The Sprinter, a commercial van that’s revolutionized last-mile deliveries with a boxy design that can be customized to meet most any user’s needs, is celebrating its past even as it looks to forge a new generation of environmentally friendly vehicles bearing the Mercedes-Benz star.
Perhaps the world’s most recognizable work vehicle, the Sprinter is now in its third generation and is marking its silver anniversary this year.
The 25-year-old vehicle that’s built at the Mercedes-Benz Vans plant in North Charleston and a handful of factories overseas has become a frequent site during the COVID-19 crisis as more Americans order goods from online retail king Amazon, the vanmaker’s biggest customer. So it’s fitting the Sprinter was born in 1995 — a watershed year for the internet with Microsoft’s easy-to-use operating system helping to create a new online marketplace in need of durable vehicles to bring packages to front doors.
Named the “International Van of the Year” upon its debut, the Sprinter has racked up sales of about 4 million units in 130 countries and in thousands of configurations.
“The story of our success since 1995, from our point of view, is the variance we can offer — we can meet every request from our customers,” said Arnhelm Mittelbach, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Vans and head of the division’s North Charleston plant.
Increasingly, customers are asking for an electrified version of the Sprinter. Amazon, for example, has ordered 1,800 e-Sprinters for its European operations and a spokeswoman for the online retailer said climate-friendly vehicles will ultimately make their way into U.S. fleets.
“With the laws California and other states have adopted, I think you’ll see companies just continue to be aggressive about accelerating the transition to EVs and moving away from gas vehicles,” said Alexandra Miller with Amazon’s global sustainability operations. She said electrified vehicles is “an area we’re really doubling down.”
So far, the e-Sprinter is only made in Germany, but Mittelbach said parent company Daimler AG is studying whether production of the vehicle should take place in North Charleston as well. Mercedes-Benz has pledged to have zero carbon emissions from its businesses by 2040
“The strategy of electrification is something that is in discussion,” he said, adding plug-in power is a companywide focus and Daimler is monitoring the U.S. market demand.
Enter the Sprinter
While the Sprinter was an instant success in Germany — replacing the outdated T1 van with all-new safety and performance features — it took a while for it to catch on in the United States. And its arrival in North Charleston took an unusual route.
Daimler got a foothold in the Lowcountry in 2000 when its Freightliner truck division bought the failing Western Star Trucks big-rig maker that had bet big on an assembly plant that was supposed to build 20,000 vehicles a year. Less than a year after the purchase, the Palmetto Commerce Park plant went dark due to an industry downturn. In 2002, Freightliner relocated a North Carolina fire engine maker it owned to the North Charleston site, but in just a few years that business had also soured.
The German automaker held on to the shuttered plant with hopes of one day bringing it back to life, and in 2006 started reassembling partially built Sprinters brought to the Port of Charleston from the van division’s Dusseldorf headquarters for sale to U.S. customers. The production method was designed to skirt a 25 percent tariff that’s been on foreign-made shipments of commercial trucks and vans since 1963. Dubbed the “chicken tax,” the tariff was America’s retaliation for similar import penalties Europe had placed on U.S. poultry shipments.
Volker Mornhinweg, then-head of Mercedes-Benz Vans in Germany, called the tariff avoidance “a huge burden” and “a logistical nightmare,” but couldn’t make the case for turning the North Charleston plant into a full-fledged manufacturing facility until after 2014, when annual U.S. Sprinter sales cracked the 25,000 mark for the first time.
Daimler in 2015 announced it would spend $500 million on a body shop, paint shop, expanded production floor and other facilities in North Charleston to build Sprinters from the ground up. The announcement was the first of two significant automotive deals for the Lowcountry, with Volvo Cars saying a few months later it would open its first U.S. manufacturing site in Berkeley County. Since then, the two global companies have played a key role in South Carolina’s BMW-anchored automotive industry, which generates $27 billion a year and employs 72,000 workers.
After a couple years of construction, the first Sprinter made in the U.S. rolled off the assembly line in September 2018 — and that’s where Amazon entered the picture in a big way.
The online retail behemoth had originally ordered 5,000 Sprinters for use in the company’s last-mile delivery program. During an event to mark the factory’s opening, an Amazon executive said the company had decided to quadruple its order — to 20,000 Sprinters.
“To be honest, I suddenly got some goosebumps,” Mornhinweg said of Amazon’s announcement.
Defining a vehicle class
Daimler said the Sprinter has evolved into a reference model for an entire vehicle classification. Just as tissues are commonly referred to as Kleenex and bandages are called Band-Aids, light-duty commercial vans are often referred to as Sprinters, even though the van’s popularity has spurred several imitators over the years.
Its close alignment with online retail promises to keep the Sprinter at the forefront of a crowded pack that also includes the Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster.
Mittelbach said COVID-19 forced the North Charleston plant to temporarily close earlier this year, but the factory quickly ramped up production because of the high demand for its vehicles. Mercedes-Benz Vans set a record for the third quarter by selling 12,360 Sprinters in the U.S. — a 27.6 percent increase over the same period a year ago.
Much of the gains came from e-commerce firms, which saw a 37.1 percent increase in online sales during the third quarter compared to a year ago to $199.4 billion.
“Over the next years we are really optimistic that we need the capacity of not just this plant but also our partner plants” around the world, Mittelbach said
The popularity has prompted Charleston-based Baker Motors to open the nation’s first stand-alone Sprinter dealership at the Nexton development in Summerville. The $25 million, 28,600-square-foot dealership, to open in December, will let buyers customize their individual van or up-fit an entire fleet.
Among the most recent trends with buyers is having their Sprinters customized into recreational vehicles for camping. Mittelbach said the coronavirus has changed the way people want to travel, and the van gives them a self-contained way to see new places.
Looking forward, Mittelbach said the van maker “is focused on developing new delivery solutions.” That includes the further development of a program that would connect Sprinter vans to drones that could rendezvous with retail hubs to pick up goods and then deliver the items to customers’ doors.
“It sounds sometimes a little bit weird, but a lot of things are developing,” Mittelbach said.
The North Charleston plant, which now employs about 1,700 workers, still supplements its production with partially assembled vans imported from Germany, but Mittelbach said that practice will be eliminated for the Sprinter by the end of next year. The Lowcountry facility will still reassemble the smaller Metris vans its ships to the U.S. in kits from overseas.