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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After a wildly successful European launch in the mid-’90s, Freightliner has decided to adapt the Sprinter van to the North American market.

“Our entrance into the Class 2 and 3 vehicle market … is a timely response to the burgeoning need … precipitated in large part by the revolution being wrought in this country by e-commerce and on-line retail,” says Jim Hebe, Freightliner LLC president and chief executive officer.

The failure of many e-retailers can be traced back to their inability to service customer needs in a timely and efficient manner. Hebe explains that a constant of business is that fast delivery is part of any economy– whether old or new.

“Sadly (on-line merchants) forgot that,” he says, “or maybe they were too young to even remember.”

Hebe estimates that there will soon be a need for 360,000 vehicles in this Class 2 and 3 range in the major metropolitan centres of Canada and the U.S. He explains prior to the introduction of the Sprinter, North Americans had to choose between a commercial van too big to be efficient in such small operations or a glorified passenger van too small to meet all of the company’s needs.

“Often the application calls for something in between,” says Hebe. “This is definitely not your father’s econoline.”

At the heart of this light-duty vehicle’s car-like performance is one of the most efficient diesel engines ever to grace the commercial market. The Mercedes-Benz five-cylinder, Common-rail Direct Injection engine — as well as the five-speed automatic transmission — have been lifted right out of the Mercedes E-Class.

The engine’s small 2.7-litre displacement and 156 hp generates 244 ft. lb. of torque and is capable of reaching speeds of over 100mph even under a full load. The Sprinter still manages to deliver 18 to 20 on-highway miles per gallon of diesel.

“The Mercedes engine technology allows the Sprinter to perform like a V-8 gasoline engine, yet provides customers with a smooth running van with greater fuel economy,” says Hebe. However, he stresses the vehicle outperforms in terms of cargo capacity, as well.

Available in two roof heights, the 73-inch Sprinter cargo van configuration boasts 473 cubic feet of space able to tackle loads of up to 5,100lb. A smaller 64-inch high cargo van configuration can still handle 4,123lb of payload. Both cargo van models are available starting in June of this year with passenger van models targeted for September. There is also a cab chassis design slated for a 2002 launch.

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