To the casual van observer, there are likely three seminal categories of big-box hauler. 1) The white Ford Econoline. 2) The decades-old conversion vans made by various manufacturers, with a porthole, an angel and a unicorn floating in an airbrushed rendition of the cosmos. 3) The European van, up until recently embodied solely in the form of the Mercedes-Benz (or Dodge or Freightliner) Sprinter.
It's the latter we flew to Germany to drive, the 2014 model year adding a new standard engine and transmission, new safety tech and a finespun redesign. The fresh elements aren't just to give buyers a reason to go brand-new, though. With the Nissan "Proboscis Monkey" NV200 having already arrived, Ford about to import its larger Transit cargo hauler and the Fiat Ducato ready to become the Ram ProMaster, the European van that started it all needs to prepare for new competition that actually aligns with its feature set.
If anyone has issues with the 2014 Sprinter, they shouldn't have anything to do with its performance...
The biggest change lives right under the Benz's short nose: a 2.1-liter, four-cylinder diesel engine mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission has become the Sprinter's standard engine. Up until now, the Sprinter has only offered a Hobson's choice of motors, that being a 3.0-liter, six-cylinder diesel paired with a five-speed automatic. The six-cylinder and its automatic partner stay, maintaining the same numbers – 188 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. But when the new van goes on sale on September 1, they will migrate to the option sheet.
The common-rail, direct-injected, four-cylinder diesel with a two-stage turbocharger slides into the base-model spot with 161 hp and 265 lb-ft. In US trim, that twist comes on as low as 1,400 rpm. That's 7 horsepower and 22 pound-feet more than the inline five-cylinder that was the sole engine choice for most of the Sprinter's time here (before the 3.0-liter six arrived) – a powerplant buyers liked enough to give the Sprinter a toehold in our market. The seven-speed transmission is fitted with a torque converter in order to keep a plush edge on gearchanges. The curb weight of the Sprinter panel vans vary with configuration, but this engine and transmission will be the go-to combination even for models that break the five-ton GVWR barrier. That makes the torque converter a kind consideration since no one should be surprised that an engine with such modest thrust must employ every available ratio to find the most efficient way forward.
A 2.1-liter, four-cylinder diesel engine mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission has become the Sprinter's standard engine.
Gains in efficiency have been eked from other points in the drivetrain, including a remap of the generator management system, a power steering pump that operates on the hydraulic steering only when needed and a more precise fuel pump. Even the profiles of the teeth in the rear axle's differential and the oil flow around them – improved so as "to reduce churning loss" – have been upgraded by Daimler engineers. Fuel economy numbers haven't been laid down yet, but we were told that the new four-cylinder will return an 18-percent improvement in fuel economy versus the 2013 Sprinter with the six cylinder.
Van connoisseurs will know the new Sprinter by its corporatized face, sharpened and mildly streamlined to bolster its connection to its Freightliner doppelganger and the entire Mercedes-Benz heavy truck and specialty truck lines (Actros, Axor, Antos and Atego; Unimog and Econic). A higher hood falls into a more upright grille that contains three perforated louvers centered on a punched-up Three-Pointed Star. The face is flanked by sleeker headlamps broken into discrete light units, with LED daytime running lights along the lower edge. Underneath, the lower edge of the bumper gets more buff to mimic the ruggedness of an SUV, yet still contains the step in the center for when it's time to wash the windshield. Alterations out back are comparatively minor, with segmented taillights making the biggest mark.
While the engine is a study in frugality and the redesign a matter of coherent ornament, where the Sprinter truly begins to shore up its Mercedes-Benz credentials is with its new safety systems. We're not suggesting that Mercedes has rested on the Sprinter, but so far, it has been the only European-style, large-cargo-volume-with-small-engine-size van in the market. In fact, before the NV200 went on sale, the Sprinter was the only van in which a person could stand upright straight from the dealer. These differences were enough to confer prominent distinction. Safety technology – or better yet, the luxury of safety technologies that we identify with Mercedes passenger cars – is where the 2014 Sprinter no longer just says "I'm a Mercedes van," but, "I'm the Mercedes-Benz of vans."
Crosswind Assist is the sixth feature on the way, but won't appear in-market until 2015.
The features – they'll be offered together in an optional package that will add around $1,780 to the purchase price – are Blind Spot Assist, Highbeam Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and Collision Prevention Assist with Adaptive Brake Assist. These are familiar to all with passing knowledge of even near-luxury cars. Adaptive ESP can sense vehicle weight and perform load-dependent brake application, and a a rollover mitigation system is the backstop in case things get truly hairy. Crosswind Assist is the sixth feature on the way, but it won't appear in-market until 2015. It's been available on the Mercedes S-Class and CL-Class since 2009.
The Collision Prevention Assist in the Sprinter uses radar to gauge proximity to – and closing speed on – the vehicle in front when the van is traveling more than 12 miles per hour. When the system perceives a gap that is too narrow relative to the speed of the vehicle ahead, a light illuminates in the dash. If it senses "acute danger" of a collision, a chime sounds. The Adaptive Brake Assist won't ever cut in on its own – it provides full stopping power only when the driver presses the brake pedal and when it detects that the driver's pressure won't be enough, just as in Mercedes cars.
As mentioned, Crosswind Assist won't be on the menu for our market until 2015. In the passenger cars, it piggybacks on Mercedes' Adaptive Body Control, but in the Sprinter, it's based on the stability control system. In both cases, it employs the brakes on the windward side to help keep the vehicle in a straight line through crosswinds. Mercedes brought along a set of high-powered fans the 250 miles from Untertürkheim to Düsseldorf just for us to test this feature, and it works well. It doesn't jerk the van around to keep it arrow straight, but greatly reduces the load on the driver when battling crosswinds.
Minor changes have been made to the cockpit of the Sprinter to keep operators more comfortable. There are firmer and better-breathing seats with more durable covers, as well as a 5.8-inch screen for the infotainment system that offers Bluetooth, AUX, SD card and USB connectivity. A rearview camera will be an option.
The Sprinter doesn't surf on a wave of flashy output numbers; rather, it knows how to use what it's got. Due to the mix of vans available on the day and the number of people in line clamoring for keys, we sadly weren't able to drive the exact configuration we'll be offered in the US, but we did test the correct engine and the seven-speed transmission in separate instances. Our first drive was in a panel van with a lower-specification 2.1-liter four-cylinder for other markets that has 129 hp and 225 lb-ft, shifting through the seven-speed automatic that will be standard in the US. Our van had a pallet of 55-gallon drums in the cargo bay to allow us to drive with a load and heighten the real-world experience, but we couldn't find out how much they weighed... nor what was in them.
The seven-speed transmission goes about its job quietly, the four-cylinder, not so much. It's not unrefined, but doesn't make any secret of the effort it's making, especially at highway speeds. Once we had noted the engine noise, though, it was easy to ignore. You don't need to stand on it to get it up to speed, but it will require your attention and commitment. Depending on how the Sprinter is configured, payload capacity in the 2,500-series is capped at 3,426 pounds, while in the 3,500-series it's 5,415 pounds. Assuming the drums in the steel vault behind the seats were representative of a load that's at least middling in the payload stakes, drivers won't be disappointed with the giddyup.
We won't get a manual transmission option in the US, which is fine because the seven-speed automatic is perfectly good.
The Sprinter we drove with the engine for our market had the pickup bed and a six-speed manual. It was loaded up, as well – with how much weight, again, we don't know – yet even in this more powerful trim, between the engine noise and the leisurely acceleration, you'll never have to make the excuse to a police officer that you didn't realize how fast you were going. Acceleration was a tad peppier, but we really enjoyed being in control of the ratios even if there was one less to choose from. We won't get a manual transmission option in the US, which is fine because the seven-speed automatic is perfectly good and gets its torque going down low, isn't hamstrung by a narrow power band and doesn't trip over itself hunting for fuel economy.
We didn't find either van to have a problem with highway speeds, but as one would expect, momentum was key. Once you finally achieved cruising pace, slowing down meant having to claw back every mile per hour. Otherwise, we traveled with the flow of traffic and passed plenty of other vehicles while on the Autobahn.
The interior is where the new Sprinter has taken its smallest sip from the bottle of brand mystique.
A quick spin in the six-cylinder revealed a noticeably quieter engine and more punch. The five-speed transmission was similarly anonymous like the seven-speed – its fitment makes itself known at the pump, not on the road.
The interior is where the new Sprinter has taken its smallest sip from the bottle of brand mystique. Totally functional, without the Mercedes badge on the steering wheel few would guess – or maybe even believe – that the cabin is a Mercedes product. Vans have steadfastly resisted the market-led luxification of work-vehicle interiors that we've seen on certain full-size pickup trucks. Nevertheless, the interiors of the Ford vans we saw at Geneva, for instance, were more 'designed,' while the Sprinter interior asks in Bavarian-accented English, "Ve are here to vurk now, ja?" Still, there is nothing out of place, nothing that will distract a driver from his or her comfort or the job at hand. The ProMaster, if only because its instrument panel is uniformly black, probably falls between the two. We'd have no problem spending all day in the Sprinter, though.
The 2014 Sprinter will come in Cargo, Crew and Passenger configurations, offer two wheelbases, three body lengths, two roof heights and those two ratings, 2,500 and 3,500. Service intervals have also been stretched by 50 percent, from 10,000 to 15,000 miles.
Price, on top of its new safety technology, is where the 2014 Sprinter will also be known as the Mercedes of vans, but that isn't exactly surprising. We don't have official numbers yet, but its MSRP took a jump when the badging switched from Dodge to Mercedes in 2010, and even before that, it presented a fiscal gap to hurdle when compared to traditional vans. There's about $9,000 difference between the cost of the 2013 Sprinter and a Ford E-Series van. The European options on the way – the Ram ProMaster will be available in last Summer this year, the Transit arrives next Summer – will provide more of a feature-by-feature fight against the Sprinter, but we shouldn't expect Mercedes not to be, well, Mercedes, with its price points.
Mercedes has sold about a million units of the current generation Sprinter (under various badges) in the last seven years around the world, 159,000 of them last year. Compare that to Ford's sales of about 245,000 Transit and Transit Custom vans last year. US sales totaled 20,929 units in 2012, a number that has grown every year, and Mercedes would like to see that climb another five percent this year. In the US van market, though, Sprinter sales still swim at the tadpole end. From January to April of this year, the Sprinter/Freightliner had about 7.3 percent of the market, the Chevrolet Express Cargo about 30 percent, and the Ford E-Series about 52 percent. The 2014 Sprinter will be the one that has to fight on a new front, trying to keep winning customers from the old guard while it attempts to hold market share against less expensive, yet functionally similar options.
It's not the van known around the world for no reason, however. We'll soon find out what the competition will bring to challenge the Sprinter, but no matter what weapons they wield, they had better be sharp.
UPDATE: Mercedes-Benz USA PR rep Christian Bokich contacted us with this comment concerning the higher purchase price of the Sprinter relative to the segment: "Customers tell us that TCO (total cost of ownership) is the most important purchase factor in having Sprinter in their fleet as a tool for their business. Some of them tell us that within one year the cost savings garnered from overall reliability, the fuel savings of an efficient clean diesel, and long service intervals (10k miles for the current model and 15k miles for the new model year 2014 Sprinter) have more than made up for the initial price premium vs other commercial vans." We include the comment here - purely as statement after-the-fact from the manufacturer - because neither M-B nor the other reviews we've read has addressed that as a factor in Sprinter pricing.