Moving house is a painful, frustrating, time-consuming and tedious process that is best left to the professionals – unless you have the right tools for the job … and some willing helpers.
I had both during my recent relocation from inner-west Sydney to the lower Blue Mountains, and after having secured a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Renault Master - along with some willing family members - we set about loading up and lugging a few loads out along the M4.
Both have their obvious advantages – utes allow you to load taller items with ease, while vans give you the option of simply squashing more in without worrying about messy ropes and straps.
In the same way, each has a distinct disadvantage – the van can only fit so much in, while whatever you put on the back of the ute will be subject to the elements.
The premise in mind was to see which would be better to move house with – but as with all of our comprehensive comparison tests, we’re looking at which vehicle would be better to buy and own, too.
Pricing and equipment
The two models here are both in the same category – the heavy commercial vehicle segment – and the Sprinter holds a distinct sales advantage. To May 2014, Mercedes-Benz has sold 985 Sprinters – more than four times the Master, with 279 units sold.
Both are available in a range of sizes and body-styles.
The Master has four different lengths available for the van range (along with three roof heights), while the cab-chassis models can be had in short- and long-wheelbase, the latter with the additional practicality of a dual-cab body with seven seats.
The version we tested was the long-wheelbase single-cab ute. All Master models come with a 2.3-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder engine producing 110kW and 350Nm, and a six-speed manual transmission is the standard fit gearbox, but there is an optional six-speed automated manual ‘box, too. All Master ute models are rear-wheel drive, but only the extra long-wheelbase van has rear-drive (short-, mid- and long-wheelbase vans are front-driven).
Prices for the Master range kick off at $40,490 (for the short-wheelbase manual van) and ranges through to $53,990 for the top-end models (the dual-cab auto ute and extra long-wheelbase auto van). Our ute had a manufacturer’s list price of $47,990, and had a Premium and Convenience Pack ($1290) that included sat-nav, under-seat storage in the passenger bench, additional door pocket storage and a hinged lid on the dashboard for secure storage.
The Sprinter van line-up is also available in four lengths, and like the Renault, has three roof heights to choose depending on the length. Cab-chassis variants are available as well, with both single- and dual-cab models available in mid- or long-wheelbase variations. The dual-cab has six seats maximum, but the Sprinter is also available in Australia as a mini-bus, with standard- and high-roof models available and seating for 12.
The Sprinter range has a broader range of engines available. There are three tunes of the 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel available, including the second-tier 95kW/305Nm (313 CDI version) tested here. A range-topping turbo diesel V6 with 140kW and 440Nm is also available.
The four-cylinder Sprinter can be had with a standard-six speed manual transmission, with an optional seven-speed auto available (priced at $2790). V6 models get the auto standard. All Sprinter models are rear-wheel drive, with the entry-level version kicking off at $41,990 (short-wheelbase low roof) through to the top-end mid-wheelbase bus at $74,990.
The Sprinter 313 CDI we drove had a manufacturer’s list price of $53,990 for the manual, and like the Renault, it had a number of options boxes ticked. They included a bulkhead to separate the cargo area from the cabin ($790), Becker Map Pilot satellite-navigation ($950), fog lights ($300), bi-xenon headlights ($1590) and a front bench seat to increase capacity to three occupants ($590).
Generally speaking, both the Benz and the Renault have adequate levels of standard equipment, including dual front airbags, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity with phone and audio capabilities, and a USB port. Both have air conditioning, but the Benz gets single-zone climate control as standard.
Safety for both comprises of the aforementioned head airbags for the driver and passenger, and both have electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and the availability of front-side/thorax airbags as an option.
The Sprinter takes the safety options even further, with packages including the Driving Assistance pack fitted to our vehicle that includes blind-spot assistance, forward collision warning, high-beam assistance and lane-keeping assistance. Our van had the Lane Tracking pack ($1800) that has everything but the forward collision system.
Interior and load area
Both of these big units have business in mind.
Each features a practical cabin with lots of storage and clever items to help turn the cabin into a mobile office.
The Renault, for example, has a flip-down middle seat that can act as a smoko table or desk, and it also features a number of usefully large storage slots on top of the dash for folders and documents. There is additional folder stowage at the top of the windscreen, too, and a plethora of cup and bottle holsters.
The Mercedes also has workplace ergonomics in mind. Its seats were more comfortable to slide into and out of and to sit in over longer distances, with better under-thigh support. It also had a small flip down section in between the two outboard seats, but it wasn’t as desk-like as the Renault’s.
However, the Sprinter’s in-cabin storage scored a big tick, with dash-top and overhead folder holders and huge door pockets. It missed out on the sheer number of cupholders of the Renault, but its interior presentation and finishes appeared to be of a higher quality.
The navigation systems for both vehicles were optional – and, to be honest, neither would be worth paying for, especially considering their prices. At $950 the Merc version as part of the regular media screen was simply frustrating to navigate, while the Renault’s system is positioned up where the rear-view mirror would usually sit. Both lacked the intuitive nature of a simple plug-and-play system that you can buy from as little as $100, or even the excellent Google Maps turn-by-turn navigation on most phones.
At the real business end, these two units offer plenty of usability. And we mean plenty.
The Sprinter features a set of tall barn doors as standard, so pallet loading is a cinch if that’s what you need to do, and it has a 1350mm gap between the wheel arches to accommodate such items.
The Mercedes-Benz has a kerb weight of 2265 kilograms, but its Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) is 3550kg, meaning it has a payload of 1285kg. That’s no small figure, given a dual-cab Toyota HiLux SR5 has only 865kg of payload.
The Sprinter’s load space measured a huge 4300mm long, 1780mm wide (but 1350mm between the arches) and 1940mm tall. That positioned it longer than the Renault but narrower, as the ute was fitted with a Top Dek tray ($3600) measuring 3600mm long by 2100m wide, and because it sits above the arches there’s no problems fitting in awkwardly broad objects.
The van’s rear loading lip was a handy 645mm from the ground, meaning lifting heavy items in is less of a pain than it was in the ute, which had a much taller load-in height (the bare chassis sits at 778mm, and the tray on top of that).
But the fact we could load a tall bookcase in the ute’s tray – rather than worrying about sliding it in sideways and eating up a lot of floor-space in the van – was a big plus. And while rain makes moving house with a ute a risky venture, we didn’t need to use a tarp on the day as the weather was fine.
We did note that it was much easier to just load things into the van and worry less about securing them to the walls of the cargo area, but everything on the ute had to be tied down with ropes, ratchet-straps or both. There was a lot of discussion and planning that had to be done with the rope work, too. Well, put it this way - my dad and my partner’s dad bickered over the best method of securing the load, before we eventually hit the road.
But in terms of heavy lifting, the numbers put the Renault as the musclier mover of these two.
It weighs less at 2005kg, and its GVM is a massive 4495kg. That means its payload is a huge 2495kg, or almost three-times the amount of a HiLux SR5.
The Master also offers a more impressive towing capacity than the Sprinter, with a 3000kg braked capacity compared to 2000kg for the Benz.
Engine and gearbox
There’s one vehicle here with a clear power advantage, and it’s the Renault.
With its larger 2.3-litre four-cylinder producing 110kW at 3500rpm and 350Nm from 1500-2750rpm, the French model has a distinct 15kW and 45Nm advantage over the German.
On the road, that extra grunt is noticeable. The Renault never once felt as though it was running out of steam, even up the steep climb on the Great Western Highway from Leonay upwards to Glenbrook. It powered on, with no need for a down-shift from sixth to keep it in its ideal power band.
The Renault easily caught up to the Mercedes, which was not exactly struggling up the hill with a full load on board, but it did drop down a few gears and the engine revved hard to try and keep things moving.
The Mercedes model does, however, have its peak torque of 305Nm reached from just off idle at 1200-2400rpm, meaning its drivability is better in urban conditions as it doesn’t experience any hint of lag from a standstill. The Renault, on the other hand, introduces its torque in more of a walloping fashion at 1500rpm.
The Benz’s seven-speed auto added to its city-friendly nature. The shifts were smooth and timely, and it found the right gear at most speeds for what was needed of the engine.
The Renault’s gearbox was less of a charm. The clutch had a heavy action to it, and the gears weren’t the smoothest to engage.
Mercedes-Benz boldly claims the Sprinter is “a van that drives like a car”. And we’ve got to say, they’re mostly right.
The ride quality and comfort of the Sprinter – both empty and fully loaded – was beyond exceptional. It cosseted the driver and my passenger (which happened to be my pet axolotl, Albert) over bumps, but there was some serious sloshing from Albert’s temporary tank when the body moved from side-to-side.
Despite its enormity, the Sprinter offered light and responsive steering, making parking easier than I thought possible. There’s the obvious oversight of not having rear parking sensors or a reverse-view camera fitted as standard, though, and seeing anything behind the van without using the side mirrors is near impossible.
The Renault was a little less comfortable in terms of ride quality. With its dual rear treads and an empty tray it did buck and fumble over road joins and potholes. With a load on board, the ride did settle significantly thanks to the extra weight over the back axle.
The Renault offers the peace of mind of capped price servicing. The Master requires workshop visits every 15,000km, with three years of servicing coverage at $349 per annum offered with it. Its warranty period is three years or 200,000km.
Mercedes-Benz doesn’t offer any standardised capped-price service plan for commercial vehicles. Owners can select a service plan that can be paid monthly, with schemes ranging between one and seven years in duration. The plans also allow owners access to discounted parts and labour over the term.
As a guideline, Benz says its vans essentially require standard service visits every 24 months or 23,000km – but the van will also tell you if it thinks a service is needed more or less regularly, based on information gathered by on-board sensors. Its warranty is three years or 200,000km.
When it comes to choosing one of these vehicles to move your stuff, it will really depend what your stuff is.
On the day, the Master proved very handy for taller, bulkier items. Loading heavy objects into its tall tray was troublesome at times, and we dread to think how things would have been had it been a rainy day, let alone owning one for work during weeks of prolonged damp. However, it did everything asked of it, and its engine was perfectly suited to the task - on top of that, its value equation can't be ignored, especially for those after an alternative to the Sprinter van.
But the Sprinter proved a more effortless drive by far, despite its lack of pulling power with a full load on board. The fact we could keep piling more and more in to the load area without necessarily bothering with securing the less shakeable objects (that bulkhead was a blessing), and its more liveable road manners got it the gong for The Mountains Move.
Click the Photos tab above for more images of the Renault and Mercedes being loaded up.
Thanks to Andy, Lyndall, Owen, Gemma, Cathi and Brian for helping with the move.