Fit and finish worthy of the star
Meridian Specialty Vehicles puts its touches to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and the European platform
By David Hubbard
Meridian Specialty Vehicles is a 19-year-old company that got its start building fire trucks. Since 2007, the company has been heavily involved in the specialty vehicles market, building mobile command centers, mobile health clinics, bookmobiles and other such special-use conversions.
According to Meridian President and CEO David Ronsen, while the specialty vehicle business is profitable, the downside stems from its lack of an “over the horizon” visibility that makes it difficult to predict sales.
“In addition to that, it is beholden to grant funding and government budgets, areas where we had absolutely no control over,” he says. “It was business one order at a time, doing 100 percent custom work in an industry segment where there are no standards.”
All which pressed Meridian to seek out more of a production-line product — obviously at lower profit margins, Ronsen says. The company needed a high-volume vehicle that could insulate the company from economic issues beyond its control.
“No matter where we’ve been with any product we have ever built,” he says. ”Our fundamental principle seems to be to somehow disrupt the status quo with value-added products.”
Meridian says that while the existing small and midsize bus market introduces a wide range of quality, another cutaway bus body attached to a separate chassis was not its choice.
“Much of the reason our vehicles are higher end and nicer looking is due to increased demand from the limousine operators who have realized the stretch limo is done,” Ronsen says. “Shuttle buses with higher passenger are replacing the standard limousine.”
In recent years, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has grown steadily in popularity. According to Ronsen, seven Sprinters were on the floor of the LTC show two years ago. Last year there were 13 Sprinters, and 23 this year.
“The limousine industry is pushing quality and aesthetics,” he says. “As a result, charter and tour operators are now competing with limo operators.”
Though a number of design attributes are unique to Meridian, the company is not the first to introduce this version of the Sprinter. But Meridian believes it separates from the pack by introducing alternatives to small bus operators.
“We worked very closely with Mercedes-Benz for over a year, going through its engineering approval process,” Ronsen says. “Mercedes-Benz is by far the most stringent manufacturer in terms of certification. Of the only two certified shuttle bus outfitters, Meridian is one, Mercedes-Benz is the other.”
Ronsen says the Meridian product focuses on two client types: the high-end client looking for the Mercedes Star, and the fleet operator who understands how 18 miles per gallon (mpg) will save the company a lot of money over the course of a year, regardless of the cost of the vehicle.
“Our focus is not strictly on Mercedes-Benz, but rather, how we can maximize what the Europeans have been doing for the last 30 years,” Ronsen says.
The European platform
With that, the focus of Meridian Specialty Vehicles is not limited to Mercedes-Benz, but rather the scope of the European van and small bus platform which includes new products by Chrysler-Fiat and Ford.
“In Europe, moving around economically in comfort is most important,” Ronsen says. “Newcomers to the European platform are generally surprised by the spaciousness and headroom it affords. The interior is typically over 70 inches wide with ample room to stand.”
He says Europeans simply can’t afford to travel along at 6-9 mpg, and that Americans are beginning to realize the same. His view is that until the markets crashed, operators and fleet managers viewed the cost of fuel as simply the cost of doing business. It was out of their control due mostly to the lack of options.
“Meridian offers an alternative that can generally cut the fuel bill in half from day one,” he says. “The range for all three of these OEM models ranges from 18 to 24 mpg.”
He notes where passenger miles per gallon is a term generally reserved for motorcoach operators, not many small bus operators and owners really think about this metric.
“Miles per gallon multiplied by the number of passengers equals passenger miles per gallon,” Ronsen says. “For example, Greyhound cites 200 passenger miles per gallon. Our 20-passenger Sprinter models are achieving around 360 passenger miles per gallon. These figures have major implications to an operator’s bottom line.”
Have Sprinter; will customize
Meridian Specialty Vehicles stakes its reputation on its willingness to customize. The Meridian Sprinter product features 12 standard floor plans, which the company can outfit with up to over 1,400 legal seating configurations and 110 option-content selections. One trademark feature of a Meridian conversion is the proprietary plug-style front door that replaces the sliding or passenger door in the typical shuttle.
“Bus operators have become accustomed to choosing whatever they want in their vehicles,” Ronsen says. “That makes it imperative that we are able to accommodate as many variations on the theme as possible.”
A BUSRide Road Test
BUSRide invited Jospeph Wesolowski, general manager, Creative Bus, Las Vegas, NV, to drive the Meridian Sprinter through the streets of Las Vegas, and offer his comments on the vehicle and the company.
“Creative Bus recently partnered with Meridian Specialty Vehicles” he says. “We see other upfitters who work with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter adhering to only the minimum requirement. In our view, everyone meets FMVSS for this class of vehicle, but we think Meridian exceeds all normal standards, such as stringent pull testing on seats.”
Creative Bus is introducing the Sprinter to resorts running VIP shuttles to the Strip and airport, as well as short-distance charter operators in the Los Angeles area.
While Mercedes-Benz offers a standard fit for a shuttle bus application, he noted the Meridian conversion includes the upgraded HVAC, strengthened substructure and flooring.
Wesolowski says the Meridian fit and finish is second to none. The ride is nice and tight, no rattles anywhere.
“The plug-style front door is a perfect example,” he says. “It opens and closes smoothly. It is completely sealed and very quiet. In fact, the vehicle runs extremely quiet in every respect, and that is important.”
A look inside reveals no fasteners of any kind.
“Fasteners spoil the look of the interior and they can lead to rattles,” Ronsen says. “One of our most stringent benchmarks is that nothing rattles.”
He says that whether a fleet owner is buying a reasonably priced scaled-down product with little option content, or a limousine operator loading it up and decking it out for sheer luxury with leather seats and side panels, both treatments receive the same quality construction and attention to detail.
The Meridian dealer network
The company says it has been extremely selective with the dealers it chooses to work with.
“We insist our dealers clearly understand the difference between the product that we are building and that of our competition,” Ronsen says. “Meridian is not the end-all product for everyone, nor are we trying to be, but we believe we offer a vehicle that differs from other small bus manufacturers.”
Ram and Ford conversions on the way
Later this year, Meridian Specialty Vehicles will introduce its conversions of both the Chrysler-Fiat Ram ProMaster and the Ford Transit that will replace the Econoline.
“Ram introduced this product vehicle as a cargo van only,” Ronsen says. “So we are certainly going to produce a passenger version on the platform with some sort of driver-controlled door.”
He says the prototype is built and the company is about to begin seat pull-testing.
Now that order banks are closed, the Ford Econoline is being replaced with a vehicle that looks much like the Sprinter on the full-size, high roof European platform. In cubic volume it is nearly identical to the Sprinter and twice the interior room as the Ford Econoline.
This means that by the end of this year, Meridian Specialty Vehicles will offer a product in three separate price tiers based on the European platform.