— Mercedes-Benz announced that it will test gasoline-electric and diesel-electric powertrains in its Sprinter van. The company wants to know if hybrids have a future in its commercial vehicles, according to an article in Autoweek
magazine."We would like to find out what the benefit really is," said Rolf Bartke, head of Mercedes vans. "We have to do it to get the answers soon." DaimlerChrysler has been an advocate of fuel cells and has viewed hybrid vehicles skeptically. But in February, Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche said the Chrysler group and Mercedes will produce hybrid cars despite doubts about their high costs and long-term potential. He said the Chrysler group will sell an unspecified hybrid car within three years, and Mercedes will produce a hybrid S class, the brand's biggest and most luxurious model.German supplier ZF Sachs AG provides the starter alternator for the six test Sprinters. Unlike hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, the on-board engine does not recharge the battery that powers the electric motor. The battery must be plugged in to recharge. The vehicle will travel about 20 miles on a single charge. Bartke said hybrids cost as much as $7,500 more per vehicle to produce than a typical gasoline-powered vehicle, but the goal is to get the price down to about $5,000 in five to seven years.While Bartke doesn't think hybrids have a big future in the mass market, he said certain applications, such as hybrid ambulances and parcel-delivery vehicles in congested cities, would help improve air quality. But few believe a company would change its fleet unless governments either substantially subsidize low- or no-emissions vehicles or mandate that such cars would be the only ones allowed in city centers.Klaus Maier, executive vice president of Mercedes' commercial vehicle division, said: "It might come up in the future, and we should be ready." Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. have a big lead in hybrids. Both offer second-generation hybrid-powered cars in the United States. Mercedes will test two Sprinters in Europe, one diesel and one powered by gasoline. Three of the four hybrid Sprinters that will be tested in the United States have gasoline-powered engines.