sold in Europe as Opel/Vauxhall Movano and Nissan NV400 (previous gen was called Nissan Interstar):

        http://www.nissan.co.uk/#vehicles/lcv/nv400

        http://www.vauxhall.co.uk/vehicles/vauxhall-range/vans/movano-ng/index.html

    • 0 avatar
      jeffzekas

      my buddy had a Sprinter… the main problem: incredibly expensive to maintain… as compared to the Ford he drove, which was average in costs…

  • avatar
    PaulieWalnut

    The E-350 and 450 stay on in cutaway form and will be built alongside medium trucks in Avon Lake. I think I read that Ford are also going to build a schoolbus and motorhome there too.

    Expect the Transit to differ from the Sprinter in two key respects. It’ll be cheaper and it’ll offer gas engines.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    It’ll be nice to see some new blood in the full sized van market in the US for a change.

    That said,even though the Sprinter had its issues, and its gotten expensive over time, I’ve always liked their basic design in so far as looks go.

    I have liked the Transit Connect’s basic design too and the new Transit looks good, as is the Fiat Ducato. They ALL look fantastic as vans go, stylish and less utilitarian looking, but still very much the worker’s vehicle for commerce that now gets decent mileage and brings this big box vans into the 21st century design wise.

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    To my North American friends, please don’t fear the oil burners in the current generation of Transits – they are really quite smooth, quiet and torquey. The older generation of Ford diesels were really a horror to behold. To get any sort of speed or acceleration involved thrashing the nuts off the engine. With peak power at about 3500RPM, it sounded like a cacophony of norse-god-blacksmiths hammering away under the bonnet as you struggled to get to 50mph. When the delivery firm I worked at swapped to the new Transits it was a revelation.

    • 0 avatar
      Bryce

      Ford use Peugeot commonrail diesels now instead of the ancient duratechs.

      • 0 avatar
        Sinistermisterman

        Well I never. I read up about the new ‘Duratorq’ engine fitted to the Transit and like you say, it is from Peugeot, but is also used in the Fiat Ducato (pictured above) the LR Defender and also the new generations of the London cab. Sounds like a pretty durable engine.

  • avatar
    retrogrouch

    The Sprinter was a disaster in terms of reliability and maintenance. If Ford can knock down the cost of long term ownership and keep the Transit reliable in US trim, they will have a winner

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yup while the Sprinter may have lower fuel costs maintenance are repairs more than eat up those savings.

      My main customer started buying them about 4 years ago against my recommendations. Out of the dozen 3 have needed $13K transmission replacements. The OE tires are done by 12K as are the brakes. Actually the rotors are at or under the min spec before the pads are done. With quality aftermarket rotors and pads they can get 15K out of a set of pads and the rotors will last for 2 sets of pads. Alternators have been replaced on a couple and at this point they are still dealer only items running near $600. The highest mile unit is at ~50K with many well under that. The drivers hate them as compared to the Step Vans and International walk in trucks that make up the rest of the fleet getting in and out of them adds at least a hour to their day.

      They have seen the light and it’s been almost a year since they bought their last unit an 09 that had been sitting on the dealer lot for well over a year. On the plus side they got 10K off.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        With the Sprinter my former company had, it started out really well. But as time went on, there were more issues. It wasn’t really my domain, but I would talk to the driver occasionally, and he would fill me in on maintenance and repairs.

        It seems ours had an appetite for alternators. Once, one of the replacement alternators didn’t get bolted in correctly, and the truck lost the alt, belt and bracket. Luckily, it happened in our loading dock.

        But, the Sprinter got much better fuel mileage than the previous GMC Savana and the capacity was much larger (we had a tall roof one), so even with the maintenance issues, we were still ahead.

      • 0 avatar
        windnsea00

        We have had a great experience with our 2007 Sprinter, it is just a bit over 300k miles now. Engine has had no internal repairs and most of the transmission is original, I believe a clutch pack or two were replaced at one point. Tires last 65K+ miles for us depending on brand, though this vehicle does all highway driving. I am really impressed how smooth the drivetrain still is, luxury car level with the V6 diesel/5spd auto. Most importantly the fuel mileage is consistently low 20′s mpg on the road (170 in. wb/tall roof) which is a massive savings over the V8 American vans.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Some corrections and amplifications:
    - the 1992 VN58 was an essentially all new-vehicle, biggest thing it had in common with the 1975 Nantucket-platform (its predecessor) were proportions. What had started out as a modest-refresh, after the condition of all the tooling was considered, and had to be replaced, ended-up as a more-or-less new vehicle with similar proportions so as to fit into and not require major-investment in the Avon Lake Ohio Truck Plant (Body fab and paint) and Lorain AP (Trim, Chassis, Final after bodies had been trucked-over from Avon Lake), btw, a similar thing happened with the redesign of the 1991 DN101 Taurus, although the updated Taurus looked much more like its predecessor than the Econoline did.
    - the current Transit design’s roots were in Dearborn, MI, as that is where the pre-program (VE160, later V184/5)) work took place (Commerce Drive Facility before moving to PDC, and then back to Dunton England as the vehicle came closer to launch), IIRC, the Chassis Engineering Manager was a certain John Krafcik (yes, that John Krafcik).

    As I wrote elsewhere, perhaps in the comments section to Paul’s 2010 piece, the VN58 was a good vehicle (I worked on it!) but the Transit is so much more flexible and efficient. The technology of the Tranist passed that of the Econoline about 15 years ago.

  • avatar
    EquipmentJunkie

    I have driven about 80K in an ’05 Sprinter window van. Great driving vehicle…quiet, snappy, great seats, and good fuel economy. It handles so well that I turn into White Van Man when behind the wheel. Only problems have been a couple intake pieces (hose & resonator) but the worst is the lousy paint that is prone to rust spots.
    I would say that the Sprinter successes (or failures) are regional in nature. There were several good local Sprinter dealers in Southeastern PA which allowed the Sprinter bite heavily into Ford and GM commercial van market share here. What’s not to like?
    The Sprinter needs more competition to keep the prices lower. Thankfully, more is on the way.

  • avatar
    tced2

    Oh it’s not a mystery that the E-series dates back to 1974. It’s obvious that Ford likes to amortize their chassis over a very long time (examples? Panther). It’s called making more profit and there hasn’t been much competition for them. It’s in the genetic makeup of Ford Motor Company straight from the founder – Model T kept in production much too long?
    Diamler isn’t good at competing in the volume market (see Diamler-Chrysler).

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      What, and GM doesn’t do/hasn’t done the same?

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      That’s not true. Econoline was essentially an all new-vehicle in 1992.

      • 0 avatar
        geo

        The Econoline was as new in 1992 as the Crown Victoria was. And we know how people feel around here about those who say that the current Crown Vic is unchanged from the Carter Administration.

        The Econoline was served Americans wonderfully for decades, and there simply hasn’t been a reason to change it . . . much like the Crown Vic. Americans businesses and fleets have rejected the newer-tech, pricier, and fancier alternatives for both vehicles, and not because they’re backwards and don’t like change.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Hmmm… I was on the ’92 E-series launch team,and I remember any number of folks in the plant carping that what was supposed to be a mild-refresh ended-up becoming a new vehicle,and causing a them a lot of “unnecessary” headaches (vs. just putting new sheet-metal atop the 1975-chassis.)

        I wonder if anyone will miss the V-10 engine option?

      • 0 avatar
        Wheeljack

        Too bad they didn’t ditch the ancient “Twin-I-Beam” suspension when they were making it “all-new” in 1992. That crappy suspension gave me more than a few headaches as a Zone rep many years ago. No real way to fix the steering vibes – could only mask it with an aftermarket steering stabilizer.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Funny you mention the TIBS, I have distinct memories of the discussions on the chassis build-up line between the superintendent and the utility man about how the parts were all new, but still the same old tech (one claimed the only way to really adjust it was to heat the beam and bend it, but I don’t believe that is really true for every case.)

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Do Citroen and Fiat share platforms? The ones in the picture look identical.

    • 0 avatar
      Augie the Argie

      PSA and FIAT formed in the 90s a joint venture called SEVEL that produces in southern France the exact same commercial vans and minivans under the Citroen, Peugeot and FIAT brands. At some point there were some minivans coming in the Lancia brand as well.

    • 0 avatar
      cafe

      When it comes to commercial vans, Europe is a big swinging party. I think Ford is the only one that doesn’t take part in it.

      PSA/FIAT commercial vans come in 4 sizes:

      XS:
      At the bottom of the ladder, the Peugeot Bipper and Citoën Nemo are built in Turkey by FIAT alongside their twin the FIAT Fiorino/Qubo.

      S:
      PSA and FIAT don’t share these ones : the Peugeot Partner/Citroën Berlingo is a 100% PSA design while the FIAT Dobló is a 100% FIAT design. The Dobló is now shared with Opel/Vauxhall (new gen Opel Combo). The other Opel/Vauxhall commercial vans are joint ventures with Renault (Opel Movano = Renault Master = Nissan NV400, Opel Vivaro = Renault Trafic = Nissan Primastar).

      M:
      The FIAT Scudo is made in France alongside its twins the Peugeot Expert and Citroën Jumpy (Sevel Nord).

      L/XL:
      The Peugeot Boxer and Citroën Jumper are rebadged version of the Fiat Ducato. They’re built in Italy (Sevel Sud).

  • avatar

    Having worked in fleet and driving Airport shuttle during my time in College, I know all about and have genuine appreciation for all three of the NA full size vans, but IMHO it’s time they went away.
    All D3 vans I drove were tough and reliable and we ran them into the ground, but they drank gas like no tomorrow and became rattletraps after about 100000 (albeit hard) kms or 60000 miles.
    Some resistance to the Euro vans might be the thought they’re tiny, but they’re actually quite big, almost too big it would seem for the European market, but no problem over here.
    These vans are insanely practical so let’s hope this stems the tide of contractors, landscapers, tradesmen etc buying full size pickups, towing a massive covered trailer and tearing about like they’re behind the wheel of a WRX, which is a big problem in my area.

  • avatar

    As someone in the market for a new van or van-based camper within a couple of years to replace my geriatric ’77 Dodge Chinook camper, this is very good news indeed. I’m very drawn to the Sprinter, but there sure is a lot of negative chatter about its maintenance costs. At least my old Dodge is cheap to keep going.

    • 0 avatar
      jeffzekas

      Paul, read my post (and others) above… and stay away from the Sprinter… unless you have a rich uncle who will pay for maintenance! I have found that civilian Mercedes owners– like BMW owners– will lie about the high cost of maintenance, either out of pride or embarrassment… whereas commercial users are more honest… perhaps because the bottom line is more important than impressing others!

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Mercedes gets a one hour exposure every week for their van in the American Pickers TV show, I suppose those guys get to use the van for free?

  • avatar

    I was wondering what Ford was going to do when they announced that the E trucks were ending. The Transit Connect just doesn’t have the payload that plumbers and other tradesmen need.

    Me? I want to import the Tata Magic:

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Good lord, it’s a return to forward-control! Egads!!!

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      On a less bizarre note, I wonder if Toyota would bring over one of the HiAce derivatives?

    • 0 avatar
      fred schumacher

      This is Tata’s modern update of the three-wheel rickshaw taxi. It comes with an 11 hp diesel or CNG option, carries five people (enclosed in steel rather than canvas), and sells for something like $2,500. When rickshaw drivers were polled for what they wanted in a vehicle, the number one request was for four wheels. In India, four wheels provides a big jump in status.

      Tata also has the Ace, which is a diesel utility truck in pickup and van forms, and which replaces the three-wheel utility vehicles so common all over southeast Asia. It’s been a big hit and costs about $5,000.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    Re: “a time when minivans have become so unloved…” Only in the auto press alternate universe is that the case. This past winter I had a hard time finding a good used minivan. They were in short supply and high demand.

    Re: the Sprinter. Having driven for Fedex Ground, the problem I saw with the Sprinter is that it’s too narrow. A delivery van needs a 30 inch alley. Take that away from the Sprinter’s 72 inch width, and you end up with shelves barely 20″ wide. I would hope Ford and Fiat widen their vans a bit.

    The narrow Sprinter is also quite tall in standing headroom form. A few years ago, four Minnesota State University students on their way to an auto design contest were killed when that high side turned into a sail in a crosswind and sent them head-on into a semi.

    I would like to see a utility van designed more like the ones Citroen used to manufacture: front wheel drive, low floor, and low step-up height. Most delivery vans would be better off, especially in winter, with front wheel drive. Also, get rid of duals. That’s what get you stuck in long, unplowed driveways as the rear duals ride up and down one side and the other of the track made by the front wheels. It’s interesting to see semis converting to wide singles instead of duals.

  • avatar
    Neb

    ^^^^ I’m imagining a fat man getting in front and the whole thing just tipping onto its nose.

    News of real progress on the van front makes me happy, and I don’t know why. I know that the Sprinter is a big success around here, and it’d be even bigger if it was not so expensive.

    Also I saw those Nissan van/truck things recently, and am not impressed. I mean I understand the factory is underutilized, but it’s like the first new van on the market in like a decade, and it seems like a throwback to the domestics.

  • avatar
    mopar4wd

    I see quite a few sprinters here (CT) almost getting to be as common as Econolines. I have seen two NV’s in the wild plus one Nissan dealer parts runner. I’d say more competition for the sprinter will be great.

  • avatar

    I’d agree that the Sprinter could use some competition, but the positive comments here about Sprinters are from those who’ve driven one! For us in Colorado, our turbodiesel Sprinter RV gets about 20mpg, not slower than 60mph even over steep mountain passes, and 6’4″ interior height inside, plenty of room for an RV conversion. New Sprinter RVs are expensive, but used Sprinter vans can be converted to Sprinter campervans (for example, http://www.sprinter-rv.com/diy-gallery/). Anyway, let’s hope for the Fiat Ducato, Peugeot Boxer, and Ford Transit vans to arrive in North America, and may the best van win!


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