Mercedes-Benz is not just about luxury.
Ask almost anyone about Mercedes-Benz and he or she will wax eloquent about the brand’s dedication to luxury and German engineering.
But Mercedes wants you to rethink that.
That German engineering is moving to American soil; the company broke ground July 27 in Charleston, South Carolina, for a plant that will produce Sprinter vans locally. For the past few years, the vans have been built in German, disassembled and shipped to Charleston, and reassembled at a factory there. With the new facility, the vans can be made in the United States.
More than a luxury synonym
And Mercedes, which is so identified with luxury that some parents give the name to their daughters (think also: Tiffany, Crystal) wants to stress the utilitarian value of its van line as well as the luxury cachet.
Charleston, South Carolina in a van
On a recent trip to Charleston, I had a chance to drive Sprinter and Metris vans and while I wouldn’t want these for my every day commute, I can see how they are ideal for the contractors and artisans who choose them.
A big surprise, for those who haven’t driven a commercial vehicle before, is that most don’t have a rear view mirror. With a solid wall so the van can be a mobile tool kit or a refrigerator to transport Blue Apron meal kits or wedding cakes, there is no way to have a rear view mirror, so the driver has to rely on side view mirrors. The Mercedes Sprinter vans I drove had huge side view mirrors, bigger than my college dorm room TV, but they also had blind spot monitors and crosswind assist to help you navigate traffic and sudden wind gusts.
And although these vans are designed for short haul trips to transport drywall or floral arrangements, they are also comfortable and easy to maneuver. I was at ease merging onto the highway and parking (hey, I live in New York City, I don’t need no stinking rear mirror).
Although the Sprinter van, and its smaller sibling, the Metris, are generally designed for commercial use, they also have some passenger applications. We saw how the vans could be adapted for uses as varied as campers – with a pop-up top – to large passenger vans that could serve as hotel shuttles or other tourist transportation. So comfort is key in these vehicles, whatever their end purpose.
Getting a bead on the city
Charleston is a hub of activity, much of it centered on its deep water port, which is one of the largest and busiest in the country. Mercedes has been a big driver of that since the disassembled vans made in Germany had to pass through the port, but the city is no one trick pony. Mercedes set us up on a route around the city to see places where its vans are used daily: the Urban Electric Co., a high end lighting design and production firm; the Charleston Architectural Glass Studio, which makes reproduction antique mirrors by hand, and the new American College of the Building Arts campus. This liberal arts college trains its students in woodworking, plastering, blacksmithing and masonry, producing graduates who can then go on to careers where they will require a small commercial van.
Made from scratch: both the vans and local food
The city is also renowned for its cuisine, and Mercedes gave us an introduction to the low country cooking and farm-to-table movement at two restaurants: Cannon Green, which provides a list of the local farms supplying its produce, and Leon’s Oyster Shop which has impeccably fresh shellfish.
At Cannon Green, I had a baby beet salad with pepper cress and goat milk ricotta cheese, and pasta with local squash and broccoli rabe. There was also red snapper with heirloom potatoes and charred okra. I couldn’t bring myself to try it: okra is one southern dish I simply can’t accept.
Leon’s had delicious raw oysters with a classic mignonette, but the grilled oysters with lemon, parsley and a giant slab of butter were a revelation. We also sampled charred radicchio, perfect hush puppies and sinfully rich scalloped potatoes. There was also low country boil – a stew of shrimp, corn, potatoes and spicy sausage – alas, too far from the vegetarian table for me.
The new Mercedes-Benz factory, expected to start production at the end of the decade, will first build just Sprinter vans, but the factory will be flexible enough to integrate Metris vans as well. Mercedes is also introducing a low priced Metris Worker van, starting at $25,995; the Sprinter Worker starts at $32,495.
Note: I was a guest of Mercedes-Benz at the factory groundbreaking and van drive; yummy meals and transportation were provide, but opinions expressed are my own.