Ford's Transition

Bob Elton
by Bob Elton

Noticed any Sprinters lately? Not the kind that burn-up your local running track; the boxy, diesel powered Sprinter vans sold by Dodge and Freightliner. If you’re a typical enthusiast, these vehicles are less likely to appear on your automotive radar than a Toyota Camry. But the Sprinter should have been on Ford’s radar. The commercial vehicle represents a rapidly growing market segment that DaimlerChrysler is busy claiming for itself. That’s a couple of hundred thousand trucks a year, with good margins. Gone.

Mercedes launched the Sprinter in 1995. The model arrived in a myriad of guises: crewbus, panel van or pickup; standard or high roof; with a choice of three different wheelbases and engine choices; and three window and seat configurations. Freightliner first assembled the Euro-friendly Sprinter in the US for FedEx. Chrysler now builds them and sells the machine through its Dodge dealers. The Sprinter’s also found a following amongst civic groups and people who want a box on wheels to schlep seven kids, two dogs and four potted plants.

Another design coup by DCX? Hardly. Ford has been building a similar vehicle for some time. The Transit is Ford’s Euro-spec commercial van, and it’s a huge success. European commercial fleet magazines have given the Transit rave reviews. People who’ve driven both rate the Transit superior to the Sprinter in many respects: user flexibility, seat configurations, number and position of doors and windows; the availability of various lengths and heights. The Transit is available in both front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive, and offers an even wider array of diesel and gasoline engines than the Sprinter. And the Transit’s flat bed and dump box options trump the Sprinter’s iteration count.

In short, the Transit is a worthy and logical competitor to DCX’ workhorse: a vehicle with all the versatility, economy, safety (ABS standard from the git go) and reliability America’s tradesmen need to help keep the country’s economy strong. No wonder, then, that the United Parcel Service (UPS) started enquiring about a US version of the Transit for their enormous fleet. Ford had a close and profitable relationship with UPS; the Blue Oval Boys supply the underpinnings for most of the parcel service’s brown, meat-loaf shaped trucks. And yet Ford, awash in SUV profits, hung up the phone. That was six years ago.

A year later, DCX’ announced that they were bringing the Sprinter into the US. Again, Ford chose to ignore the threat to their domestic market share and cold shoulder their easily-accessible potential response. This despite the urgings of many mid-level managers in FoMoCo’s commercial truck division. Again, the guys in brown repeated their request for a Transit. Again, nothing doing. Ford was concerned that a successful Transit might steal the sales from the Ford Econoline: the vehicle that dominated the US commercial van market for decades.

This myopia has, once again, proved to be another lost opportunity for Ford. Not only did DaimlerChrysler sell Sprinters to FedEx and other commercial users, but even American tradesmen are deserting Ford’s Econoline for DCX’ Sprinter. The square Sprinter is now seen all over suburbia, serving the men who service the furnaces, appliances, garage door openers and all the other appurtenances of suburban life. A few early-adopters even bought them for personal use. DaimlerChrysler, having monopolized the minivan market for decades, now stands to own the boxy van market as well.

And now, even the men in brown have deserted Ford and equipped their delivery drivers with Sprinters. Perhaps they simply tired of asking Ford for a Transit of their own. The Ann Arbor area has at least four UPS Sprinters; UPS is putting them on the road all across America. GM’s refusal to enter the fray makes some sense; they don’t have a competitive product and they’ve got a lot more pressing issues to worry about (meeting the payroll, staying one step ahead of the bill collectors, etc.). FIAT, Renault and Peugeot have similar products, but none of them have a US distribution network or name recognition.

But Ford has everything: a terrific product at a great price (most Transits are constructed in a hi-tech, low-wage Turkish factory), a strong reputation in trucks, and a stellar dealer and service network. And just in case you’re thinking that the Transit isn’t sufficiently “American” for the job, clock this: as part of Alex Trotman’s Ford 2000 program, the Transit was designed and engineered in Dearborn.

Ford’s product development team has shown themselves increasingly incapable of making more than a handful of products that appeal to large numbers of buyers. Now Ford marketing has shown themselves incapable of supplying an existing product to customers who are literally asking for it. I’m sure there are plenty of “good reasons” for their reticence. I’m equally sure they're turning a slam dunk to a game losing around-the-rim-and-out.

Bob Elton
Bob Elton

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  • Nicholas Weaver Nicholas Weaver on Jul 13, 2006 10:08 seconds streamlined with duct-tape, stripped of bits, and following a viper. 10:28 bone stock.

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Aug 08, 2006

    I think the main reason that the import vans are so darn expensive may be the Chicken Tariff. It was started to combat the aircooled VW trucks way-back-when. Made the vans expensive as well and I'm sure it affects the prices of any European vans such as the Ducato, Sprinter, Transit, etc that might come to this country. I currently own a '78 VW Westfalia (with a 110HP Corvair engine and transmission), have a '93 VW Eurovan 5-cylinder GLS gas, and dream about a Eurovan Weekender or Mercedes Vito Marco Polo or a Sprinter camper for weekend use only (due to the price of gas- my daily car is a 34mpg '97 VW Cabrio). All those vans offer better fuel economy than the US domestic vans and because they are generally built for narrow European streets make the MOST of their exterior dimensions for max interior capacity. My Eurovan uses the same amount of parking space as other minivans in our extended family but offers much more passenger and luggage space. If I am going to drive something large like a minivan and take the mpg hit for operating such a large vehicle, I'm going with the Eurovan (or Sprinter or something like them) and get max interior space. The 5-cylinder does great and yes it is a bit slow on mountain pass climbs. Big deal - that represents .1% of my time in the vehicle. At least I'm not getting 12 mpg 100% of the time like some of the fullsized domestic vans. Mine gets about 20mpg. I'd like to have the turbo diesel and the 5 speed manual tranny and get 30 mpg+ like they do in Europe. I'm not sold on the durability of automatics yet and with a 5 speed I don't face $1500+ repair bills if it breaks. Might need a clutch along the way but I can do that myself. We'll be moving towards two city cars with max mpg for daily use and something like a turbo diesel Passat or a Weekender for weekend use and garage kept. In my opinion Detroit continues to try to give us what they want us to buy. They lost me in the 1991 when I sold my Mustang and moved to Italy (Navy). Drove VWs, Mercedes, Hondas, BMWs, Fiats, Lancia, etc. etc. Never owned a domestic vehicle since. Hondas and VWs ever since. The Saturn/Opels have a bit of appeal for me. Saab. Ford Focus has a bit of appeal but as I have no interest in owning an SUV or V-8 muscle car so Detroit sells little that I'd own. Many nice cars coming from Detroit though. Want to see Detroit succeed but refuse to give my hard money to either the current management or UAW.

  • Slavuta Why America needs school buses altogether? When I was in school, I rode on a regular city bus
  • Jeff Buy whatever works for you if you own an EV and are happy with it good, if you buy a hybrid or plug in hybrid and it works for you good, if neither and you like your ICE the way it is that is also good. I believe over time EVs will get better and have a larger segment of the market.
  • Tassos Jong-iL Is New Jersey better than Old Jersey?
  • Tassos Jong-iL Looking forward to buying 2 of these with all of those Rubles we have been earning lately.
  • Dartdude I have a 17 Ram 1500, love the dial and took to it right a way. don't have a lever blocking the dash panel or taking up space on the console.