Three-pointed star ‘badge engineering’ sounds like a contradiction in terms. The Mercedes-Benz brand has until now epitomised ‘home grown’ cars and commercial vehicles boasting above-average durability and overall quality. As part of that strategy, Mercedes has never got ‘down and dirty’ with other manufacturers by getting into the light van market, where cut-throat competition, based largely on price, is the order of the day.
All that will change with the introduction in the autumn of the new Citan van which, as the lightest-ever Mercedes-badged vehicle, from only 2.6 tonnes gvw, will compete in Europe with currently big-selling models from PSA Peugeot Citroen and Fiat, as well as Volkswagen‘s Caddy, Ford‘s Transit Connect and, on paper at least, the latest-generation Renault Kangoo. But the Citan-Kangoo rivalry could be somewhat muted, because the two vans are virtually identical, apart from badging and trim details.
In April 2010 the Mercedes-Renault joint venture was announced, though the French partner’s programme was necessarily already well advanced, the existing Kangoo gave it a rolling start. Vans produced under both marque names are being built on the same line at Renault’s Maubeuge plant in Northern France.
It is tempting to speculate on Daimler’s motive for wanting to get into what was traditionally the ‘car derived’ van market, although that term is no longer accurate for vans in the Citan’s market segment
It is tempting to speculate on Daimler‘s motive for wanting to get into what was traditionally the ‘car derived’ van market, although that term is no longer accurate for vans in the Citan’s market segment. In the 1980s it was recognised, first by Peugeot-Citroen, that the driver of a van being used as a serious load carrier and, typically, making frequent drops, deserved better, in ergonomic terms, than a passenger car’s low seating position and restricted headroom.
As Daimler and the VW group, now embracing Scania and MAN, vie for global leadership in commercial vehicle market share, it is probably felt in Stuttgart that the successful VW Caddy should face a Mercedes-badged challenger to boost the marque’s total sales numbers.
Entering this lighter segment of the commercial vehicle market for the first time has meant Mercedes is having to reappraise the role of its dealers. It was decided from the outset of the Citan programme that the new van would not be sold or serviced through Mercedes’ famously plush passenger car dealerships, but – as with its larger Vito and Sprinter models – only through its truck dealer network, where the customer’s needs, notably to minimise downtime, get high priority.
Entering this lighter segment of the commercial vehicle market for the first time has meant Mercedes is having to reappraise the role of its dealers
Substantial investment at those dealerships is going to be needed to equip the workshops with what are essentially Renault service tools and for training of service personnel. All versions of the Citan, which comes in three wheelbases, are powered by Renault engines, a 1.5-litre diesel at three ratings and a 1.2-litre gasoline unit – for which dealers will have to hold service parts.
A question that many will be asking is whether those Mercedes truck dealerships, where the ongoing pursuit of orders for 40/44 tonne Actros tractor units and the new cruiserweight Antos range looms large in their sights, will be sufficiently motivated to push lower-reward Citan sales.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Alan Bunting has a background in engineering, and has been writing on commercial vehicle and powertrain related topics since the 1960s. He has been an Automotive World contributor since 1996.
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