Mercedes-Benz is turning the spotlight on safety with its new facelifted Sprinter van, which is due to go on sale in the UK early next year.
The company is renowned for its innovative technology – it was the first van manufacturer, for example, to offer common rail diesel engines.
But in the past two years, other makers, notably Ford, Renault, Vauxhall, Citroen, Peugeot and Fiat, have all upgraded their panel vans with options such as satellite navigation and reversing alarms.
In a bid to preserve its second place position in the UK sales charts behind Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz has upped the ante by offering as an option an Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which is a quantum leap forward in the quest for extra safety on the roads.
ESP means the van will 'feel' when a driver is losing control of the vehicle and will correct the errors and stop skidding on wet or loose surfaces. The system builds on the van's anti-lock braking system, which has been available on Sprinter since its launch in 1995, and acceleration skid control, which has been an option for two years.
During a press event to launch the new Sprinter at Mercedes-Benz's development centre in Stuttgart, Georg Weiberg, head of development for vans, told Fleet News: 'The Sprinter will be the first and only model in its class to be equipped with ESP. This is a major safety milestone in this segment by providing valuable assistance to the driver by intervening in critical situations, for example if a vehicle starts to break away on variable friction roads or in the course of evasive manoeuvres.
'Some 25 times per second, ESP monitors and compares what the vehicle is actually doing with the driver's steering input. The first signs of instability, understeer or oversteer are detected within a fraction of a second. Stability is then restored by selective application of braking pressure to one or more wheels and by intervention of the engine management system.'
However, Weiberg added: 'Please note though that the last thing we want to do is encourage drivers to take risks – this system is simply there to take corrective action when it is better capable of doing so than the driver.'
While ESP will be a paid-for option on panel vans, Mercedes confirmed that in the UK it would be standard specification on crewbuses and minibuses.
The ESP system is just one of a raft of improvements for the new model, which will be previewed at the Hanover Van Show in September.
Outside, the Sprinter gets a smart new front end, with new shaped grille edged in the body colour of the van and clear glass headlamps which boost headlamp power. In the cab, an overhead document and parcel shelf has been added and for passenger carrying vehicles, air conditioning will be available in the rear.
The in-vehicle information system has also been upgraded with the addition of a sat-nav system and a parking sensor has been added to the options list, along with a heated front screen, rain sensors which automatically turn on the wipers when a certain amount of moisture is detected on the screen and metallic paint.
While the range of common rail powerplants, wheelbases and roof heights carry over from the old model, a conventional automatic gearbox joins the options list in addition to the Sprintshift semi-automatic system. Servicing intervals have also been extended to an oil change every 18,000 miles and major service every 37,000 miles. Prices will be announced nearer launch date.
Behind the wheel
IF any of the party of English, German and Italian journalists who attended the press driving day at Stuttgart were in doubt that Mercedes-Benz's ESP system was the best safety device since the invention of ABS or airbags, their scepticism was soon dispelled after a series of tests on the German manufacturer's hallowed test track.
Mercedes-Benz is not renowned for idle boasts and, after putting several Sprinters through tests that would have left any other van on its roof, I was forced to admit that ESP is a seriously wondrous piece of kit.
First up was the straight-ahead braking manoeuvre, which involved thrashing round the track in a 4.6-tonne Sprinter coupled to a two-tonne trailer. At 80 kilometres per hour, I stood on the brake pedal – literally. One cloud of rubber smoke later the van was at a halt, still facing in exactly the same direction and the trailer remained where it should be at the rear of the vehicle. Impressive stuff.
Next up was the slalom, where I was invited to weave in and out of 10 cones placed at 18-metre intervals. You'd imagine that Mercedes-Benz would choose a short wheelbase version for this test, but it was the 3.5-tonne high roof medium wheelbase that was on offer and the suggested speed was 50 kilometres an hour.
Thinking maybe the test officials were playing a trick on me, ready to laugh as I stuffed the van into a nearby hedge, I chickened out and eased off the throttle just before the cones began and was ordered to do it again – faster this time. Second time around I hit (or rather missed!) the cones at 55kph and the ESP system took me through safely with no problems.
On the skid pan, I was offered a drive in a Sprinter with and without ESP and the difference had to be seen to be believed. One minute I was like a figure skater gliding across the ice backwards and forwards, the next I was gripping the ground like a racing driver.
Lastly, I headed for a row of cones at 60kph to carry out two lane dodging exercises – a manoeuvre all van drivers need to perfect to avoid an accident. Once again, the Sprinter flicked through like a star.
The technology sounds – and indeed is – incredibly complicated but the great thing is the driver will never know. Only a small orange flickering light announces that ESP is actually in operation. I was convinced and if I was a van fleet operator I would specify this device, which would save its cost the first time a driver didn't have an accident.
The problem is many operators see no further than the bottom of their wallets and I'm left wondering just how many Sprinters will be bought with ESP when the van goes on sale next year.
The Sprinter is a fine van now – next year it will be even better. Watch out, Ford Transit, there's a German not far behind you.
Chiefs rule out an early entry into car-derived sector Mercedes-Benz chiefs have officially announced that there will be no commercial vehicle version of the recently-launched Vaneo MPV.
When the new model was revealed last year, Mercedes-Benz hinted that a van version would be added, giving the manufacturer its first toehold in the car-derived sector. But Peter Trettin, head of van sales and marketing, said: 'After lengthy discussions, we have decided not to make a Vaneo panel van because we have to focus on the target for this model, which is the retail car buyer.'
Trettin said the Vaneo was a highly specified vehicle and he did not believe the company could bring the price down low enough to tackle the opposition, such as the Citroen Berlingo and the new Ford Transit Connect. He said: 'This is a competitive sector and the Vaneo has high quality components, so we could not position it as a van against the opposition. It is a vehicle for private and leisure use.'
However, Trettin did not rule out a car-derived van in the future, although he scoffed at suggestions that Mercedes-Benz may join with another manufacturer. He said: 'We do not share our technology but studies are going on for a car-derived van. The trouble is we need to sell high volumes and we will not launch a product which does not come up to our high standards.'
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