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.
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