Mercedes-Benz has seen plenty of change in its model range in the past year or so, with the launch of an all-new Sprinter and the introduction of the brand’s first pick-up truck in the form of the X-Class.
There’s been no change at the top, though, with UK boss Steve Bridge having clocked up five years in the top job and almost 19 years at the brand in total. We sat down with him to get his views on a busy year just gone, and his hopes for what 2019 will bring.
A place for a V6 truck?
How will the forthcoming CO2-based CV taxation impact on your thinking and plans for the V6 X-Class?
It is a very fine line between what is right – should we bring vehicles to market that are zero-emission – and what people will buy. The demand for a V6 X-Class is significant. The only reason we are bringing one to market is because people are asking for it.
Inevitably, they have to pay that tax. It is like the AMG market in the passenger car sector – the UK is one of the largest AMG markets in the world. You drive around London you will see more G63 AMGs in the West end than you will see anywhere else.
How was 2018 for Mercedes-Benz Vans?
For us it is all about order intake. Despite all the challenges of exiting an old model, introducing a new model, bringing in a V6 version of the X-Class as opposed to just the four cylinder, our order intake is just over 4000 units, about 10% more than it was at this point last year. I can’t complain.
It is not as easy as people think to come to market with a pick-up truck or a small van and just take from others; we have to know our place.
Often, we have little option but to sit on the subs bench and wait for people to decide they are ready to go for a small van or a pick-up with us.
When you change a vehicle, it is really difficult to exit what is in essence a 10-year-old vehicle and bring in a brand new one to market that comes in rear-wheel drive and front-wheel drive and comes with all of the options in on day one. It is almost impossible.
Customers move from one vehicle type to another and some have gone without any drama and others have needed options that we simply don’t have yet.
What are your main goals in the CV marketplace for 2019?
I have a mantra that is very straight forward. It is not so much about market share, it is about the amount of customers that we have.
So, in my world we need to know every operator that runs a van in the UK. That is a nice thing to have, but if we make ourselves known to them and if we consultative sell to them that is the right thing to do.
What we are seeing is a move from some of the major fleets especially, in asking us what we can do for them over and above the supply of the vehicle. In effect, we move from being a manufacturer that takes an order to being a holistic provider and some sort of transportation solution to them.
This year will be tricky, everybody worries about Brexit, but one thing is sure – goods will still be delivered in vans.
As online retail sales grow, our business will grow, and that is just one segment. We have to work with those operators to help them reduce weight so they get more efficiency and I think that is what differentiates us from others.
I don’t see any massive growth in 2019, it will be marginal as we embed the new six-cylinder pick-up, but largely the same.
WHO IS BUYING THE NEW V6 X-CLASS?
“They are definitely not fleet, they are people who have their own business who like to have a dual-purpose vehicle that they can use at the weekend and they can also use for work, thus meaning they don’t fall foul of the law, but they want to be better than the guy with the four cylinder one.”
“There is a definite market for the more pimped up the better, there is oneupmanship on sites. Gone are the days where if you rocked up in a white van and that was it, you turn up and you are in a different colour that is better, if you have different wheels that is better. It used to be that it was just at the golf club where that was the case, but now it is just as commonplace on building sites.”
With so many options available, which version of the Sprinter are fleets going for?
Everybody wants [the van’s latest telematics technology], but not everybody knows how to use it. Some do, and once they have it they can do things that makes their business better. I don’t want to be in a position where I just provide them with connectivity and say ‘there you go, crack on’. I want to provide some meaningful analysis so they can use it to improve their business.
One of the biggest supermarkets is obsessed with [our telematics]. We gave it to them expecting them to not pay much attention to it. However, if it isn’t on, it’s like there is a glitch in the system like when the O2 system went down – it’s like someone has taken a part of their toolbox away.
Everybody that has telemetry already likes to think they have got the best, naturally, so they don’t want to duplicate by taking what we can give them. It is about complementing that, so rather than taking one thing away, adding some benefit to the vehicle or to what they have already got.
What is your biggest priority as a model – the Vito or the Citan?
The growth I would need to concentrate on is the medium segment. If I look where we are versus the nearest competitor in the large segment, there is about one percentage point between us. In the medium segment we are about 25-30 points away from them so there is room for improvement. Now Vito is credible – groups such as Sky have taken 600 of them, and as the street presence becomes greater so habits form.
Citan is always going to be tricky because that segment is bigger than the medium segment and is very price-sensitive. But we openly admit we are not the cheapest cash purchase on the market. In a TCO argument we are quite good, but not everybody in that segment thinks that way.
What does the 2020 Vito need to do to close the gap to its rivals?
From the vehicle point of view, nothing. It is not a metal or product related issue. It is more of a habit. Obviously, it has to have good price point, good residual value, durability and all that. It is about embedding that size van into the market place. We are selling a lot more of them now than we used to. Five or six years ago we used to sell about 6000 of them and now we are selling 11,000.
Is it too soon for Sprinter tech to make it down to the Vito?
No, you will see it. For example, the telemetry probably starts in areas like F1 where the budgets allow R&D folks to go bananas. Then it is a fine line between a wish list of what you want to put on a vehicle and what people will pay for. In the van arena it is even harder because some operators say “I don’t care what it does, I want to carry this from A to B.” Others are massively discerning about the connectivity, the safety, the durability and it is a wide world.