With the South Carolina governor and other state officials on hand, DaimlerChrysler officially launched production of its second-generation Sprinter van yesterday at its Ladson, SC, plant. The plant is expected to assemble 22,000 large vans this year from knocked-down kits and has the capacity to process up to 34,000 units a year, according to Wilfried Porth, the DaimlerChrysler executive vp responsible for its worldwide van operations.

Introduced earlier this year, the 2007 Sprinter is being sold as both a Dodge and Freightliner vehicle in cargo van, cab chassis and passenger configurations. Currently some 400 Dodge dealers have been lined up to sell and service the large van, while approximately 50 Freightliner dealers will offer the van as part of their commercial vehicle lineup. DaimlerChrysler also sells the Sprinter directly to large package delivery and leasing fleets.

The Sprinter is built at a DC plant in Germany. Cargo versions are then disassembled at the plant and shipped as kits to the U.S. facility, where workers reassemble the vans, install engines, transmissions, axles and other powertrain components in their original bodies. The reassembly process avoids a 25% U.S. duty on imported commercial cargo vans.

Sprinter passenger versions, which only face a 2.5% import duty, are shipped as complete vehicles and prepped for delivery at the Ladson plant.

Currently the Sprinter accounts for 4.9% of all Class 2 and 3 vans sold in the U.S., according to Porth. DaimlerChrysler also sells a smaller cargo/passenger van in Europe, but the current generation of that vehicle “is not designed for American [safety and market] requirements,” Porth said. “But we will definitely ask [about the viability of a U.S. version] when we design the next generation.”

Declining to speculate on reports that the company is attempting to sell off the Chrysler operations, Porth said that “whatever the outcome, we see no need for change” in the Sprinter business. As currently structured, the Ladson plant is operated by a separate DaimlerChrysler company, producing and providing vehicles for Dodge and Freightliner dealers, he pointed out.