Sunday, May 27, 2012

Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van 170

"Could I get hold of a Sprinter?" Alex was putting together a review series on cargo vans, but wasn't able to get one from Mercedes. Perhaps I could? Perhaps, but I wouldn't have a clue about how to evaluate such a beast. Then Alex posted his series, and commenters lamented the absence of the Sprinter. So here you go, my best shot, courtesy of the good folks at Mercedes-Benz of Novi…

Offered for a few years as a Dodge, the Sprinter introduced Americans to Europe's idea of a proper van, which is quite different from traditional American vans. Get used to this big foreign-looking box: Ford and Ram (remember, it's now a brand) have similar vans on the way. Soon GM and newcomer Nissan will be the only players offering traditional American vans.

The European van concept has some clear advantages, beginning with the driving position. The driver sits high behind a minimal instrument panel and huge windshield. The engine intrudes into the passenger compartment, but much less than in the GM vans, so foot room is only slightly constricted. From the knees rearward there's no engine cover (GM) or massive console (Nissan) to get in the way. The seats, much firmer than you'll find in other vans, look and feel German, though more VW than Mercedes (this is a commercial vehicle, after all). Shaped to provide good support, as the hours accumulate they'd likely prove more back-friendly than the mushy seats in other vans. An option package includes front height, rear height, recline, and lumbar adjustments. These manual adjustments might be a little less convenient than the power controls in other vans, but they also have no motors to break.

Mercedes offers the Sprinter in four body styles: 144-inch wheelbase regular roof, 144-inch wheelbase high roof, 170-inch wheelbase high roof, and 170-inch wheelbase extended length high roof (cargo van only). Even the regular roof offers a higher ceiling than you'll find in a GM van, 60.6" vs. 52.9". The high roof adds another foot, such anyone up to six feet in height can walk around inside without fear of hitting their head on the ceiling. For people who actually work inside the van, this is a major selling point. Among current competitors, only Nissan also offers this feature from the factory. The rear cargo opening is also wider, 61.6" to 57.0", and this width is maintained floor to ceiling by nearly vertical body sides (American vans are jelly beans in comparison). Cargo length is 128.5", 169.3", or 185.0", depending on the body length, compared to 124.6" or 146.2" in the GM vans. In terms of cubic feet, the Sprinter's 318, 494 or 547 easily beats the GM van's 270 or 314. Even the short, regular roof Sprinter can hold more than the long GM, and over twice as much as the typical minivan.

Bottom line: there's a lot more usable space inside the Sprinter. This volume is easily accessed through wide, floor-to-ceiling door openings (right slider standard, left slider optional). The rear doors can be opened 270 degrees. The Sprinter 3500 can carry up to 5,375 pounds (vs. 3,992 in the GM van) and tow up to 7,500 pounds (vs. 10,000). The tested 2500 has a 2,872 pound payload, vs. 3,009 in the GM 2500 van.

Passenger capacity ranges from two to twelve people—the Sprinter can be equipped with one, two, three, or four rows of seats. Even with four rows installed, there's over six feet of cargo space in the 170-incher. Theoretically, Mercedes could fit a couple more rows, but has ceded the 15-passenger market to the domestics. Passenger-pleasing factory options are limited to roof-mounted rear HVAC vents; this Mercedes isn't remotely about luxury.

With such high cargo and towing capacities, you might think the Sprinter has a monster engine lurking under its stubby, steeply sloped hood. But the sole engine option, a 188-horsepower (at 3,800 rpm), 325 pound-feet (at 1,400 rpm) 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel V6, is much smaller and far less powerful than the V8 engines offered by GM, Ford, and Nissan. The only available transmission is Mercedes' tried-and-true five-speed automatic. Is this somehow enough? Unfortunately, I wasn't able to adequately test powertrain performance. During my test drive this powertrain accelerated the van as quickly as I'd desire in such a vehicle, with no apparent strain, even at 80 on the highway. Thirteen seconds to sixty might seem sluggish in a contemporary car, but this is a box big enough to swallow the contents of 3.5 minivans. Unless you're up to no good (white vans being the preferred conveyance of TV terrorists) or out to stop people up to no good (SWAT, the A-Team), you're not seeking an AMG variant. The problem: sixty arrives in 13 seconds with no add-ons, no passengers, no cargo, no trailer, and no big hills. Add one or more of these and the relatively small diesel might seem overwhelmed. The engine is obviously a diesel only when idling and at low speeds. There's not much engine noise even with the accelerator pressed to the floor. The transmission could be quicker to react. Surprisingly, shift paddles are not an option.

Fuel economy is a major selling point. Craig Astrein, Sprinter specialist at Mercedes-Benz of Novi, claimed that the Sprinter manages low 20s around town and mid-20s on the highway. Given the vehicle's size and 5,545-pound curb weight, this seems hard to believe. But following a 2/3 suburban, 1/3 highway loop with a few foot-to-the-floor acceleration runs the trip computer reported 17.6, which is better than my family's 7-passenger, 85-cubic-foot Ford Taurus X in similar conditions. Adblue is required, but this isn't nearly as expensive or as hard to find as it used to be.

Having never driven such a large vehicle before, I was most concerned about handling. Thankfully, the view forward could not be more open, especially compared to the Nissan. Looking through the huge windshield, there's little sense of the big box behind you. The view rearward depends on whether the Sprinter in question is a cargo, passenger, or crew (two-row) van, as the first can have no windows behind the first row. Large dual-element mirrors compensate. For operating in close quarters, front and rear obstacle detection is an option. The steering is, no surprise, slow and very light, but seems almost natural after just a few minutes on the road. Body motions are more tightly controlled than in the typical van, yet the ride is just a touch jiggly even without a load, at least in the 2500. (A Nissan NV 3500 rides like the truck it is in comparison, but it's likely not fair to compare a 2500 with a 3500.) Stability control is standard, but with visions of a big white box on its side I didn't push the Sprinter hard enough to test its operation.

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter starts at $37,285 for the 144 and $42,395 for the 170. The high roof (standard on the 170) bumps the price upward by $2,670, the extended wheelbase adds $2,440, and the extended rear overhang tacks on $950. Basic amenities (such as the seat adjustments, power mirrors, cruise control, and a trip computer) add about $895. For vehicle wearing the three-pointed star, this is cheap. For a cargo van, not so much. A Chevrolet Express 2500 extended length van with the 280-horsepower 4.8-liter gas V8 and similar features lists for $31,740. Opt for the 260-horsepower 6.6-liter Duramax diesel, though, and the GM van's price advantage entirely disappears. The choice then becomes one between cubic inches and cubic feet.

Until the new Euro-sourced Ford and Ram vans arrive, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is in a class by itself, with a high roof, huge cargo volume, well-behaved suspension, and efficient (if possibly inadequate) diesel engine. According to Craig, tradespeople who visit wealthy clients' homes also value the prestige conveyed by the three-pointed star. Even if their actual client is a dog.

Craig Astrein at Mercedes-Benz of Novi (MI) provided the tested vehicle. He can be reached at 248-426-9600.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

Sprinter front, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter front quarter, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter rear quarter, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter slider, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter instrument panel, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter interior, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter instruments, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter view forward, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter cargo area, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter cargo area 2, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter engine, photo courtesy Michael Karesh Sprinter sticker, photo courtesy Michael Karesh

from The Truth About Cars

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