LADSON, SC – Bluetec clean-diesel technology could be offered in European-market Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans as early as 2012, Ward’s learns.

The move is designed to help Daimler AG comply with Euro 6 emissions standards, due in 2014. But Claus Tritt, vice president-operations for Daimler Vans USA LLC, tells Ward’s the technology could migrate sooner.

The tri-star brand’s trademark selective catalytic reduction system makes its Sprinter debut with the North American-market ’10-model.

Already available on the Mercedes GL350, ML350 and R350 cross/utility vehicles, Bluetec enables compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards, which are on par with the pending Euro 6 mandates.

“The heart of the truck is the motor,” Tritt says here during a media preview for the Sprinter.

And the ’10 model has more heart than its ’09 predecessor. Its 3.0L turbodiesel V-6 boasts 188 hp and peak torque of 325 lb.-ft (441 Nm) – increases of 34 hp and 40 lb.-ft. (54 Nm), respectively.

The ’10 Sprinter’s improved performance is expected to be a key selling feature as the van, for the first time in North America, is available as a Mercedes. Since its debut here in 2001, a launch that signaled stark change for the commercial-van segment, the Sprinter was sold under the Dodge banner and the Freightliner brand, which still is owned by Daimler.

The Dodge model disappeared with Chrysler Group LLC’s tie-up with Fiat Automobiles SpA. This undercut any notion that Daimler would continue to provide the Sprinter to Chrysler because Fiat has its own line of commercial vans in overseas markets.

Chrysler now is contemplating which Fiat vans it could adapt to its newly established Ram truck brand.

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. Inc. is tasked with selling a new vehicle to a customer who likely has never before seen the inside of a Mercedes dealership. Still, MBUSA President Ernst Lieb is unfazed.

“The Mercedes dealers are very well-prepared,” he tells Ward’s. “They have to learn that the business is different. But they can deal with it.”

That’s because the 68 Mercedes dealers currently authorized to sell the Sprinter represent the best of the brand’s network, Lieb says. And there are more where they came from.

Plans are to make the Sprinter available at up to 160 stores by year’s end. That total includes Freightliner stores, but Mercedes dealers are expected to carry the load for Sprinter sales because their network is more widespread.

“We have some areas of the country where one brand is much better represented than the other,” says Antje Williams, MBUSA Sprinter brand manager.

Notably, both models – despite their divergent pedigrees – will be marketed the same way. South Carolina-based Cargo will handle communications, which will focus on print publications. Pricing, which is reduced from ’09, also is the same for both brands. “The only differentiation is really the badging,” Williams adds.

A ’10 chassis cab Sprinter starts at $34,270, down from $36,190. Cargo vans start at $35,995, compared with $38,425 for ’09. And passenger models start at $39,820, down from $42,150.

Dealers will sell Sprinters from outside displays. And Lieb rejects the notion that featuring the tri-star logo on a commercial truck will degrade Mercedes’ considerable brand equity.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a commercial vehicle like the Sprinter, if it has the quality and the reliability, in the lineup of Mercedes-Benz,” he says.

The van has, for years, been alongside Mercedes cars in overseas markets – and with no effect, Lieb adds.

The Sprinter burst onto the North American scene as something of a curiosity. Its tall-box design, though common in Europe, was a dramatic departure from long-time segment leaders such as the Ford E-Series vans.

But the Sprinter’s square shape affords best-in-class ratings for cargo capacity and payload, up to to 547 cu.-ft. (15.5 cu-m) and 5,375 lbs. (2,438 kg), respectively. The Sprinter also features a lower step-in height and enough headroom to allow most occupants to stand inside the vehicle.

However, for ’10, the “super high” roof has been discontinued. The standard roof affords an interior height of 65 ins. (1.7 m), while the high roof will accommodate someone 76.4 ins. (1.9 m) tall.

Each body style is available in two wheelbases: 144 ins. (366 cm) and 177 ins. (450 cm). The cargo van comes in three body lengths: 233 ins. (591 cm), 273 ins. (693 cm) and 289 ins. (734 cm).

Some 200 individual options are available, such as a left-side sliding door on cargo vans. And more than 20 option packages include features ranging from heavy-duty suspensions to anti-theft alarms.

MBUSA works with various upfitters to accommodate specific applications, such as construction trades. Movie magnate Steven Spielberg turned a Sprinter into a mobile office, one MBUSA insider says.

Tritt says 60% of Sprinter customers use their vehicles in the various trades, while passenger transport and delivery use each accounts for 15%. Retailers and wholesalers comprise the remaining 10%, he adds.

In a bid to increase volumes, MBUSA rolls out a shuttle bus this year. But Lieb is coy about sales projections, saying only the Sprinter represents a significant opportunity.

“It could end up being somewhere in the range of 8% to 10% (of MBUSA sales),” he says. “If we sell 220,000 units, that’s 20,000 (Sprinters.) Why wouldn’t we want to do it?”

Through first quarter, Mercedes logged 1,337 Sprinter sales, according to Ward’s data. The Dodge Sprinter finished last in the segment in 2009 with some 7,100 deliveries. Its next-closest rival was the GMC Savana with just over 12,000.

The E-Series was the runaway winner with sales of 64,787, followed by the Chevrolet Express with 54,302.

emayne@wardsauto.com