Fleet News

Long-term road test: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

THE safest van in the world is how Peter Trettin, Mercedes-Benz head of sales and marketing, described the new Sprinter at its launch in Vienna.

And looking at the new van’s seemingly never-ending list of safety features, it would be hard to prove him wrong.

The new Sprinter – due in UK showrooms on May 15 – is groaning with kit to protect white van man. Driver’s airbag, adaptive ESP (traction control), ABS brakes, acceleration skid control, electronic brakeforce distribution and hydraulic brake assist all come as standard, while window and thorax bags, hill-start assist and a new Parktronic parking assistance are offered as options.

The van has also been improved in the passive safety department (more of which later) and can now hold its head up against any car on the road.

The Sprinter will be built at the DaimlerChrysler factory in Dusseldorf and shares its production line with the new Volkswagen Crafter, although VW has changed the front end and has a different set of engines. Some 200,000 models will be built per year, of which 50,000 will be Crafters.

And while Sprinter makes its appearance in spring, VW won’t have any vans for sale until the autumn. Speaking at the launch, Trettin said the old Sprinter reached an all-time sales high last year. It is also fresh from winning the Fleet News best panel van award 2.8-3.5 tonnes.

He said: ‘So why did we decide to change it? Because in this day and age, standing still means falling behind.

The old model was the best van on the market but some of the competition had caught up and, indeed, in some areas had overtaken us. We are the technological leaders in the van market and always will be – as is shown with the new Sprinter. It is the safest van in the world.’

A total of 1,000 different models will be available when new Sprinter is finally at full production and prices will range from £15,330 to £26,270 ex-VAT.

Last year, Mercedes-Benz suffered in the UK because the firm simply couldn’t build enough Sprinters to satisfy worldwide demand. Constricted supply led to a 10% sales drop. In fact, so desperate was the situation, Mercedes shipped in models from its Argentinian plant to help satisfy demand. So will the new Sprinter be in short supply too?

UK van sales and marketing director Peter Lambert told Fleet Van: ‘Supply will be limited this year until we get to full production capacity in February or March 2007.

The current model will still be built until July and is selling like hot cakes. Some fleet buyers still know how good the current model is and would prefer to buy it at the cheaper rate.’

The new Sprinter is a radical departure from the chunky lines of the old model.

According to Mercedes-Benz, the new model ‘combines emotional and rational aspects and is a perfect blend of form and function’. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Whereas the Crafter features an outrageously macho front end, Mercedes-Benz has opted for a softer, more stylish conk which resembles other vans in the Mercedes-Benz family. Meanwhile, there’s a massive three-pointed star at the front and rear of the van which will leave others in no doubt about who made it.

There are three wheelbases on offer – 3,250mm, 3,665mm and 4,325mm – and four lengths, with the options of standard, high and super-high roofs.

Gross vehicle weights range from 3.0 to 5.0 tonnes and load volumes range from 7.0 cubic metres to 17 cubic metres.

A huge side-loading door measures a class-leading 1,300mm.

In the cab, there is more room than in the old model, the seats are totally new, offering better support, and the steering wheel angle has been changed from 47 to 32 degrees, making for a more car-like driving position.

All models come with electric windows, remote central locking, driver’s airbag, a CD player and six-speed gearbox.

Options include bi-xenon headlights with a cornering function, rain-sensing windscreen wipers and a keyless entry system.

The new Sprinter has a choice of engines – a four cylinder 2,148cc unit offering 88bhp, 109bhp, 129bhp and 150bhp and a new 3.0-litre V6 diesel with a blistering 184bhp – once again putting the Sprinter at No1 in the power stakes in the 3.5-tonne van sector. Europeans will also get a V6 petrol option offering 258bhp, but that version is deemed as not suitable for us Brits.

The four-cylinder unit has torque ratings of between 162lb-ft and 243lb-ft while the V6 has 295lb-ft.

All engines are common-rail, achieving Euro IV standard, and are rear wheel drive. The old Sprintshift automatic gearbox is no longer available but a full automatic will be on the list.

Oil changes are only necessary every 40,000km or two years – or put in practical terms, the vans can travel once round the world before needing attention.

It is worth turning our attention back to the Sprinter’s stunning array of safety gear.

Mercedes-Benz originally introduced ESP traction control systems as standard on the Sprinter in 2003 and to show how important this system is in preventing crashes, a survey found that since then in Germany, at-fault accidents suffered by Sprinter drivers have dropped by one third.

It’s a Bosch system which is found in many passenger cars nowadays and works together with the ABS system detecting sideways movement of the vehicle and applying the brakes to individual wheels to bring it back under control.

The new Sprinter goes one better and upgrades the system to adaptive, which includes a self-learning facility which estimates vehicle mass and centre of gravity. In other words, it adapts itself when loads are placed in different areas of the van.

Additional functions also include roll-over mitigation, roll movement intervention and understeer control.

It all sounds complicated but works away on its own without the driver even knowing, helping correct the van during bad driving and emergency situations. The only way a driver knows it is working is when an orange light winks on the dash.

Other active safety devices include three-point seatbelts with tensioners and force limiters on all seats.

On the passive safety front, the new model has a more rigid structure, featuring stronger side members. In the event of a severe crash, the centre attachment point of the front subframe breaks away, freeing up an extra crumple zone underneath.

In the rear load area, an optional load restraint system is available, which features rails in the floor and side walls and adjustable straps to hold heavy objects in place.

Behind the wheel

HAVING just driven the new Volkswagen Crafter a couple of weeks before, it was an interesting experience to compare notes with the new Sprinter.

The two vans may come off the same production line but you’d never guess it by looking at them. The Sprinter looks almost delicate and dainty against the gruff front end of the Crafter, although of course it’s anything but dainty when it comes to performing in everyday life.

But it’s top marks to the design team who have come up with a finely-chiselled exterior on the Merc that at last looks as good as it drives.

From our hotel in Vienna at test driving time, we were offered a choice of all the power derivatives, so which do you think I went for first? You guessed it – the big V6 in long- wheelbase format, which knocks all the other 3.5-tonne offerings into a cocked hat as far as power is concerned.

Yes, I know it’s not going to be the big fleet seller and I should have opted for the more diminutive 109bhp version first but – well, wouldn’t you have done the same?

This model also featured the keyless entry system, which is not such a waste of cash as some operators might think. You simply keep the key in your pocket and the doors open by themselves as you walk up to the van. They lock again as you walk away.

But there is more to the system than that. Go to the side of the van and the loading door glides back electrically. It’s a real boon to drivers who are constantly loading and unloading big boxes.

Once in the cab, it became immediately obvious that it is bigger, airier and more comfortable than the old Sprinter. There is more legroom for driver and passengers and cubby holes, cup holders and document storage spaces galore – including two in the roof above the windscreen.

And that driver’s seat is a definite best in class. It hugs every contour of the body and adjusts in every direction for a perfect fit. I’d like to meet the person who designed it and shake their hand.

With 184bhp under my foot, I was expecting some seriously searing acceleration but of course that is not what this van is about. True, you’ll never be lacking in the oomph department, even with a full load and going up a steep hill, but torque is the main strength of this powerplant.

With a half load behind, this unit proved a joy to drive. It was quiet and calm in its power delivery and with a beautifully-weighted power steering and suspension set-up, I could have glided on effortlessly all day long.

My co-driver and I could talk in muted voices, even at high speeds, and we were so delighted with this model that we were almost tempted to ditch the Mercedes-Benz planned route and head for Bratislava, which we saw signposted at one point.

But sense prevailed and we headed for the pre-arranged coffee stop, where we rather reluctantly swapped vehicles.

To atone for our sin of picking the big boy first, we opted for the lowest powered 88bhp 311 next.

Expecting to be rather disappointed, we climbed aboard for the next 100-mile leg of our journey. But we were in for a surprise.

Far from the sluggish performance we had been expecting, this van delivered its power in a most lively manner and certainly couldn’t be accused of being underpowered. Mind you, this part of the journey was on flattish terrain and the van was a short wheelbase model and didn’t have a load on board. In other circumstances things might have been different.

For our third drive, we managed to secure a 109bhp version in medium wheelbase format and it soon became obvious that this is going to be the choice for most fleet customers.

It competently coped with a variety of hilly roads with a half-load on board and seemed the ideal blend of power and weight.

Verdict

FOR the UK, the main rival to the Sprinter is the Ford Transit – and this new model puts the old Transit firmly in the shade.

But Ford is not a manufacturer to let its market share slip away easily and I’ll soon be jetting off to sunny Frankfurt to drive the brand new Transit, which is set for sale later in the year. Can the blue oval retain its lead over the three-pointed star? Find out soon...

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