Ford stole a march on other automakers a couple of years ago when it introduced a much-improved version of the Transit Connect business van, and other automakers are still striving to catch up. The latest is Mercedes-Benz , which last month launched its new Metris van into what has become one of the most dynamic segments of the U.S. vehicle market.
“It’s like a feeding frenzy,” Paul Butler, Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. department manager for marketing services for vans, told me. “Once one brand starts, it goes like dominoes and all the other manufacturers look at it.”
Metris debuted in October in the U.S. accompanied by a new TV commercial and at prices starting under $29,000, and Butler said it is a “just right” size between small and large new commercial vans that offers a sort of Goldilocks choice for the growing number of American fleet operators and entrepreneurs who might be interested.
That’s right, the rolling boxes that florists, big energy utilities, airport-shuttle services, caterers, industrial-repair services, limo fleets, and weekend craft-show denizens alike use to schlepp their wares and haul their fares where they’re doing business have been showing robust sales increases. Entrants in this quickly growing segment leverage both the growth of the U.S. economy and the business recovery in general, and the incessant demand by businesses for new types of vehicles that meet their entrepreneurial — and, sometimes, personal — demands.
“For the longest time, 30 to 40 years, there were just two or three choices, and vans were just a business tool,” Butler said. ”What we’ve seen since the recovery from the recession is that the economy as a whole has seen a big upsurge in small business and a change in their thought process — an openness to look at the whole landscape from a customer standpoint and choose the vehicle that best fits their needs, rather than buying the same vehicle they’ve always bought.”
Is Mercedes-Benz concerned that marketing such a workaday van will do little to burnish its premium image? “It’s a premium commercial van,” Butler offered. “It has the durability, quality and reliability of any Mercedes-Benz product, and a lot of the standard features that you’d find in an E-Class sedan, including adaptive cruise control and active parking assist.”
But, he allowed, no sumptuous luxury touches in the interior. “It’s still,” Butler said, “a cargo van.”
In any event, Ford kicked off the new frothiness in this segment because the new and improved Transit Connect was small enough to be fuel-efficient and garageable for most small businesses and yet big and flexible enough to carry the load for the company. It has become a huge sales success for Ford, available both as a cargo and a passenger van, and was followed by the somewhat larger Transit Connect van last year, which also has boosted Ford’s fortunes with the business set.
Nissan also came out with a similarly sized NV200 van, and Chevrolet launched its City Express EXPR +0.00%, which is built by Nissan for Chevy. Meanwhile, Ram brought its somewhat larger Pro Master City van to the United States. All of these were based on preceding European versions, and Mercedes-Benz had plenty of those as well, including the larger Sprinter van that already was a success in the U.S.
“So there was an area of untapped potential kind of sitting between small vans and the big commercial vans that have been around forever,” Butler said. “And Metris, which is called Vito in Europe, fits into this white space perfectly. Its payload and big-box space are much closer to a full-size van” than that of the smaller Transit Connect or NV200. “Plus what’s crucial, and what Metris has, is the ability to carry a 48-inch piece of plywood or sheet rock flat on the floor; we have 49 inches available between the wheel wells of Metris, and none of the smaller vans have that.”
Butler said that the Metris Goldilocks size means it also can draw from large-van owners who never wanted to buy such a big vehicle. “They didn’t necessarily need large vans, but they didn’t have a choice because there was nothing else available,” he said. “Metris is a no-compromise van that, for instance, fits in parking garages, and large vans don’t. It also offers the urban maneuverability that large commercial vans don’t.”
Metris’s relevance to American audiences is boosted by a TV commercial for launch, which displays the versatility of Metris to carry cargo, people, tools and goods, and endless combinations thereof, in a series of rapid-fire images that show “Smallability. Bigability. Towingability. Storingability. Rackability. HVACability. Cupcakeability. Entourageability. Garageability.” And “Affordability.” The tag line is, “Mercedes-Benz vans. Born to run.”
Mercedes-Benz also is giving Metris social-media treatment and product placement, such as when Todd Carmichael, host of Dangerous Grounds on the Travel Channel, used Metris as his platform for a day in the life of his coffee-bean empire in Philadelphia. Also, the German luxury brand took the occasion right before the nameplate’s official launch to leverage its long-time sponsorship of the US Open tennis tournament in New York City.
And in a guerrilla tour, Mercedes-Benz put Metris inside a glass-sided trailer, hauled by a larger Sprint van, that made nine stops at major markets around the Eastern US, ranging from a home Washington Redskins game to a University of Florida college-football game to a Chicago Bears home game.