The (Freightliner) Sprinter, and how Daimler (and other companies) Manage to Dodge the Chicken Tax

2008 Freightliner Sprinter Left Side Angled
My week with a Sprinter with the "Crew Van" Option Package. I thought it was kind of artsy to tilt the camera 🙂

It seems that more Plumbers, Electricians, Handymen, Heating and Air Conditioning Technicians, and General Contractors are showing up on the job with an unusual vehicle, the Sprinter. And after spending a week with one, (Read my review over at Automobile Traveler) performing the jobs that these guys do, it no wonder that you are seeing them everywhere. However, Daimler takes a long and torturous route to bring them to these shores (along with Ford’s Transit Connect, and the soon to be introduced Mahindra Diesel Pickup) because of a piece of 60’s legislation. Join me on a voyage of discovery about imported commercial vehicles, with an emphasis on the Sprinter.

2002 Freightliner Sprinter
The 2002 Freightliner Sprinter. Image is from the Original Brochure.

The Sprinter is built in Dusseldorf, Germany by Mercedes-Benz, and is one of the most popular vans on the continent. Daimler also produces the van for Volkswagen which is called the Crafter. However, Daimler had to set up a system to avoid the 25% import duty levied on finished commercial vehicles (Ostensively called the Chicken Tax). The Sprinter started showing up on these shores wearing Daimler’s North American Truck Brand, Freightliner, However, they had to be shipped to Belgium to be dismantled (ripping out the engine, drive train, and rear axle) and placing these components and the body in separate cargo containers, only to be re-married once they hit North America. As a side note, the new Ford Transit Connect follows a similar path, as will the Mahindra pickup when it becomes available later this year.

2002 Freightliner Sprinter Wagon
2003 Sprinter Passenger Van. Early versions didn't come with Deep Tinted Glass, nor did they come with Rear Air Conditioning!
2007 Version of the 144" Wheelbase. Low Roof version of the Sprinter Van. Image from a 2007 Freightliner Sprinter Brochure.

One of the first customers for this “do-it-all” van is Federal Express in 2002, and it was a revelation. Compared to the GM and Ford vans, the Sprinter was modern, and fuel efficient. The 2.7 Litre, Diesel, 5 Cylinder inline engine that produced 156 HP, and 244 Lb Ft of torque, with an Electronically Controlled Mercedes-Benz 5 Speed Automatic. The engine and transmission worked flawlessly together, helping the van keep up with traffic, while returning over 22 MPG. Along with this increased efficiency, the Sprinter van offered something that GM and Ford couldn’t offer, stand up room. There were two roof heights, with the option of more than 6’ of interior head room. This was crucial for package delivery companies that needed room for parcels, without a lot of weight.

At about this same time, Daimler’s newly acquired car company, Chrysler, finally put the stake in the heart of the long lived Dodge “B” van, a vehicle that only saw incremental changes since its introduction in 1971. This van received at least a dozen face lifts throughout its life, with the last update that saw a complete redesign of the dash board, and the installation of dual front airbags, along with enhancements to the front end for crashworthiness. However, Chrysler became increasingly aware that the van was non competitive with the more modern, yet still dated, GM and Ford vans. When Chrysler went public with the news that they were about to euthanize the “B” van, the dealers collectively went ballistic. To placate the dealer body, they simply put a new grill on the Sprinter, and in a matter of no time, the “B” van was replaced.

2008 Freightliner Sprinter Rear Emblem Shot
Another Artsy Shot. That's a Freightliner Century Class Tractor in the background.

The Sprinter underwent a complete re-design for the 2007 model year, when almost everything changed for the better. Instead of a five cylinder diesel, a new 3.0L V-6 diesel went under the hood, which actually took up less room than the five cylinder motor. While not producing any more horsepower than the original power plant (154 HP @ 3,400 RPM), there is a substantial uptick in the torque rating (280 lb ft, available anywhere in between 1,200 to 2,400 RPM). The engine is almost as quiet as one that is fueled by gasoline, with smooth power, matched precisely to a five speed automatic with a manumatic feature. The van also grew in size during the redesign as well, offering increased height, increased wheelbase length, and increased overall length, though surprisingly, width stayed about the same.

A 2009 Sprinter 170" Wheelbase Extended Model. This one shows the $2,200 Extra High Roof addition, giving almost seven feet of interior height!

The interior height is what sets this van apart from the competition. The standard roof model, available only in the 144” wheelbase version, offers over five feet of interior height. The tested van features an interior height of over 6 feet, while the super high version offers a staggering seven feet of headroom, and is only available as the 170” wheelbase extended version, which offers an astounding 14.5 feet of cargo room from the optional bulkhead to the back doors. Standard equipment in these vans include Power Windows, Keyless Entry, Traction Control, Tilt and telescoping steering wheel, AM FM Stereo with CD, automatic temperature controlled air conditioning, driver and front passenger airbags, as well as a state of the art Adaptive Electronic Stability Program. This particular system includes the ABS system, acceleration skid control, load adaptive control, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, roll over mitigation, and understeer control.

This is the 3500, 170" Wheelbase, Extended model. The Sprinter is the only van to offer Dual Rear Wheels.
2008 Freightliner Sprinter Low Left Front End with Trucks
My test vehicle, posing in front of a row of Freightliner Trucks.

There are a few options that add to the safety and comfort of the van, including industry exclusives like; Optional thorax and side curtain airbags; Park Sense front and rear parking assist system; Self Adjusting Bi-Xenon high intensity headlamps with a high pressure power washing system; And a rear backup camera in which the display is integrated with the radio. There is virtually a myriad of optional equipment available, that is not offered by the domestic vans, like 3 different sized alternators, auxiliary heating systems, heated seats, quick defrost windshield, automatic rain sensor wipers, rear wipers for cargo doors, various window groupings, 2 person passenger seat with storage, and a choice of 20 different colors.

All this technology doesn’t come cheap. The test van had an MSRP of $41,915 (2008 pricing), which includes the $1,965 High Roof option, the $1,865 Crew Van Option, $980 destination charge, and another $1,900 is miscellaneous options. You could say this van was well equipped. Average fuel mileage that I saw while I had it in my possession was 20 MPG, which included mostly highway travel. The diesel versions of the Ford E-250, and the Chevrolet Express 2500 isn’t that much cheaper, when you remove both the High Roof and Crew Van options, and they come nowhere near the fuel economy the Sprinter delivers. Overall, this van offers unparalleled economy, maneuverability, and cargo capacity. Couple this with one of the most eye catching silhouettes on the market today, and it’s no wonder that high end contractors are choosing the Sprinter as their van of choice. Having a big truck name associated with the van is pretty cool too!

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  1. […] here: The (Freightliner) Sprinter, and how Daimler (and other companies … Share and […]

  2. Dustin Driver Avatar

    I saw a family of four pull into the Whole Foods parking lot in a blue Sprinter just like the one in the pic. Mom, Dad, two kids. Oh, and one big-ass dog who had his own lux bed in the back. Anyway, it was ridiculous. Seemed to be seven feet tall and about 30 feet long. Commercial vehicle? Maybe. Family van? Uh, no.

  3. engineerd Avatar

    I was at Ford when they were developing the Transit and Transit Connect. I kept asking why they weren't going to offer them in the US. The answer was that they weren't needed since everyone liked their Econolines. Plus, they had been designed for South America and Europe and it would be too costly to redo them for the North American regs. At the same time Mercedes came over here with the Sprinter, which seemed to weaken the arguments I was hearing from the Ford guys. Now, Ford is having some pretty good success with the Transit Connect and I wouldn't be surprised at all if the next Econoline is the full size (with both short and tall roofs) Transit vans.

    1. FuzzyPlushroom Avatar

      I sincerely hope we get Transit-based full-size vans here – the load and towing capacity of the Econoline is overkill for most purposes (hell, the Transit's used for utility trucks, wreckers, small cranes and the like in the UK) and it's better on fuel than the large V8s. If we get it with the 3.2 Duratorq and the new Ecoboost six going into the F-150, it should do brilliantly.

    2. Andy Avatar

      I am trying like h*ll to get Ford to bring us the full size Transit. Writing headquarters on a weekly basis! The Sprinter is a bit pricey, but if Ford could ramp up production here (to keep the price in check) by 2012 or so, it would keep me from being forced into a minivan (yuck!). Why wouldn't I want something that looks much better, handles better, holds more, and gets better mpg's with a small diesel than any minivan sold in the US? Oh, and I'd even spring for the sport version like Europe gets. How can I do a better job of convincing Ford??

  4. LTDScott Avatar

    I am still confused about how I have seen several Mercedes-badged early 1st gen Sprinters around here. I know you can buy a Mercedes "conversion" kit (which includes a new hood!), but the ones I have seen were well used commercial vans. I seriously doubt a business would have spent the money to convert them.

    1. udman Avatar

      Scott, these were all Freightliners in 2002 and early 2003 before Dodge Dealers cried like babies. There was a specialty company who supplied the Mercedes Conversion Kits, and you didn't have to remove the hood. You see, the chrome part on top of the Freightliner Grill (as well as the one used for the Dodge Version) covered up the indentation used for the Mercedes Emblem. Take the chrome piece off (Which really is a simple procedure) remove the rest of the grill, and voila, you have an opening that fits the Mercedes Grill perfectly. Add the emblem on the hood (with simple peel and stick tape), remove the center caps on the wheels, and stick the emblem on the steering wheel, and you have a Mercedes Sprinter! Oh yea, and remove the Freightliner Emblem off the back door….

      1. LTDScott Avatar

        I was unaware of the Freightliner badge covering the notch in the hood for the Mercedes logo. But my point is I find it hard to believe that someone would have spent the money to convert an actual work truck to Mercedes badging. I have seen at least 3 of them and all three were well worn.

  5. Jeff Glucker Avatar
    Jeff Glucker

    This was my LeMons chariot of choice for the Buttonwillow 2009 race…It carried tons of gear (including a compressor, a full tool box, and a squadron of easy-ups) and it also served as my hotel for the weekend.
    I daily-drove it the week I had it and I loved every second of it…

  6. […] on Hooniverse, Corvair racer UDMan has untangled the threads that make up the Sprinter’s history, and […]

  7. Tina Avatar

    Mos of the celebrities using it as a make up room & people
    customizing it for family holidays. It has many uses apart from loading
    and unloading of materials.
    cargo vans for sale in ny