Lower prices, more power and a new model are part of the Sprinter’s move to the Mercedes-Benz (MB) brand in North America this year, and the 67 MB dealers who have taken on the light-truck franchise have responded by accounting for two-thirds of the truck’s retail sales in the first quarter of 2010, according to Ernst Lieb, president & CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. The 45 Freightliner dealers who’ve handled the Sprinter alongside the brand’s medium- and heavy-duty truck for up to 10 years, continue to lead in large-fleet sales, he said.

Originally introduced to North America as a Freightliner model in 2001, the European-designed and built Sprinter was also sold under the Dodge brand starting in 2003 as part of parent Daimler AG’s ownership stake in Chrysler. With Daimler’s sale of Chrysler, that distribution agreement lapsed at the end of 2009, and the company announced that it would move marketing and distribution responsibility to its MB-USA automobile business starting in Jan. 2010, offering American truck buyers both MB and Freightliner branded versions.

The goal is to eventually have 115 MB-USA dealers providing commercial vehicle sales and support, giving the light-duty cargo and passenger van 160 dealer outlets between the two brands, Lieb said. In addition to Freightliner’s strength in fleet markets, the truck dealers also extend parts and service support to areas in the U.S. where there are few, if any, Mercedes dealerships, he said.

While some had questioned the decision to add a commercial van to a luxury car business, Lieb said “the Sprinter fits” with MB-USA. “If it has the quality and reliability, a commercial vehicle is good for us and good for our dealers,” he said, adding, “I believe it has the potential to become 8 to 10% of our entire revenue.”

In its first move to expand the Sprinter line, MB-USA announced yesterday that it was adding a shuttle van model to the existing cargo van, passenger van and cab chassis models. The new model will be offered with four seating configurations for airport, commuter, hotel and paratransit shuttle applications seating up to 16 passengers. Conversion of cargo vans into shuttles will be handled by another Daimler subsidiary in Greensboro, NC.

Earlier this year, MB-USA announced that compared to 2009 it was cutting prices for the new MB and Freightliner 2010 Sprinter models by 5.3 to 6.3%. That price cut came despite adding selective catalytic (SCR) reduction technology to meet new U.S. diesel emissions requirements that took effect Jan. 1. -- a move that has added substantially to the cost of almost all other diesel-powered trucks.

The switch to SCR, which all Daimler groups market under the BlueTEC brand name, has also delivered a substantial power boost to the U.S. Sprinter’s V6 diesel engine. Specs for the 2010 models show the cleaner diesel producing 188 HP at 3,800 RPM and a peak torque of 325 lbs.-ft. from 1,400 to 2,400 RPM. For 2009, those numbers were 154HP and 285 lbs.-ft. at the same RPM numbers.