Bliss /blis/ noun : The definition in Webster’s should be “That feeling you get when on a road trip with the kids and you realize that they are separated by so much space that they can’t put peanut butter in each other’s ears or even reach each other.” And that is exactly what we have here in the form of a van that a fully upright human (well, most anyway) can walk around in and choose any one of 12 seating places. And if that’s not enough, there’s a longer one available with a 170″ wheelbase (as opposed to the 144″-er here) that adds another row for three more people (or one more teen) to spread out in.
The Sprinter is pretty much the grand-daddy of the new wave of “Euro-Vans” that has been sweeping the nation over the last few years, in fact over here it dates back to 2001 when it was originally sold as a Freightliner (a heavy truck brand owned by Mercedes). A couple of years later it was also sold as a Dodge, and then finally as the real thing, a Mercedes-Benz complete with three-pointed star on both ends.
Interestingly, the current line can also be purchased through and badged as a Freightliner if one prefers. Sales are currently at a high of around 30,000 units annually in the United States with many sold as work vans, commercial shuttles and the basis for medium-sized RVs, but more and more private individuals are purchasing them off the showroom floor to either just drive them as is or to convert them themselves into their own RV.
Several years ago Mercedes introduced a 4×4 version over here and then for 2019 a redesign occurred with many differences both cosmetically and under the skin, which is representative of the version we drove. I’ve seen people driving them around (they aren’t uncommon here in Colorado) and relished the opportunity to see what it was all about for myself.
Not surprisingly the first impression is of how large it is; the 4×4 version rides about 3.5″ higher than the RWD version and with the high roof that allows people up to about 6’3″ to walk around inside with bumping their head (that 3.5″ figure is from the Mercedes website but it feels like more). The exterior measures 117″ inches tall, add the rear AC unit on top of that and it is more than 10 feet in height. Driving around my neighborhood I was constantly driving around low hanging trees (that I never considered as low-hanging previously) and I didn’t dare try to go into a drive-thru anything.
The second impression is that this is definitely a Utility Vehicle first and not a luxury cruiser as most Americans have been conditioned to think of Mercedes. Of course Mercedes has a very long and successful history of building all manner of utility vehicles, trucks, taxis, etc, but at first glance things such as the steel wheels and the unpainted black plastic bumpers can seem a little “off” to those not in the know.
Opening the door presents a further dose of utility as the interior of this passenger van is clad throughout in black, with the dashboard and all other plastics being of the hard (we call that durable) variety and the seats at least clad in leatherette (an optional extra, cloth is standard). The headliner is cloth however, in a slightly patterned black motif as are the insides of the A-pillars, which strikes one as slightly odd as there are countless other vehicles with less utility-oriented materials inside where these are plastic.
Note that once that door is open and ready for entry, in the 4×4 version it’s a deliberate climb up to the seat, it’s high, and the driver will use the steering wheel and perhaps the door panel to get on up there and the passenger will use a combination of the door and a grab handle. If you think the average SUV or large pickup is far off the ground, this is much higher.
Once up there however, the immense windshield presents a view unlike many other vehicles. (the picture above sadly does not do it justice). The seating position allows those in front to see OVER almost every other vehicle on the road, and leaves one only a bit below the position of a big rig driver. Non-4×4 models sit about 5″ lower, which still puts the seating position higher than most SUV drivers.
The wheel is a typical Mercedes wheel in every respect except that it isn’t leather covered (an option), it’s just a molded urethane unit with the left spoke containing some controls for the trip computer and settings, more or less identical to other Mercedes models including a touch sensitive button that lets one scroll through menus etc. The handbrake is similarly a large plastic affair right next to the driver’s seat, and operated manually (but can be replaced by an electric unit for a small upcharge).
Starting the engine is done via a button and it fired up quickly and fairly quietly. In this unit it was a turbodiesel V6 but with the windows rolled up, there is no diesel-like sound inside. There is engine noise, but not recognizably diesel-like, however from the outside it sounds as one would expect.
Incidentally the Sprinter is now also available with a gasoline-fed turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, however in the 4×4 models the turbodiesel V6 is required. (Europe also has an electric Sprinter on offer, along with a FWD version now as does much of the competition – if you think you’re seeing a lot of these types of vans around the countryside over here, that’s nothing compared to the market on other continents, these vans are absolutely ubiquitous, sort of like pickups here.)
The driver’s seat is firm, manually adjustable with a handle underneath for fore and aft movement, a wheel at the front side to raise or lower the front edge of the cushion, and another wheel at the back side to infinitely adjust the backrest angle. The whole seat can be raised or lowered by pumping a lever on the side. Lumbar is powered and four-way, and just in case anyone thinks that driver comfort is not one of the aims here, there is also an extendable thigh cushion that extended further than any I have ever seen one do in any sports sedan and frankly was too long for me to use fully extended.
There’s also a folding armrest on the inside to help keep you in place and I found it all very usable and comfortable for distance driving. My wife however found the passenger seat (which has the same adjustments as the driver’s seat) to be less comfortable for her, but she is much shorter than I am and likes a more plush seat, so as we all know, seat comfort is extremely subjective.
The seats in back are in rows of three seats per with the last row being four across. Every position has its own three-point belt with the shoulder strap integrated into the backrest, there are no dangling seatbelts everywhere/anywhere.
Every position also has their own foldout cupholder at knee level and there is a charge port and phone holder on the wall at the end of every row. A distracted and occupied passenger is a happy passenger which makes for a happy driver.
Since I broached the subject of cupholders, I have to point out that Mercedes did learn some lessons from their tie-up with Chrysler, the minivan cupholder king. To wit, the driver and passenger each get two cupholders in the center console area and ANOTHER two cupholders on top of the dashboard in front of them. That’s two each up there, not two total, for a grand total of eight. Then the double door pockets on either side have provisions to hold more cups or bottles on top of that. There is no need to go thirsty in a Sprinter, my friends.
The dashboard is also more utility-like, while well laid out with an easy to read set of instruments that are very much on the sparse side (most info is available in the digital screen inlaid within the gauges), and a large center panel that has a large screen available, but in this instance was merely equipped with a basic AM/FM radio and some more cubbies. Bluetooth is available and when paired makes a curiously lovely trilling/ringing sound to denote an incoming call.
Seats in back have plenty of legroom with the choicest seats being in the row immediately aft of the front seats for the most room and the center seat of that row for ultimate legroom between the front seats and a view out through the windshield, but the rows further back aren’t cramped either and have the bonus of a more panoramic sideways field of vision through the immense window panels. This may be one instance where a panoramic sunroof might be something I would enjoy but is not available. Or perhaps those upper edge windows like an old “Alpen”-tour bus.
The rows of passenger seats can be removed, leaving a flat load floor, however I did not attempt to do so. They look sort of heavy and would likely need at least two people to remove to ensure no damage occurs, either to the van, the seat, or the person…There is no carpeting whatsoever, just a hose-out or at least broom-out and wipe-down surface.
With all seats in place, there is still a lot of cargo space in the rear with strong-looking tie-down loops embedded in the floor. If someone decided to remove one or more rows of seats, of course that cargo space would get even bigger.
The rear doors open a full 180 degrees and hold themselves in place on moderate inclines. After opening them I noticed the one quality lapse on this one, this van (which had over 7000 miles on it) had a delaminating rear upper door pad, and the outer skin of it was dangling.
Of course I have no knowledge of who used the van or how they used it, it’s certainly possible this was due to some external factor, but the vinyl cover was split at the seam, it’s a similar construction to an older vinyl covered sunvisor. Other than that everything was tight and rattle-free, save the sliding door which caused a slight rattle over bumps on colder mornings, however once warmed up slightly that ceased as well and likely something that could be adjusted easily if a tech can replicate it on a colder morning.
The side door is a slider (passenger side only) and requires a hefty pull but then slides quickly and solidly into place (power door optional). You do have to be of a certain height to use it, my smaller kid above had a bit of trouble as he was too short to pull the handle out laterally to get it to release, instead he was pulling with more of a downward motion.
Pretty much all of these types of vans now incorporate the same clever fuel filler flap that is by default locked if the driver’s door is closed as it is trapped by it. Opening the driver’s door allows one to open the fuel filler flap and refill the tank. Handy to always have it locked without any thought, but caution is required when filling the tank, any splashback due to trying to fill it further than designed has the potential for fuel to splash into the driver’s compartment, especially if wind is present.
As mentioned above, the engine is a turbodiesel V6, specifically one sized at 3liters and producing 188hp at 3800rpm and 325lb-ft of torque at 1400-2400rpm. Mated to that is Mercedes’ 7-speed automatic transmission, controlled by a similar column-mounted “wand” that is present in much of the brand’s SUV range. Shifter paddles are also included, likely less to indulge your inner Lewis Hamilton and more to hold a specific gear.
In practice, I found the engine to be pleasant to drive, except for whenever setting off from a stop. Perhaps altitude has something to do with it (5000feet at my lowest point, 7200 at my highest) and heat seemed to exacerbate the issue. When starting there was very little power for longer than many other turbodiesels I’ve driven seem to generate (including other turbodiesel 3liter V6’s such as the one I am driving this week) and when I gave it more gas it would still feel flat but then the boost would come on and it would surge forward. Weight may well be another factor, the base weight of this vehicle is close to 6500 pounds with driver and fuel. Objects at rest tend to remain at rest and so on as we learned in Physics 101…
It never ended up feeling very natural to try to modulate my foot more without a lot of concentration, and in the instance that I parked the van in Laramie in the hot sun the morning I drove up there and then went somewhere half an hour later it seemed even laggier, perhaps due to heat soak in the engine compartment mixed with the thin air, although the hood scoop/vent on the left side does directly feed the intake to help.
Now, once underway, everything was great, it’s a revvy engine (for a diesel) that has no compunction about swinging around the dial and is quick to downshift when needed. Its comfort spots seemed to be around 45-50 mph, a normal byway cruising speed where everything is very quiet and power is plentiful when desired, and somewhere between 65 and 70mph, where the combination of tire, road, and wind noise combine to make one have to raise their voice to be understood by the front passenger. It would still accelerate from those speeds, but the van is limited to 90mph and doesn’t seem to really like travelling near that speed.
Cornering was better than expected, yes it’s a tall van and it does lean a bit, but as long as one is cognizant of road conditions and recommended cornering speed signage, there is no danger of tipping. Corners can be tackled at fairly normal road speeds, similar to an average SUV or truck, not a sportscar of course.
Sprinters come equipped with “Crosswind Assist”, something that anyone with any experience driving a van in windy conditions can readily appreciate. If the van is traveling in excess of 50mph and senses a crosswind, the van will gently apply the windward side’s brakes to “steer” the van toward it in order to keep it traveling straight.
I didn’t drive it in any abnormally high winds but didn’t find myself ever sawing at the wheel either so presumably it works although I never actually felt it. I’ve driven enough vans in my life to know the feeling (it’s not fun) and this one was very stable even when driving through a massive rainstorm on the way back from Wyoming.
When the urge to head up into them thar hills strikes, the 4×4 system is activated by a switch on the dashboard, it is recommended that the van is stopped as a pair of spur gears are activated by an electric motor in the differential, once activated dropping it into Drive allows the van to move forward and engage the spur gears thus locking it into 4WD.
When looking underneath the van, the reason for the ride height increase quickly becomes apparent. The transfer case hangs down from behind the transmission and has a driveshaft that runs back toward the front. The front subframe is lowered (thus keeping actual ground clearance under it and the rear differential about the same as RWD models) and above it is the differential and lateral half-shafts.
Note that there are no skidplates of any sort and only really one double crossbar that kind of (maybe) protects the transfer case from a hit from the front. Without care it would seem to be easily possible to make contact with the front subframe, rear differential, transfer case and the long 24.5 gallon fuel tank mounted under the floor.
I presume anyone “overlanding” with a Sprinter 4×4 equips their van with a set of protective equipment but as equipped from the factory, the 4×4 is set up more for adverse weather conditions than for serious off-road action – for example it would be far better suited to transport a dozen skiers from the lodge in Vail to the ski lift area than to take a family camping well off any marked and maintained roads where rocks and boulders may be present. The ride height increase is deceiving in that regard as I think most people are conditioned to believe that a greater ride height means more ground clearance etc but obviously that’s not necessarily the case. The main advantage is in approach, departure, and breakover angles here but the reason for it is entirely to accommodate the mechanical differences versus the RWD version.
Mercedes equips the 4×4 with a low-range button that when activated reduces the gear ratios by about 40% with a commensurate increase in torque and decrease in speed. Activating it simply requires the press of another dashboard button, of course the 4×4 needs to be engaged first. There is no limitation to traveling in 4WD on any surface or at any speed and supposedly even the fuel mileage remains similar. The left button below engages the 4WD, the other button that looks like hill descent control in reverse actually engages the Low Range. The remaining four buttons are presumably for features not present on this van. Or for you to add toggle switches to control a big row of KC Hi-Lites along the top of the cab!
Buttons are nice and convenient to have, their placement could be better though as they are buried next to the steering column and require looking down and around the steering wheel to select the correct one. There really is enough dashboard space to raise these much higher.
I drove the van off paved roads for about 25 miles, the vast majority of that in RWD. I only really needed to put it into 4WD once, when I stopped in the middle of a somewhat steep hill (it was much steeper than the photo above makes it appear). In 2WD the rear tires started to spin, but in 4WD it just hooked up and pulled me up the hill.
The tires themselves are not at all off-road oriented, but rather highway-treaded light truck tires. Obviously that’s an easy thing to change along with skidplates for the dedicated off-roader. Grip though was good on loose surfaced roads and dirt trails such as what can be seen in some of these pictures.
The power is split 35/65 front/rear and doesn’t contain any mechanically locking differentials, any wheelspin is handled by the Electronic Traction System (4ETS) by utilizing the ABS sensors and braking any spinning wheel(s). By braking a wheel with lowered traction, the recovered torque can be sent to and utilized by the other (non-braked) wheels.
It works and seemed seamless to me, however as I’ve stated in the past I’m far more familiar with on-road AWD systems than rock-crawling 4WD systems and what works best where. My sense is that for the average van driver and even the more adventurous sort, this van is very well capable of getting someone very far from civilization as long as common sense is employed.
Gas (ok, Diesel) mileage for this weight class isn’t required to be on the window sticker so I had no idea what it “should” do in that regard. I drove it for about 325 miles in total which was mainly in two larger segments along with some in-town mileage. First I drove up to Laramie and back along with about 25 miles off-road for a total of about 175 miles and then 30 or so more miles at home in town. I then filled up after 209 miles and it took 12.2 gallons to refill it so just over 17mpg.
After filling it we drove up to Estes Park for the day with the family and back for another 95 miles and then more in town mileage the next day. The trip computer which I had reset after fueling and before leaving for Estes Park claimed 18mpg from that point on. So somewhere between 17 and 18mpg seems about right at this altitude. Curiously diesel fuel is currently cheaper than unleaded around here, averaging just under $2/gallon which was a nice bonus though it’s likely to not remain that way.
However for those that had been thinking that this van is either a slightly bigger version of the average minivan or a great substitute for a plush 7-8 passenger SUV, you’d be mistaken. This van is far larger than any minivan and seems larger than a traditional American full-size van of yore. While equipped with superior dynamics than the older full-sizers (and far preferable to those, I hasten to add), driving this around town for daily chores etc is nothing like piloting a minivan which invariably drive more like a normal (if large) FWD car.
This is not like that at all. It’s harder to see out of to the rear, thank goodness for the rear-view camera in the rear-view mirror which works but would be much improved with a bigger screen in the center console. It is more ponderous and nowhere near as nimble, parking is more difficult, and simply getting in and out is more difficult.
As far as comparing to a large SUV, this is not nearly as fast on any road, is louder at highway speeds, is not anywhere as “luxurious” as most of those, and while it can haul more people and cargo, that is due to its size, packaging, and mission.
I’m not at all saying it’s a bad vehicle, it isn’t, but it is not like the vehicles of those other segments and not a good substitute for either if one of those works well for what is needed. As much as some of us for example tend to (sometimes unfairly) denigrate those who we think drive around in large pickups for example without a purpose for doing so, those people that drive these vans around town and don’t use them for their real purpose (carrying lots of cargo or many people or camping etc) but merely as a lifestyle accessory are even more ridiculous. It’s not really “fun” to drive, sort of like renting a U-Haul 26-footer stops being “fun” after the first ten minutes of driving it.
It has some excellent aspects and serves multiple very valuable purposes but is a vehicle that should probably be bought and enjoyed based almost entirely on “need”, rather than simply “want”. I will point out that curiously nobody seemed to take any issue whatsoever with the fact that I drove it by myself with eleven empty seats much of the time, instead it got more attention and random people walking by stopping to ask questions than any other vehicle I’ve tested since an Alfa Romeo sedan last summer. People assume that if you drive a van, you need to, I guess.
A van equipped like this one starts at $48,990, that’s for the 12passenger version with the high roof. (4×4 is extra). This includes Front and Rear A/C systems (that worked great in this black van in 90degree heat this week), 16″ steel wheels with 245/75-16 LT tires, 3.923 rear axle ratio, Trailer pre-wiring with a 5000lb tow rating, 24.5gallon fuel tank, Fuel-fired heater booster (18,000BTU), the Crosswind Assist, Side and Window area Airbags for the driver and passenger, a FMVSS 217 Emergency Exit (!) for those in back, Luxury Interior Trim with USB-C ports (but no regular USB ports that I could find), Keyless Start, and the AM/FM Radio with five speakers in front and eight in the back along with various other features that you can find detailed on the MBVans.com website.
Options include the big one, that being the Low and High Range 4×4 package at $7,800. Jet Black non-metallic paint costs $1,015 which heats the van like an oven in the sun, no need for that unless you live in Northern Alaska. The Black Leatherette seating surfaces cost $400 (feels the same as in a GLS), Cruise Control and Comfort Front Seats that normally cost $700 combined but were offset with a credit on the sticker, Armrests on the door panels for $33 (nicely trimmed little soft pads for your elbow, at only $33 for the set I want a few more to place around the house!), the Driver Convenience Package at $1,210 (Blind Spot Assist which is a must and heated power mirrors along with a hinged door for the glovebox on top of the dashboard), and then the destination charge at $1,195 for a grand total of $61,333.
There are tons of other options available, both luxury-oriented as well as functional – you can spec the tires from several choices, or even pay extra for specific ones for example, or set different speed limiters, or have the wheels painted to match the body, or make the sliding door powered, you get the idea, the sky is sort of the limit, it’s kind of fun to see what all is available and some are not at all unreasonably priced (painting the wheels this same body color is $77 for example).
If you “need” something like this and can use the 4×4 there hasn’t been much else like it to date, however Ford does now have the Transit in 4WD form as well, but RAM does not and likely won’t. The build quality is excellent, Mercedes has been building Sprinters since 1995 and many other van lines before it and has much experience in cargo as well as passenger transport. The van was solidly built, seemed well thought out, and was easy to use.
And of course in certain circles pulling up to the campfire or ski lift in a Mercedes vs a Ford is worth something too. I’ve not driven but have seen the Ford and the 4×4 one doesn’t ride as high as the Mercedes, precisely that trait (the higher ride) is what people seem to value in this van. #VanLife is alive and well in America, and shows no signs of abating, it’ll be interesting to watch the battle going forward.
Thank you very much to Mercedes-Benz for arranging the loan of the van along with a tank of diesel fuel and for being available to answer some technical questions when needed.