Mercedes-Benz says it is confident it will remain a leader in the commercial-van segment, a suddenly hot niche that has seen several new entries in recent years.

The auto maker’s portfolio includes Class 3 and 4 trucks, buses and other heavy-commercial vehicles. But the Sprinter van has emerged as a flagship in the segment, with brand recognition and demand as high as that of some Mercedes luxury vehicles.

The origins of the Sprinter, the tall, angular hauler due for a ’13-model-year refresh, are almost as old as Mercedes itself. The German auto maker began producing vans in 1895.

Claus Tritt, head of Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner’s U.S. division, says the Sprinter traveled “a bloody road” in its first few years, but the auto maker’s persistence paid off. “We’re still gaining share, which shows the reception,” Tritt tells WardsAuto.

The Sprinter launched in Europe in 1995 and was brought to North America in 2001 after Mercedes’ parent Daimler acquired U.S. truck maker Freightliner and sold the vans under that brand. Daimler also sold Sprinters under the Dodge name after absorbing Chrysler, but discontinued that practice in 2010.

To make up for Dodge’s absence, Daimler began selling Sprinters with Mercedes badging in the U.S. that same year. It was a natural fit, Tritt says, as aftermarket retrofitters began applying Mercedes logos to Freightliner and Dodge vans to enhance their appearance.

“You expect something from the brand,” Tritt says, noting Mercedes-branded Sprinters are popular with transportation services. “But the big thing is the customer experience and satisfying the expectation of the customer.”

Sprinter vans are sold in 197 Mercedes and Freightliner dealers and expansion is planned, he says. Selling Freightliner-branded Sprinters have helped offset concerns among some American drivers skeptical of German imports in the segment.

“The difference is made in the dealership,” Tritt says, noting Mercedes dealers wishing to sell the van must have at least one dedicated salesperson and one dedicated technician.

But while the Sprinter remains at the top of its heap, other auto makers have sought to cash in, such as Nissan with its recently introduced NV and Ford with its soon-to-come Transit.

Mercedes sold 16,577 Sprinter vans in 2011, nearly double the previous year’s 8,559 deliveries, WardsAuto data shows. Its closest competitor in size was the NV, with 6,444 sales last year.

“What’s that wonderful saying? ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery,’” Tritt laughs.

The Sprinter stands out because of some driver-pleasing appointments commonly found in Mercedes passenger cars. “Sometimes I think it’s a little too emotional for a truck,” Tritt says. “But even a truck needs some new class every once in a while.”

Ergonomics are a key to the Sprinter’s loyal customer base, he says. Drivers and passengers, even “a 6-foot-6 (198-cm) guy,” can stand inside the vehicle, making for easier cargo unloading. Ingress is lowered, a perk for delivery drivers who frequently hop in and out of the van.

Another selling point is Mercedes’ Adaptive Electronic Stability Program, which helps the vehicle pinpoint its center of gravity and works accordingly while steering. It’s standard on all Sprinter models.

Tritt says the auto maker is exploring powertrain technologies meant to widen the Sprinter’s customer base, adding, “We are believers that the way to go is diesel.”

Daimler relies on a dedicated service team that knows its vehicles inside and out, but a shortage of skilled mechanics is hindering the auto maker from moving forward with a diesel powertrain for the Sprinter. In addition, Tritt says, “Companies don’t like the cost of diesel.”

A hybrid Sprinter would lose payload, Tritt says, but an electric version is not out of the question. “Electric is the way to go if you do 20-25 miles (32-40 km) per day,” he says.

afoley@wardsauto.com