DaimlerChrysler (DC) has announced it will assemble its “next generation” Dodge Sprinter commercial van — which will replace the current model in North America by early 2007 — at a Freightliner LLC plant in Ladson, SC, just north of Charleston.

There will be ample room for assembling the Sprinter because DC is divesting itself of fire engine maker American La France (a business unit of its subsidiary Freightliner LLC), which has its headquarters and main assembly operations at the Ladson facility.

The company announced in mid-December that the sale of American LaFrance to Patriarch Partners does not include the Ladson plant, although under terms of the sale the fire-truck manufacturer will continue utilizing at least part of the facility until 2007.

This move will shift final U.S. production of the Sprinter from a Gaffney, SC, facility that also houses the assembly line for Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. According to Andreas Renschler, head of the DC Commercial Vehicles Div., strong demand for the current Sprinter has “put pressure on the capacity” of the Gaffney plant.

According to DC, it will invest $35 million to convert the 460,000-sq.-ft. Ladson plant “to van production for North American markets.” Initially, 220 employees will be involved in production when the first '07 van is produced there at the end of next year's 4th quarter.

“We have ambitious, long-term plans for the van market in North America,” stated Dr. Rolf Bartke, head of DC's Mercedes-Benz Vans business unit. “The Ladson location will provide an immediate increase in annual output to 32,000 units, roughly 10,000 more than is possible today in Gaffney.” He called the move to Ladson “a first step to react to market demand” for the Sprinter.

According to the OEM, the '07 Sprinter will boast “new standards of refinement, space and performance previously not offered n the light-duty van market.” DC said the new van will offer more body variants and engine choices than the current edition and will feature an electronic stability program (ESP) that will measure the weight of the vehicle's load, calculate the center of gravity and “adapt its responses correspondingly.”

Freightliner LLC's Fisher noted that the European version of the new Sprinter, which will go on sale first (next summer), will include a new V6 diesel and engine ratings of up to 258 hp.