2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter review: Quick drive

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has long been one of the go-to large vans in markets all over the globe. This new one sets benchmarks in a number of areas including cabin tech, while sticking with the familiar in others. The days of rough-and-ready work boxes are ending, if this is any guide...

Mercedes-Benz bills its new Sprinter as “the most versatile van in the world”. You don’t make that claim lightly, so it’s a given that heavy duty operators will expect it to deliver.

The Sprinter has long been the lynchpin of Mercedes-Benz’s Van division, Australia being no exception. The brand new one arrives locally from the fourth quarter of this year, and in many ways is sure to outpoint the Ford Transit, Renault Master and Volkswagen Crafter.

Benz has supplied "courier services, major motorhome manufacturers, service providers, eGrocery delivery, construction, manufacturing, rental, passenger transportation and of course Ambulance services,” said MB Vans Australia CEO Diane Tarr, reinforcing this humble van's importance.

We’ve driven it already. We were on a global launch event in Europe looking at a number of new MB products including the V6 X-Class, and it would’ve been remiss not to kick the van’s tyres too.

We drove a high-roof version called the 316 TDI, but to get a grip on the Sprinter range as a whole would take weeks. There are a staggering 1700 variants on offer - vans, buses, pickups, low roofs, roofs, various wheelbases etc. It’s dizzyingly complex.

Significantly, there’s a lighter and cheaper front-wheel drive (FWD) version for the first time, alongside rear-drive (RWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) layouts. Removing the heavy driveshaft enabled the engineers to lower the FWD’s floor 80mm and increase its payload by 50kg.

Climbing into the Sprinter’s cabin is enough to change the way you imagine a van’s interior. For one, it’s the second Daimler product after the A-Class to get the new MBUX infotainment system (as an option), displayed on a 10.25-inch HD display.

This means there’s a high-mounted touchscreen that swipes and pinches/zooms like the latest smartphones, and can be controlled additionally by touch-sensitive controls on the steering wheel. These controls are lifted from the S-Class, among others.

The new system is capable of cool stuff like conversational voice recognition - rather than summoning Google, Siri or Alexa, you say “Mercedes” to activate the robot assistance - to dictate messages or use the nav, and sports a LTE-capable internet connection. There are also cloud-based updates.

There’s other tech available such as a Qi wireless smartphone charging pad, live traffic updates, speed-sign recognition, 230V power sockets, radar-guided cruise control, lane assist, autonomous emergency braking, parking pilot, keyless start, memory seats, a 360-degree camera, rain sensors, and LED head- and tail lights.

The long and short of it is that the days of van drivers going without the newest and latest tech appear to be bound for history’s bin - as they should. No drivers spent more time at the wheel, after all.

Market-specific pricing and specs are still bering worked out, but clearly the cheap versions will go without much of this tech. You can expect all Australian models to come with standard AEB and front/side airbags, at the least.

Beyond the tech, the cabin’s fundamentals are pretty bang on. You get a digital trip computer display including speedo, that passenger car wheel with simple radio/MBUX and cruise controls, telescopic steering wheel adjustment, and seat height and lumbar controls.

There are also storage cubbies in the roof, atop the dash, under the fascia near your knees, and in the doors. The presence of a steel bulkhead with window between cabin and cargo area, not de rigeur in the segment, keeps NVH right down, and improves crash safety.

We won’t go into all the detail on capacities and body styles because frankly we don’t have 10,000 words to spare, though it’s worth noting the rear dimensions aren’t changed, to suit existing customers with body-building or racking requirements.

In short there are four body lengths between 5267 and 7367mm, wheelbases between 3250 and 4325mm, single or crew cabs, a tractor head with a 5.5t GVM for motor homes, various roof heights, tonnages up to 5.5t on twin rear tyres, and a max loading capacity of 17 cubic metres.

Our tester had dual sliding side doors and rear barn doors. You can fit wood or plastic flooring, and metal panelling, moveable pallet supports, and countless other things. If you want to pay Mercedes for the pleasure, you can order almost anything you want.

Our version also had ingenious flat-top claddings over the wheel arches that made them useable surfaces. It’s a brilliant idea, which makes you wonder why every van doesn’t have it.

There are a heap of engine options. Most use a ‘reworked’ OM 651 2.1-litre diesel in various tunes, from 84kW/300Nm (from 1400rpm) through to 130kW/400Nm. Our test van had 120kW of power and 360Nm of torque from 1400rpm, and a two-stage turbo.

In RWD form it uses a six-speed manual or seven-speed auto, the latter of which uses an annoying indicator-stalk-style shifter, while the FWD gets the 6MT and a new 9AT.

Those outputs don’t seem massive, but the 316 we drove hammered along happily at 130km/h, as quietly as the X-Class, albeit with only 350kg on board. MB has clearly done a lot to reduce clatter and vibrations.

Dynamically, the ride comfort is first rate, soaking up sharp hits and staying settled through corners. The driving position is ergonomic, and the electric-assisted steering is extremely light, ideal for city use but a little vague at speed. The brakes are also very sharp and responsive.

Ambulances and other services can also get a 3.0-litre V6 diesel making 140kW/440Nm, matched to a seven-speed auto, and RWD. It’s a detuned version of the X350d dual cab’s. Service intervals on all are 12 months and 30,000km.

All Australian models with FWD will get Euro 6 engines (meaning AdBlue and DPF), ditto for the V6, while RWD versions with the 2.1 diesel will retain a Euro 5 rating only.

Interestingly, there’s also an electric version on the way, with a 55kWh battery and a WLTP range of about 150km for last-milers. The payload is 900kg and the charge time from a 7.2kWh wallbox is eight hours. The small range is because the battery array must be kept small and light to enable payload. Denser batteries should improve this in time.

MB Australia says it has received interest in the EV Sprinter and imminent EV Vito, and will look to introduce them before 2020. There are some key fleets clearly after a few PR-friendly green offerings…

So, first thoughts after our quick drive.

Funnily enough, the slick infotainment, telescopic steering, and extremely quiet/composed road manners actually made the Sprinter feel more car-like and frankly more resolved in some ways than the X-Class ute joint-venture.

It certainly lifts the bar for big vans, though we’d note that rivals in Australia - notably Renault with the Master and Fiat with the Ducato - are doing razor sharp deals at the moment. The Sprinter deserves to command the inevitable premium, but not all will pay it.

We can’t pretend to be experts after a two-hour drive in a single variant, but if there are more modern and well thought-out vans somewhere, we’d like to hear about it. Comparisons with the imminent new Volkswagen Crafter, also very highly regarded, await.

The Sprinter is Mercedes-Benz Vans’ cash cow and lynchpin, and its engineering efforts here reflect that.

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