By Joseph Ditzler • The Bulletin

Their distinctive profiles are a common sight in ski-area parking lots and at mountain-bike trailheads around Bend.

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van may not be the top-selling vehicle of its kind in the U.S.; that distinction belongs to the Ford Transit. But the Sprinter is one of the most popular, particularly the diesel-powered models with four-wheel drive.

“We are sold out. The entire U.S. is sold out of 4x4s for 2016,” said Brian Merrell, Sprinter brand manager for Mercedes-Benz of Salem. “It probably didn’t take long.”

The Mercedes-Benz dealer in Bend does not sell Sprinters. The Sprinter dealerships in Eugene and Salem are the closest to Bend.

“We’ve got a lot of clients in Bend,” Merrell said. “At least 20 clients in the last 12 months.”

Among its attractions, the Sprinter cargo bay measures 6 feet 6 inches from floor to ceiling. One version is just over 14 feet long. About 75 percent of sales nationwide are for commercial purposes, Merrell said.

“But folks that live in the Northwest, having the outdoor lifestyle that they do — skiing, snowboarding, windsurfing, kiteboarding,” he said, “this van has become such a great card to freedom for the personal user.”

Ian Beveridge, of The Van Guys, a custom van conversion business in Bend, said he’s worked on three Sprinter conversions out of six jobs in the past year. Most of his clients are from outside Oregon, from Northern California to Seattle.

Beveridge said Thursday he’s not impressed with the Sprinter. The basic 2016 Sprinter 2500 model he’s currently working on at his shop on SE Bridgeford Boulevard lists for $51,500.

“For the money, you get a basic van,” Beveridge said. “It’s a simplified cabin with no stock back-up camera.”

The Sprinter is a status symbol similar to the Volks­wagen Vanagon, a model that attracts a cult-like following, Beveridge said.

“For the same people that popularized the Vanagon,” he said, “this is the next step.”

Beveridge’s van of choice is the Dodge Ram Promaster. It’s 4 inches higher and 8 inches wider than the Sprinter, with a lower bed. It lists for about $29,000, but does not come with four-wheel drive. The other three conversions he completed this year were Promasters.

For those with a little more cash, Bend-based EarthCruiser sells an all-terrain adventure vehicle for about $170,000. Options include solar panels, a diesel water heater and a water-purification unit.

Van conversions bring to mind the plush carpets, waterbeds and swiveling captain’s chairs of the 1970s. The popularity of full-sized vans declined through the 1980s and 1990s, but their usefulness as recreational vehicles has stoked their popularity again, Beveridge said. He and a former business partner, Curtiss Feltner, a triathlete, started out with one van they turned into a place for Feltner to sleep and store his gear when he traveled to competitive events. Feltner sold that first van and the idea took hold to make van conversions a business, Beveridge said.

“It started as a joke, honestly,” he said.

For his current client, he’s installing a bed with an electric jack that lifts the queen-sized mattress to the ceiling, revealing a dinette table underneath. The van will also have a stove, sink, water reservoir, cabinet and bamboo interior siding. A no-frills conversion costs about $11,000, Beveridge said.

Eric Voss, commercial van manager at Mercedes-Benz of Eugene, said Sprinters are popular because they provide a cheaper, less complicated alternative to recreational vehicles. .

“You can stow gear, have room to change or do whatever you want to do,” Voss said. “It’s very functional. They don’t need a ton of stuff besides shelving and a couple of things that complement what you’re doing.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com

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