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Dodge Sprinter van jets to popularity

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Dodge Sprinter van jets to popularity

By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
OXNARD, Calif. — To most people, Dodge Sprinter looks like just another big package-delivery van.
To Howard Becker, it holds the potential for a lot more. He converts them into what he calls business jets on wheels.

PHOTOS: Dodge Sprinter vans
His company, Becker Automotive Design, adds smoother suspensions, rich interior woods and leathers and sophisticated electronics to the utilitarian Sprinters to make them exclusive executive retreats. Cost: up to $400,000.

Becker is one of a group of customizers who have discovered ways to use the unique vehicles.

Although they are quite popular in Europe, no other automaker offers a similar van as big and fuel-thrifty as the Sprinter in the USA.

With components built in Germany by Mercedes-Benz and assembled in Charleston, S.C., the Sprinter has stand-up headroom and is bigger than most Ford E-Series vans, the new name for the Econoline series. Sprinter's diesel engine gets up to 25 miles a gallon.

"There's nothing else like it in the marketplace," says Dodge brand spokesman Randy Jones.

Since DaimlerChrysler started importing Sprinter in 2001, the vehicle has remained so popular that it never sells at a discount, the company says. While it is showing up as a utility van for plumbers and florists, it also stays true to the image that most have for it: Chrysler counts UPS, FedEx and DHL among its Sprinter customers.

The company's problem is availability. Chrysler Group, DaimlerChrysler's American unit, says it can't get enough of the redesigned 2007 model, which went on sale this year at a starting price of $30,950.

Sales were 6,438 vans in the first six months of the year, down 38% from the same period last year, Chrysler reports. More than 4,000 potential customers have been turned away.

"If we get could more over here, we could sell them," says Chrysler spokesman Bryan Zvibleman.

With Chrysler unable to supply the market, other automakers are taking a look. Nissan has set up a commercial-vehicles unit. "We see that segment offering a lot of opportunity," says Nissan Vice President Simon Sproule. He won't say when Nissan's lineup might arrive, but it will be "sooner rather than later."

Ford makes a commercial, package-style van in Europe but won't say whether it has any plans to bring it to the USA.

Also clouding the Sprinter's future is the pending breakup of DaimlerChrysler. When the German Mercedes unit and American Chrysler unit have to stand alone, it's unclear whether vehicles like Sprinter will still be sold under the Dodge name. Jones says there's no fretting. "Until we're told differently, it's the status quo."

So for now, Sprinter remains a darling for the conversion market. A company called Sportsmobile converts Sprinters into recreational vehicles costing up to $80,000. Buyers are drawn to them because of their fuel-efficiency, headroom and big enough space to handle even a compartment for motorcycles in back, CEO Alan Feld says.

A highway jet

Becker's conversions are more extreme. His 40-employee staff adds touch-screen controls to run everything from window shades to leg rests. Television and high-speed Internet are displayed on a 30-inch flat screen.

Becker was converting vehicles for the luxury market long before Sprinter. In the 1980s, his company installed high-end stereo systems in vehicles. He says the experience taught him and his staff the prickly demands of taking apart and reassembling luxury cars. And he also picked up lots of ideas by listening to his celebrity-studded client list, which over the years has included Stevie Wonder, Kelsey Grammer and Jerry Seinfeld.

Becker says he got the idea that Sprinter might be the perfect candidate for conversion while on a vacation to France and Italy a few years ago with his wife, Debbie.

The luxury hotel where they were staying picked them up in the Mercedes version of the van. Becker, who at the time was converting Ford E-Series vans, saw the potential. "I knew it was a superior product to anything that existed before," he says.

Reason: the nameplate. An executive could turn to a spouse and say, "It's not a van, honey. It's a Mercedes," says Becker, who spent a chunk of the vacation prowling a Mercedes dealer for information.

From a factory in bucolic Oxnard, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles, Becker's JetVans, as Sprinter conversions are called, are typically bought by affluent businessmen with regional operations that make driving a more sensible alternative than hopping aboard the company plane.

Becker has converted more than 30 Sprinters so far.

One of them went to OliverMcMillan, a big San Diego-based mixed-use real estate development firm that uses it for shuttling between projects.

"Instead of a company airplane, we found with this van you could seamlessly work," CEO Dene Oliver says.

Although the company has had a smaller custom van since 2000, the Sprinter "is taking it to another level," Oliver says. Among the uses are dispatching the van to airports to chauffeur important clients. And it's used as a base camp for trade shows.

To add to the van's cachet, many customers rebadge the Sprinter as a Mercedes, just as it would appear in Europe. That way, "It doesn't carry the stigma of a family conversion van," Becker says.

The goal is to allow busy executives to get more work done on the road. "Productivity is really the bottom line," Becker says.

Our local Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep Dealership has said it was going to build a stand-alone Dodge Sprinter Dealership, but that was before the sale of Chrysler so maybe their plans have changed?
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