Light-utility transporters Van Sales Move Into Fast Lane

They aren't the sexiest vehicles but they're practical - and in demand: light-utility vans. German manufacturers are building new factories to take advantage of sales growth in Europe and North America.
Van sales are helping German automakers boost vehicle sales. From the top left clockwise: The 2015 VW Crafter, the 2015 Mercedes Sprinter and the 2015 Opel Vivaro.

For many craftsmen, parcel delivery workers and large families, light-utility vans are their vehicle of choice.

The workhorse vehicles, with a maximum weight of 3.5 tons, are also the secret stars of the automotive industry.

Demand for top models such as the Sprinter, Crafter, Transit and Vivaro keeps growing. In Europe, 12.3 percent more vans and light trucks were sold in the first half of this year than in the same period last year.

In June, sales were up 16.3 percent over the same period a year ago – the 22nd consecutive month of growth in the segment, according to Carlos Ghosn, president of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association and the head of Renault-Nissan.

Under the motto 'Van Goes Global,' Daimler expects to complete its first U.S. plant for light utility vehicles in 2016.

In Germany, the market only grew by 8.5 percent, but another figure is more interesting: Of all utility vehicles newly registered in the first half of the year, 84.5 percent were vans. In 2007, the share of vans was less than 79 percent, according to the Federal Motor Transport Authority.

Growth in Germany is far exceeded by the increase in the former crisis country of Spain. Sales of light utility vehicles there increased by more than 35 percent in the first half of this year.

The reasons are not only backlog demand, but also the sustained upward economic trend, according to Peter Fuss, an automotive industry expert at the consulting firm Ernst & Young. He expects growth in the sector to continue.

Manufacturers are reacting accordingly. At its new factory in the Polish city of Wrzesnia, which is slated for completion next year, VW, the market leader, plans to produce mostly the Crafter model. The plant will employ more than 2,300 employees.


Highly Desired Vans-01


Up to now, the Crafter was produced in Düsseldorf at Daimler’s Sprinter plant.

“That was a good thing for us – the only problem was that we were junior partners there,” said Eckhard Scholz, head of utility vehicle operations at VW. That’s why the German carmaker decided to build its own plant.

The area around its new factory in Poland is not new terrain for VW’s utility vehicles. For 20 years, the Transporter model and urban delivery van Caddy have been rolling off assembly lines nearby in Antoninek.

For Daimler, VW’s partner in the sector up to now, the pain of parting is not so bad. The two manufacturers are vigorous competitors in high-end light utility vehicles. With the exception of the Daimler's Sprinter and VW's Crafter, Volkswagen has been the top dog, with Daimler perpetually on the attack.

One level below, the tradition-rich Volkswagen Bus was for decades the measure of all things. With its Viano, Daimler simply couldn’t catch up.

With the exception of the Daimler's Sprinter and VW's Crafter, Volkswagen has been the top dog, with Daimler perpetually on the attack.

Things changed a year ago, when Daimler’s new V-class confronted the VW Bus with an evenly matched competitor. In the last few weeks, VW has been countering with a new version, the T6.

Daimler is pursuing a different strategy. Under the motto “Van Goes Global,” the Stuttgart-based carmaker expects to complete its first U.S. plant for light utility vehicles in 2016.

The cost of the plant in Charleston, South Carolina, is about $500 million, or €452 million. It will produce the next generation of the Sprinter. The simple idea is to sell 26,000 units a year in the United States, now the second most important market after Germany for Daimler’s bestseller.

Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, said the South Carolina plant will have two advantages: to meet increasing demand in North America far more economically; and to reduce delivery times significantly.

Karl-Thomas Neumann, who took over as head of Opel two years ago, also recognized the previously-neglected opportunities offered by vans. From around 80,000 light utility vehicles sold in 2013, he wants to almost double the figure to 150,000 by 2022.

Figures for the first half of 2015 are proof that he’s on the way: Sales rose 25 percent over the same period a year ago. The last time Opel sold 51,500 light utility vehicles within six months was before the financial crisis of 2008.


Christian Schnell covers the auto industry for Handelsblatt. To contact the autor: [email protected]