Mercedes is launching a new version of Australia's top-selling big van range, with luxury car levels of safety and benchmark infotainment and telematics. But competition is hotting up...
The first new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in 12 years is a hugely important offering for the company’s van division. The X-Class ute gets the headlines, but this diverse van and cab-chassis range is the bigger seller, and technology flagship.
To pinch Mercedes-Benz’s own PR, the Sprinter has the level of importance to its commercial range that the S-Class does to its passenger brand. Fitting, then, that it has class-leading MBUX infotainment/telematics, and luxury-car levels of active safety tech fitted.
At present the Sprinter is also far and away the country’s most popular van/cab chassis in its class, the default for many individual users, right through to national ambulance services and Australia Post. But the competition has been stepping up.
The impressive new Volkswagen Crafter comes to mind, no longer a joint-venture Benz but its own beast. As does the Ford Transit Heavy, and the Renault Master. The Mercedes has never been the cheapest, but commercial operators have a number of other considerations from running costs, parts stock, vehicle management, resale and, of course, safety.
So is it still the king?
All up, there are a staggering 1700 or so variations to choose from, factoring in all the different body types (van, dual-cab chassis, single-cab chassis, motorhome-ready tractor head, bus), engines, drive configurations, cab designs, tonnages, colours, et cetera.
The cab chassis kicks off at $41,238 before on-road costs, the dual cab from $56,552 and the van from $46,008, topping out at $76,069 (for the time being). Read the full price list here, because we’re not going to spend 1000 words rehashing it in this review.
The Sprinter can be had with familiar rear-wheel drive, but now comes in front-wheel drive (FWD) guise for the first time. Ditching the driveshaft to the rear cuts weight by 50kg and makes room for an 80mm lower loading floor. It’s also cheaper.
There are a range of Euro 6-compliant diesel engines available. FWD models get a reworked OM 651 single-turbo 2.1-litre with 84kW at 3800rpm, and 300Nm of torque from only 1200rpm, or an uprated version with 105kW/330Nm. There’s also a 130kW option exclusive to motorhome builders.
RWD versions come with a 2.1 twin-turbo donk making either 84kW/300Nm (from 1400rpm), 105kW/330Nm, or 120kW/360Nm. There’s also a class-exclusive V6 diesel with 140kW of power and 440Nm of torque, the latter on tap at 1400rpm.
A fixed 35:65 ratio four-wheel drive system arrives in 2019 and can be had with the 105kW and 120kW four-cylinder engines, and the V6, for a premium of $13,660. Not cheap, though it’s $7000 less than it was before. Volkswagen only charges $4500 for 4Motion all-wheel drive on the Crafter.
There are a few different gearboxes too. The FWDs get a six-speed manual or an optional new nine-speed auto ($2875), the RWDs get a six-speed manual or seven-speed auto, while the 4WDs get the 7AT only. Fewer than 5 per cent of buyers opt for the manual these days.
Service intervals are two years/40,000km, and the warranty runs three years/200,000km (Ford’s is five year). Round-the-clock roadside assist is available throughout the warranty period. You can pay as you go or buy fixed service plans.
Three services on the RWD 2.1 diesel costs $2265 all up under this plan (about $750 a pop). For context, a RWD Transit with 30,000km/annual service intervals would cost $1380 for three services based on the company’s service calculator.
We drove two versions at the local launch; a van with 500kg load and the smallest engine option. Tackling a steep hill with 84kW/300Nm and a hefty load of concrete wasn’t the most refined experience, though we held 100km/h up the gradient. Shouldn't be an issue for a postie...
The 120kW/360Nm twin-turbo cab chassis was much more sprightly. Equally as good, the cruise control’s braking function kept us on 84km/h (on the digital speedo) with a heavy load all the way down a steep gradient. The stop/start was also unusually smooth.
In both, the steering was very light/non-resistant which, in tandem with the high seats and big glasshouse, made it a cinch to drive in urban surrounds. NVH suppression is good with the bulkhead fitted. The ride is… van-like. Plenty of body roll and sway, but a decent loping ride and active ESP to counteract crosswinds neatly.
Van GVMs vary from 3.55 to 5 tonnes, payloads sit between 1191kg and a whopping 2646kg, wheelbases between 3259mm and 4325mm, load lengths between 2607mm and 4307mm, and space between 7.8 and 15.5 cubic metres.
Options include dual sliding side doors and rear barn doors, and a $600 bulkhead that should really be opt-out. You can also fit wood or plastic flooring, LED strips, metal panelling, moveable pallet supports, and ingenious flat-top claddings over the wheel arches that made them useable surfaces.
Cab-chassis payloads vary between 1687kg and 2842kg, with exposed chassis rail lengths of between 3378mm and 4182mm before you chuck a tray on the top. The dual-cab payloads are more or less the same, and lose about 900mm in open chassis rail length.
From a technology standpoint, the Sprinter is without peer in the van market, though both the Crafter and Transit with their big phone-mirroring touchscreens offer stiff competition.
Every version gets the company’s new MBUX infotainment and telematics system, which Daimler spent more than a billion dollars developing for the group. This AI system can ‘learn’ about you and begin to shape its music or phone recommendations, and event reminders, to suit your profile with time. If you want it to...
It has smartphone-style swiping and pinch-and-zoom screen functions, and can also be controlled by little touchpads on the car-like steering wheel, which is more or less the same as that on the E-Class.
Two screen sizes are available: seven-inch as standard or 10.25 inch as a $1584 option, both with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (the latter from December production, but retrofittable).
There’s also conversational voice control, activated by saying ‘Hey Mercedes’, that can change the station, place calls, navigate places, show you alternate routes and more. The whole point is to keep you or your driver's hands on the wheel, and eyes on the road. It also means Daimler doesn’t need to rely on third-parties like Apple or Google to power its systems.
In about 18 months, Sprinters will get a new comms module and be connected to the cloud, meaning the car will be able to be tracked remotely by fleet owners, and take on software updates remotely.
Standard safety tech includes active brake assist (autonomous emergency braking), blind-spot monitoring, a reverse camera (not on the cab chassis), crosswind assist built into the stability control, and front and side airbags.
You can also pay $1067 extra for radar-guided cruise control, $1232 for a 360-degree camera, $554 for lane assist, $792 for auto parking and $485 for traffic Sign Assist. Those aren’t cheap features, but they’re there.
Storage-wise, there are cubbies in the roof, atop the dash, under the fascia near your knees, and in the doors. You can also fit memory seats, an electric parking brake and a Qi wireless phone charging pad.
At the end of the day, there’s a reason why the Sprinter is number one in its class. It’s not the cheapest van necessarily, but it’s a technology leader with a vast range of variations and an experienced network behind it. The fact so many discerning fleets choose it is a pretty telling recommendation, though go look at the Crafter and Transit too.