“To conventional vans what a smartphone is to a plain old mobile phone.” Maybe Volker Mornhinweg had the legendary Nokia 3310 in mind as he summed up the latest Mercedes-Benz Sprinter range of light commercial vehicles at its global launch this month in Duisburg, Germany.

The head of the Daimler group’s Mercedes-Benz Vans subsidiary is naturally determined that his company will not go the same way as the Finnish phone-maker, from hero to zero in short order, as a result of failing to recognise and respond swiftly enough to radical shifts in customer demands and fresh competition from unexpected directions.

The Sprinter has been a huge success story for Daimler since its launch in 1995, followed by a second-generation comprehensive facelift in 2006. More than 3.4 million have been sold to date, and annual sales worldwide hit a record high of 200,000 last year.

In the UK, the latest sparse registration statistics published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that in the booming market sector for vans up to 3.5 tonnes GVW the Sprinter is outsold only by Ford’s all-conquering Transit.

But nearly all the Sprinters sold here and everywhere else over the past 25 years have been diesel-powered. And the writing on the wall for all diesel-engined cars and vans now seems to carry much the same doom-laden message as the Apple iPhone once had for the likes of the Nokia 3310.

Volker Mornhinweg - Mercedes-Benz Vans
Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans

Diesel engines carried over from previous Sprinter

Yet the one thing in the latest Sprinter range that is largely unchanged is its diesel engine line-up: a four-cylinder, 2.1-litre with power ratings from 114hp to 177hp, and a six-cylinder, 3.0-litre rated at 190hp. A nine-speed fully automatic gearbox has been added to the options list, promising much-improved fuel economy and thus lower CO2 emissions. But diesel engines still rule the Sprinter roost.

Does this mean that Mornhinweg and his colleagues do not go along with the many who are convinced that the days of internal combustion engines, especially the diesel variety, are severely numbered and that full electrification is the future? Not quite, it seems.

We asked Mornhinweg directly what percentage of all Mercedes vans he expects to be diesel-powered in five and ten years’ time. His answer is intriguing.

“If I had such a crystal ball perhaps I’d be in a different business,” he says. But surely Mercedes-Benz Vans and the whole Daimler group has to plan in considerable detail for future powertrain development and production?

Accepting this, Mornhinweg reveals how flexibility has become a key element in his company’s entire global production system for the new Sprinter, to allow for what is still seen as unpredictable growth in demand for electric drivelines and many other unknowns. “We are committed to EVs (electric vehicles) for certain sectors, such as last-mile deliveries and service industries, any sector where the customer can have a clear plan for how many miles will be driven tomorrow,” he says.

“Then we can put an EV package together that is not too expensive. Increasing battery capacity is always extremely costly. It’s all about mileage, and payload. Batteries are very heavy.”

Mercedes-Benz eSprinter
Mercedes-Benz eSprinter will go on sale in 2019

Planning for future electric demand

But Mornhinweg is at pains to emphasise that this should not be interpreted as any Luddite, anti-electric-van stance by Daimler.

He points to plans announced last year for the entire Mercedes-Benz Vans model range, from the small Citan (spawned by a co-operation with the Renault/Nissan alliance) through the Vito and up to the Sprinter (with GVWs up to 5.5 tonnes) to include electric vehicle options soon. An all-electric eSprinter model will be added to the new range next year, he says.

Returning to our question about future diesel engine percentages, Mornhinweg reveals that there has been disagreement among senior Daimler production managers about electric vehicle production. Some thought it best to concentrate EV production in one site. Others argued for investing more in all manufacturing sites to give them the flexibility to cope with any driveline. This latter point of view finally prevailed.

So now all Sprinter assembly sites, at Düsseldorf and Ludwigsfelde in Germany; Charleston, South Carolina in the US; and Buenos Aires, Argentina are capable of building electric vehicles on the same production lines as those with diesel engines.

“If customer demand for EVs grows tremendously, to say 25 or 30%, then we’ll deliver,” says Mornhinweg. “If demand remains low, at say 5%, so be it. We now have the capability to produce EVs at all our core facilities. We are flexible.”

Sprinter production line in Düsseldorf
Sprinter production line in Düsseldorf

More drivetrain flexibility

Another reason why increased manufacturing flexibility has become essential with the third-generation Sprinter, going on sale in Europe this June, is the introduction of the option of front-wheel-drive.

All Sprinters hitherto have been rear-wheel-drive (though four-wheel-drive conversions are available). Now, following in the footsteps of the latest Vito range and rivals such as the Ford Transit and the latest Volkswagen Crafter/MAN TGE, the Sprinter is also moving to offer a front-wheel-drive option.

The key attractions of this for van users are expected to be lower kerb weight (saving about 50kg), a lower floor height, and lower initial cost. As with electric drivetrains, Mornhinweg is content to let the market decide what the production split should be between front- and rear-wheel-drive.

“There are advantages from both,” he says. “We can deal with all mixtures. Some people say our production processes are too complicated. I say it’s a must. We have to deal with what the customer wants.”

One type of customer certain to be paying particular attention to the front-wheel-drive Sprinter can be found in the motorhome sector. As much as 90% of this sector is based on FWD chassis, points out Mornhinweg, so the Sprinter has been losing out to many rivals. Now it has the opportunity to win fresh business from motorhome/RV (recreational vehicle) converters in Europe and the US.

FWD Sprinter
The new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter will also be available in front-wheel drive (FWD)

Software driving vehicle usage

But it is in the software employed by the new Sprinter, and the services associated with it more than any hardware that Mornhinweg believes this new Mercedes will really shake up the mainstream European van market.

“Our customers are facing a new very different playing field,” he says. “Urban density is increasing, supply chains are becoming more complex, delivery times shorter and sustainability even more important.

“We want to provide our customers with comprehensive support as they navigate this environment, by providing reliable solutions that reach beyond the vehicle itself. We are using our position of strength for fundamental change: from purely a vehicle manufacturer to a provider of holistic transport and mobility solutions.”

The MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) multi-media system, complete with ten-inch touchscreen display (as used in the latest Mercedes-Benz cars) becomes available in vans for the first time in the new Sprinter. Telematics systems like Mercedes PRO are promised to set “completely new standards.”

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter interior
New Sprinter cabin is a big leap forward from the previous model

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