Serious Business

The major van makers are now increasing their focus on the Australian market, and the customer is the major beneficiary. Words by Chris Mullett.

There’s an interesting shift in emphasis by the major vehicle makers that suggests a realisation on their part that not everything revolves around new cars on the showroom floor. For a dealer to be successful it’s necessary to look closely at all options, and that includes light commercial vehicles just as much as the latest, flashiest, sedan or hatch.

Mind you, it’s been a struggle in recent years with some of the major importers, particularly Holden, ignoring the light commercial products that are available for sale in General Motors’ divisions overseas.

Through product sharing from different manufacturers such as Opel, as well as Nissan, General Motors dealerships could have an excellent product range of vans and cab/chassis variants on display at their forecourts. But, alas, that is not to be, leaving the Holden dealerships with an untapped source of revenue.

When challenged on the subject, the standard response is that the Holden sales and marketing team failed to make an economic case for import. But when Renault, Peugeot, Fiat, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen all add up their figures and make a profit, it seems that Holden executives are just out of touch and lack the necessary interest and motivation.Mercedes-Benz-Sprinter_4

Ford has also tended to leave the sales of its light commercial van range to its own devices, perhaps hoping that the Transit name alone would be sufficient to push the product forward into the minds of the buyers.

Part of the Ford problem appears to be the revolving door policy of the global manufacturer when it comes to grooming its future executives. American employees on the blue oval staircase to higher appointment spend only a short time in the role of brand manager in the Australian market. After 18 months, and before gaining a full grasp of our requirements, they return to their homeland or next overseas posting without seeming to achieve much in terms for their time here except perhaps for a salary increase.

With a new Transit and a wider range of derivatives about to be launched into the Australian market in the first quarter of 2014, Ford needs to address this situation and tackle its light commercial vehicle marketing with renewed vigour. Gone are the days of waiting in the dealership to take orders. The Transit in all its forms needs to be marketed properly across the entire range in order to produce strong sales performance.

The real emphasis now taking place amongst the light commercial manufacturers can be seen by the increased activity currently taking place amongst the ranks of Renault, Fiat and Mercedes-Benz.

As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, Fiat has increased its dealership representation from 9 sales outlets to 52, with more planned in the near future. Renault is also spearheading a major sales offensive by expanding its range of Kangoo, Trafic and Master variants and focusing on value for money pricing and a strong advertising campaign.

In recent issues of Delivery we mentioned the latest upgrades in safety and driver comfort applicable to the Sprinter range, and how Mercedes-Benz came to receive the Delivery Magazine Best Van of the Year Award in 2013, matched by the accolade of Best People Mover of the Year being awarded to the MerceMercedes-Benz-Sprinter_3des-Benz Valente.

As a measure of the emphasis being placed on the introduction of the new Sprinter range across Australia, Delivery took part in the launch events for the brand that saw media, dealership personnel and major customers all invited to drive the different products in an interesting and educational environment.

Mercedes-Benz made its first light commercial back in 1896. In 1995, the first Sprinter hit the highway in Europe, but it was some three years later before it was subsequently launched into the Australian market.

A facelift in 2000 was followed by the introduction of the all-new Sprinter replacement in 2006, which significantly increased safety standards, comfort and convenience.

By 2010, the engine technology had shifted to Euro V emissions levels, and Sprinter became market leader in the large van segment within Australia.

In 2012, it gained the addition of the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission, achieving total sales in this country of 158,749 units, against a backdrop of nearly 2.6 million Sprinters sold globally. Total annual production is 160,00 units, with those for our market made at Dusseldorf and Ludwigsfelde in Germany.

As we move towards the close of 2013, the job ahead for Mercedes-Benz in Australia is to get the message out to prospective customers that the latest Sprinter is better than ever. Not only has it gained a facelift in external appearance, it now includes additional safety technology.

Currently retailed through 51 dealerships, and with the further service support of 8 additional locations, Mercedes-Benz has plans to increase these figures to 55 selling dealers and 15 additional service outlets within the next six months.

The release of the latest Sprinter brought with it the opportunity to drive a wide selection of the different models, starting on the Gold Coast and heading through Mount Tambourine area to meet up at the Mount Cotton Driver Training Centre.

Mercedes-Benz-Sprinter_7The on-road drive section provided a good choice of hilly terrain, and with organised changeover points for drivers to swap vehicles between short and long wheelbase, plus different engine and transmission options, the advantages of the varying aspects of the model range soon showed through.

Specific questions concerning the latest technical inclusions of lane departure assist, blind spot assist, crosswind yaw minimisation and trailer swing control, were handled easily by the product specialists on hand at Mount Cotton. With the attendees well versed in the changes to the latest product, it was then a case of handing over to the specialist driver training team operated for Mercedes-Benz by driving expert Peter Hackett.

Peter and his team of instructors lead a very varied life, providing training for drivers or buyers of Mercedes-Benz products at all levels, from passenger car to light commercial and on to heavy commercial vehicles. The training programmes are not only confined to Australia, with Hackett in charge of all training programmes throughout the Asia Pacific Basin, including the Arab States. In his free time he also competes in the GT Championship and drives for Erebus Motorsport in a Mercedes-Benz SLS GT3.

It makes little difference how highly the individual attendees rate their own driving abilities. Peter Hackett and his instructors have taken driving and ability to far higher levels of competency, but pass on their experience in a chatty, informal manner. No mater how much an attendee may think they know, if they keep an open mind they will benefit substantially from the experience.

During the day’s driving events on the private roads of the Mount Cotton Training Centre, it was possible to really compare the driving characteristics of each model, the performance of each engine and how the seven-speed full-fluid automatic transmission benefits an already good product.

Also up for trial was a spell on the skid pan, where drivers were able to compare driving a Sprinter with all electronic driving safety aids, such as traction control, anti-lock braking and roll stability control disconnected.

We take a lot for granted these days, that technology can intervene to save the day when a slide or skid starts to develop. But to be able to appreciate the effect when these systems are not available is a valuable lesson in potential mortality.Mercedes-Benz-Sprinter_5

Immediately after experiencing what can go wrong if the driver tends towards a heavy right foot and harsh steering input, a spell in a similar Sprinter with all the safety equipment working provided the perfect opportunity to judge the difference.

In the course of my driving I personally cover around 100,000 km each year, and sometimes have the benefit of travelling with various driver trainers as they demonstrate the advantages of their company products. I always come away from the experience with a sharper assessment of my own driving standards, and hopefully the intention to raise my own ability behind the wheel.

Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers regularly run driver training courses for all levels of experience and ability, and this begs the question as to why these programmes are not a regular part of every corporation’s attitude to its staff.

Vehicle makers are constantly upgrading the safety inclusions built into their products, and Mercedes-Benz is probably the greatest example of this doctrine. But no mater how clever the vehicle, the final influence comes from the driver, and that sets the level of safety for that vehicle and for those travelling in its vicinity.

Customer demonstration days such as the Sprinter event hosted by Mercedes-Benz are an excellent way of illustrating the advantages of a range of vehicles. Hopefully, industry can now take these opportunities further by entering their own drivers for advanced training programmes. If the result is a reduction in fleet accident rate, a safer outcome for employees and, consequently, lower insurance premiums, Delivery would advocate that such programmes should form part of every fleet management activity.

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