By on July 11, 2006

Ford-Transit-Supervan32.jpgNoticed 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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27 Comments on “Ford’s Transition...”

  • avatar

    It’s not here Stateside yet, but will arrive next year with a turbodiesel V6 (I think):
    New Sprinter Web Site

    Sure, let’s keep a running list of Fords sold overseas that should be sold in the US, it’s going to be a long one.

  • avatar

    Same story with the Panther platform and the Ranger small pick-up – current management thinks they are so superior to what came previously that they suffer from the NIOMW (Not Invented on My Watch) syndrome. They think splashing politically correct advertising will work, since their customers are ignorant dupes.

    That’s fine – just like UPS, all us Panther platform fans will be abandoning them as well, soon to be followed by the millions who own Rangers.

  • avatar

    Definatly agree, it is so F&@#)(* stupid that Ford doesn’t bring the Transit van here, they were all over Helsinki when I visited.

    One of the big deals is having a high roof. The Sprinter is the ONLY van with a high roof on the US market. And if I was buying a big work-van, it would have to be a high-roof: something about being able to actually work inside the van without banging one’s head…

    One thing that you sometimes see here: The Dodge is a badge engineered Mercedes Sprinter. So Mercedes dealers which own a sprinter in the US (because, guess what, they need work trucks too) will swap out the Dodge grill for a Mercedes grill.

    Two more fords they should bring over: The European Focus (it costs too much my A#@(, the Mazda3 (EuroFocus) MSRPs for $1k less than the US focus). And, since Small is the new Big, why not bring over the Ka?

  • avatar

    The Sprinter is way cool. When it arrived on press fleets here, I wanted to drive it more than the new Charger.

  • avatar

    Maybe we need to see a Death Watch for Ford start.

  • avatar
    Fred D.

    I suggest this is due to UAW clout. There are dozens of Euro-market vehicles that would sell like hotcakes here if the Big 2.5 had the balls and/or ability to import.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Also remember that Sabine Schmitz blasted a Transit around the Nurburgring in a breath over ten seconds, nearly matching Jeremy Clarkson in a diesel Jag S-Type.

    I spent a little time in a Sprinter recently. Sliced my jeans open climbing into the front seat on a jagged piece of metal…

  • avatar

    DAAAMN, and I thought the current sprinter was cool. The 07 sprinter? Wow. Thats a serious work truck, with serious flexibility:

    EG, in panel: Short (low/high), Regular (low/high/x-high), long (high/x-high), x-long (high/x-high).

    You could probably make a really REALLY cool camper arrangement to slide into the panel van configuration…

    During the week, you have it as a panel-van worktruck. On the weekend, you slide out your work configuration and slide in your camper configuration…

  • avatar

    One word that is another nail in the coffin for the Econoline: Diesel.

    The Sprinter comes standard with a reasonably economical Diesel. The oxymoronical Econoline’s standard is a gas-guzzling V8, with the expensive option being the torquey, but not exactly miserly PowerChoke, er stroke, V-8 oil burner.

    The Mercedes I-5 Diesel is legendary for long life and reliability. If I were making a fleet purchase the choice is easy. Operating the Sprinter in volume would likely have a significantly lower total cost of ownership than the Econoline. Lower fuel costs, lower maintenance costs. No brainer.

  • avatar

    Jonny Lieberman writes:

    Also remember that Sabine Schmitz blasted a Transit around the Nurburgring in a breath over ten seconds…

    Ten seconds? For the Nordschliefe? FoMoCo definitely needs to bring a Transit over here! Transit my ass. That’s more like Rockit! Imagine what that thing could do at Indy! (There has got to be some omission here. Couldn’t resist having fun with that…)

    More seriously, I work for a small/mid-sized printer in the Upper Midwest of the US. We have a delivery truck that we use for our larger deliveries, most often a Chevy van with V8/auto. We switched to a Sprinter about two years ago, which was absolute serendipity. This happened right before all of the gas prices went through the roof

    Our previous Chevy van got 8-10 MPG in town. The Sprinter gets twice that, even with the hit we take buying diesel we’re still saving money. With the high roof, our driver(s) can actually stand up when they’re helping to load/unload cargo, which has helped on our health care costs. In a year, when our lease is up, we will probably end up with another Sprinter.

    Can’t complain, it’s been good all around for us.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Ahem, 10 Minutes

  • avatar

    It’s a work truck. So why do I want that ’07 Sprinter? I have no idea. But a compact Sprinter crewbus looks far more appealing than most family haulers, not that I need such a thing.

    Did y’all watch the movie on the “highlights” page?

  • avatar

    Ford Mondeo vs. Camry/Accord any1?

  • avatar

    Chandler: I think the seats are removable. So family hauler/camper of rule.

    There is a reason why, in 3+ years of heavy discounting, the Sprinter has NEVER shown up on the deal-list.

  • avatar

    I’d love to see Ford bring in the Transit. A few years back, I participated in a focus group session (comprised of both small and large fleet decision-makers) comparing Ford’s commercial truck product line to the competition. We were given an up close look at the Sprinter and Transit side-by-side. Sadly, some time later I heard through the grapevine that Ford management felt this product would simply cannabalize E-Series sales and that a business case could not be made for offering both products. The E-Series is a cash cow for Ford and not likely to go anywhere soon.

    The “conventional” van market is still very large, vibrant and quite competitive. The “hi-roof” market, though growing, remains relatively small. Dodge wisely bought visibility and market presence in the large accounts mentioned above with huge fleet incentives. The Sprinter fills an underserved niche, but current market share numbers and trends show the Sprinter nibbling market share. Only time will tell how large this market ultimately proves to be, but should Dodge develop this market into something on the order of 20%, Ford would likely re-evaluate the economic implications of importing the Transit.

    And before everyone here gets too giddy about the MB diesel (or any diesel, for that matter), remember 2007 federal EPA diesel emissions requirements are going to add to the already stiff premium for the Sprinter. You’re going to have to drive a LOT of miles to recover the inital investment in fuel savings. Servicing the catalytic particulate traps and exhaust gas recirculators will muddle that cost/benefit equation even further.

    The current Sprinter has a TGW number more than 50% higher than either Ford or GM. The 5-cylinder is doggy and very expensive to service. These issues are only now starting to show up in customer satisfaction surveys. Clearly, Ford has many problems to confront in the near-term, but fighting Sprinter is not one of them.

  • avatar
    John B

    The Sprinter also makes a superb camper when configured so. I talked to one RV dealer who got about 24 mpg (imp. gallons) at highway speeds. The high roof is a big advantage since people can enter/exit without ducking their head.

  • avatar
    John B

    Here is one version of the above noted RV conversion.

  • avatar

    Being a European, I wonder why DCX doesn’t provide the americans with the latest version of the Mercedes Sprinter:

    There’s also a small delivery-van based on the old A-Class platform, soon to be replaced by an upgraded version.

  • avatar

    Ingvar that new Sprinter is very nice.

    The current US Sprinter is also a very nice van. But you can pick up a E-150 Econoline for around $23k MSRP and get firesale prices. A Sprinter short wheelbase “low roof” version will run you almost $10,000 more. Around $33k with no options. Then it has an option list a mile long. The price really shows its Mercedes roots. Mabye it is the strong Euro that makes them so expensive with the Dodge being built in Germany. I wonder what a Transit would sell for here in the States. It would be a good idea to replace the Econoline with it and perhaps move the manufacturing to North America to get the prices down. But for now the Econoline is hard to beat for many businesses.

    My Brother-In-Lawrcurrently has an E-250 and is half owner of a Stair/Railing Company. He really likes the Sprinter but cannot see paying the price difference for the Dodge.

    I’ll tell you what my favorite van out there is now. The Duramax GM G-Vans. Very nice with the Duramax torque and ability to mod/add power easily. They are also equipped with the ‘Stabilitrak’ stability control system which is a nice feature and can save lives.

  • avatar
    Jonathan Tomer

    It would be a good idea to replace the Econoline with it and perhaps move the manufacturing to North America to get the prices down.
    I suspect that would get the prices up, not down (at least while Ford still has a UAW contract).

  • avatar

    GM is just as guilty as Ford in this respect. They DO have a similar van – the Vivaro/Movano:

  • avatar

    Mr Farago, you have insects in your server.

  • avatar

    GM:s two european vans are not of their own invention entirely, but a joint-venture between GM and Renault-Nissan.

    Being a european, I strongly suspect that Renault developed the two ranges on their own, and the other companys are piggy-backing on it. GM Europe hasn’t had a van in that market segement since the 70s, but Renault has had a strong success with its two lines of Trafic/Master since the early 80s, with continuous development. It its also sold as a Nissan through Nissan Europes dealerships, and as Vauxhall in England.

  • avatar

    I can’t see buying an Econoline- thirsty engines and the finest in 1970’s truck technology. But they will definitely come in as low-bid option over Sprinters, and a lot of those vans are bought for fleets.

    DCX was going to build a new Sprinter plant down here in Savannah, 3-4 years ago, but they changed their minds at the last minute, deciding they had enough worldwide capacity to sell to the US market without adding a new factory. I am sure dealing with the UAW had nothing to do with their decision….. not.

  • avatar

    Jonathan Tomer: I should of been clearer. With Ford investing so heavily south of the US border I would expect production would be in Mexico. That would help the lower the price a good amount.

  • avatar

    10:08 seconds streamlined with duct-tape, stripped of bits, and following a viper.

    10:28 bone stock.

  • avatar

    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.

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