Fleet News

Mercedes-Benz ride and drive

MERCEDES-BENZ has quite a lot to crow about this year. Not only did the Sprinter win the best panel van title at the Fleet News Awards in March, but it has also been upgraded and remodelled with a raft of new improvements.

This new Sprinter may look very much like the old one but as there was nothing wrong with the looks of the previous model, that doesn't matter too much.

Subtle tweaks have been made to the outside, while inside, there is now an overhead document shelf and redesigned seat fabric and fleets can opt for such extras as heated windscreen and rain sensitive wipers £260, metallic paint (£850), Sprintshift semi-automatic gearbox (£770) and electric windows (£270).

But the Sprinter's piece de resistance – and what sets it apart from every other panel van on the road – is the optional electronic stability control system, in which sensors measure wheel speed and brake pressure on each wheel 1,500 times a second and automatically apply the brakes if they feel the van losing traction.

Mercedes Sprinter

It's a major step forward in commercial vehicle safety and is talked about in more detail later in this feature.

On test here is the 313CDI long wheelbase high-roof Sprinter with a 129bhp 2.8-litre engine with a payload of 1,410kg and load volume of a massive 13.4 cubic metres. Price is £22,050 ex-VAT.

Outside

Subtle changes separate the new model from the old one. The grille now has a body-coloured surround and the headlights are now clear but apart from that, the Sprinter is very much the handsome beast it has always been.

The three-pointed star is massive and will leave leave no-one in doubt as to this van's pedigree. There are plastic bumpers front and rear which will protect the corner but surprisingly, there are no side rubbing strips, leaving the doors and side panels exposed to annoying dings and dents that plague commercial vehicles.

In the front

Entry to our test model was by central locking, although the key was not of the plip variety. The doors feel massive and heavy and have to be closed with a mighty slam but once aboard, the cab exudes a quiet, calm air of efficiency.

The dash is stylish and functional and comes in an upmarket shade of grey, matching the grey upholstery. I wondered how Mercedes managed to achieve this feeling of calm and quiet until I noticed that the full bulkhead was padded – it seems to soak up a lot of sound. It's a simple but effective solution.

Seats are typically German – hard and flat – but very supportive too. The driver's seat adjusts in all directions and there is plenty of room behind the wheel for six-footers like me, even with the bulkhead in place. There was no adjustment for the steering column but it didn't prove a problem.

The dash-mounted gearstick allows extra legroom for a third passenger.Mercedes has added an overhead shelf to the facelifted model and there are nooks and crannies for odds and ends dotted around the cab. But the Sprinter has no two-litre cola bottle bins – an essential for today's white van man.

He'll have to make do with the coffee cup holder which sits next to the ashtray. There are two more holders in the door of the glovebox.

Our test van was loaded down with extras such as CD player at £305, electric windows, ABS brakes and of course that wonderful ESP (electronic stability program) system at £795.

In the back

In long wheelbase guise, this van is a massive moving machine, bragging a load volume of 13.4 cubic metres. The single side door and rear doors are as massive as the front ones and clang together like the gates of Fort Knox.Unhook the side doors and they fold right back 180 degrees with a clever hinging arrangement.

The rear bumper includes a step to allow easier entrance and there is a handy grabrail to haul yourself up into the load area.

Rubber matting protects the floor and there are six large load-lashing eyes on the van's sides, together with three large lights. Our test van also included ply lining, which any fleet operator worth his or her salt knows will pay for itself time and again in the life of the van.

On the road

Fire up the 2.8-litre powerplant and you'll discover that Mercedes has achieved a rather clever trick. While the common rail motor whirrs away quietly with the minimum of fuss and with no diesel 'death rattle', the engine somehow manages to sound macho and growly too.

Don't ask me how it is achieved, but the net result is that while the driver will feel he or she is in charge of a very big, powerful vehicle, the actual driving experience is fairly car-like.

The steering wheel is small, the clutch is light and the power steering gives the driver just enough feedback of what is going on under the wheels. It all adds up to a perfect balance. However, the dash-mounted gearchange proved notchy on our test van, although with just 400 miles on the clock it probably hadn't had time to bed in properly.

With 129bhp on tap, there is no shortage of power. Sprinters can be seen the length and breadth of the country frightening old ladies and creating mayhem in the overtaking lane of the motorways and having driven this van for a week I can see why. It releases its power so easily that you are soon pushing past the speed limit if you don't watch it.

At motorway speeds, driver and passengers can converse in little more than a whisper too. Which brings me nicely round to the ESP system. 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 Mercedes' 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. You won't find it on any other van.

I first tested this system on the Mercedes-Benz test track in Stuttgart and was amazed at the way it took control of the van and kept its occupants safe.But the fear is that some drivers will rely on it and indeed use it to drive even more dangerously than they do at present.

I first noticed the system working when I negotiated a roundabout in wet weather on my first drive. You won't feel anything happening but a little light containing an exclamation mark flashes near the speedo.

I was so intrigued by this phenomenon that I went round the roundabout a few more times – a little faster each time – to see what would happen. So, you see, even an old hand like me with no busy schedule to stick to was tempted to crank it to the max for no very good reason.

Verdict

I've long been a great admirer of all things Germanic (after all the Gelken forefathers hailed from the city of Hannover) and the Mercedes-Benz product in particular. The updated Sprinter moves the goalposts yet again in terms of safety technology and is a deserved winner of its top van title.

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter LWB H/R
Model Price (£) Engine (cc) Power (bhp) Torque (lb-ft) Wbase (mm) Load length (mm) Load width (mm) Load height (mm) Load vol (cu m) Rear doors GVW (kg) Payload (kg)
Sprinter LWB h/r 22050 2.8 129 221 4025 4215 1736 1855 13.40 Twin 3500 1390
313 CDi 3.5t dsl tbo

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