The Mercedes-Benz Vans unit of DaimlerChrysler AG's commercial vehicle operations plans to have an assembly plant in the U.S. by the summer of 2006 and double its size to 110,000 units and two van products by the end of the decade. If demand warrants. It would start with assembly of the Sprinter Class 2 and 3 cargo van and expand a few years later to add a future generation Mercedes-Benz Vito cargo van.

They are Mercedes products in Europe but would be badged Freightliner (a division of DaimlerChrysler AG) in North America, says Rolf Bartke, the DC senior vice president who heads the Mercedes-Benz Vans business unit.

Bartke says the next eight months will be spent deciding on a site. Existing Freightliner and Chrysler Group facilities with excess capacity are being considered. That includes the Chrysler Group's Pillette Road Assembly Plant in Windsor, Ont., that ceases production of its fullsize Dodge Ram cargo van and passenger wagon in 2003, at which point the plant will be closed without new product.

But the chances of Pillette building Sprinter are slim. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, products built in Canada or Mexico need 62% local content. “We wouldn't reach that,” Bartke says.

A more likely scenario is a U.S. greenfield plant, starting with 50,000 to 60,000 units and a single body shop for Sprinter, but designed to accommodate a second body shop and grow to 110,000 units with Vito production.

Meanwhile, Sprinter kits are being assembled at the Freightliner plant in Gaffney, SC, and the Mercedes-Benz passenger car division is preparing to add a 7-seat, luxury multipurpose vehicle to its M-Class plant in Vance, AL. The GST (Grand Sedan-Touring) concept is a cross/utility vehicle to be priced higher than the Chrysler Town & Country minivan.