– You see them everywhere. Some are plain, some are covered in vinyl wraps, and some even have custom paintwork.
Most are white. Or silver. Or black. Rarely are they brightly coloured, at least from the factory. They are designed, after all, to be a blank canvas upon which their owners can fashion something creative that promotes their businesses.
They’re built to serve and not attract attention unless of course, you need a plumber, or a new kitchen, or your roof has sprung a leak. In that case, please take note of the name, phone number and website emblazoned across its massive doors and body panels, won’t you?
If you haven’t figured it out by now, yes, I am talking about the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. The ubiquitous commercial van family that is now in its third generation and is well represented on our highways, mall parking lots, curbside drop-off locations, and probably, in front of you as you inch along on your morning commute.
I reckon I can’t commute from my home in the Eastern GTA to any press fleet pick-up or drop off, save perhaps for General Motors because it’s a very short drive, without encountering at least a handful of Sprinters along the way. These utilitarian workhorses are everywhere.
Mercedes-Benz sold 6,538 vans in Canada in 2018 and while that may not seem all that impressive, just remember that the Sprinter has been around for almost 20 years. There are plenty of older models still on our roads.
First introduced in Europe in 1995 and in 2001 in North America, the Sprinter has had an interesting history. Marketed under Dodge (during the DaimlerChrysler era until 2007) and Freightliner (a Daimler AG subsidiary) nameplates in addition to Mercedes-Benz, the first-gen Sprinter was sold in various sizes and styles until 2006 when it was replaced by a second-gen model.
The third-gen Sprinter, along with the mid-size Metris van, is built for North American consumption at Mercedes’ sprawling facility
in Ladson, located near Charleston, South Carolina. While the Ladson facility opened in 2018 to coincide with the start of production on the third-gen Sprinter, Mercedes has been building the Sprinter at its other operations in South Carolina since 2006. The company estimates more than 130,000 Sprinters have been built there during that time period.
Interesting fact: Knock-down versions of the Sprinter that were partially assembled in Germany and shipped to South Carolina for final assembly to avoid the Chicken Tax, a 25 percent U.S. tariff placed on all light trucks built outside North America and imported to the U.S., were built in Gaffney, South Carolina between 2001 and 2006.
Made to order
Because the Sprinter is designed to serve the commercial market, there are a seemingly endless number of configurations. Okay, there are only 90 (Sprinter and Metris), but even the Ford F-150 can’t be configured to that degree.
Basically, the Sprinter breaks down into two main types Sprinter and Sprinter 4x4. The former is available as a rear-wheel drive cargo van, crew van, passenger van, and cab chassis. The cargo van is basically a metal box designed for hauling stuff, with its rear area behind the front seats being devoid of any passenger seating.
The crew and passenger vans are the sort you often see being used as airport shuttles and other passenger hauling businesses. The crew van has seating for five, while the passenger van has seating for up to 15. The cab chassis, as the name would suggest, is designed to have a box attached to its frame so the vehicle could be used as a moving van.
All Sprinters, apart from the cab chassis, which is diesel only, are available with either a diesel or gas engine. The Sprinter 4x4 is available in cargo, crew, and passenger van configurations with diesel engines only.
The specs for those engines are as follows: 2.0L turbocharged gas 4-cylinder (188 hp / 258 lb-ft.), and 3.0L turbocharged diesel V6 (188 hp / 325 lb-ft.). The gas engine is paired with Mercedes’ 9-speed (9G-Tronic) automatic transmission, while the diesel engine is mated to the 7-speed (7G-Tronic) autobox.
New for 2019
As mentioned, the Sprinter was all new for 2019, which introduced new styling, more variants and more technology.
During a recent test drive in Toronto of various Sprinter models, I was struck by the presence of Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) in one of the passenger vans I jumped into. For the Sprinter, MBUX is available with either a 7-inch or 10.25-inch colour touchscreen, which I think is a pretty impressive option for a commercial vehicle.
Other changes that came with the 2019 Sprinter include a gas option for 1500 and 2500 cargo, crew and passenger vans, 15-person seating availability (14 passenger plus one driver) for passenger vans, 7G-Tronic transmission standard with the six-cylinder diesel engine, LED headlights and tail lights, and standard window and thorax-pelvis airbag on all cab chassis models.
New standard features include keyless start, two USB-C charge ports in the dashboard (two also in the rear for passenger vans), adjustable steering wheel with standard paddle shifters, wheelbases up to 4,318 mm (170 inches) long, 1,594 mm (61 inches) loading width and 150 litres of extra cargo volume. Maximum volume in the cargo van, in case you’re wondering, is 3,149 litres.
Mercedes-Benz Canada recently invited a few journalists out to drive the new Sprinter in Toronto.
Several four and six-cylinder models were available for us to run through a closed course which tested the Sprinter’s braking, acceleration, maneuverability, and general handling.
After putting a few crew, cargo, and passenger van models through their paces, I came away impressed with the Sprinter’s overall driving dynamics. Acceleration, while not neck-snapping, felt reasonably responsive for a long and ungainly vehicle shaped like a giant metal brick. Braking was predictable and well-modulated.
The linear smoothness of the powertrains was something I wasn’t expecting, and while I wouldn’t recommend running a Sprinter through a slalom course every day, the body roll wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. Dare I say for a vehicle not built at all for handling, the Sprinter handles well within its limited dynamic range.
The 2500 cargo van I drove on public roads also delivered a quiet, composed ride that took me somewhat by surprise. Far from being floaty and ponderous, this Sprinter’s handling felt well-connected to the road despite being completely empty in back. And as stripped-down as the interior was with its acres of black plastics, spartan layout and basic AM / FM radio, I still appreciated its supportive seats, ideally placed armrests and ample storage bins and cubbies.
I am not the target demo for the Sprinter, as I don’t own a business that would require such a vehicle. I’m much more likely to be driven around in one (i.e. airport shuttle) than I am to ever own one, but after some time spent behind the wheel, I can appreciate why those in need of a reliable utility vehicle choose the Sprinter.
It can be configured in dozens of ways, from acres of cargo space to seating for up to 14, it offers loads of smart utility and it’s not torturous to drive. What I found especially impressive is Mercedes’ willingness to include the Sprinter in the democratization of its latest tech such as MBUX. Commercial vehicles are not always slam dunks to receive the latest and greatest tech a manufacturer has to offer, so it’s good to see Mercedes make some of its best tech available with the Sprinter.
That’s something that will stick in my mind the next time I get picked up in a Sprinter at the airport or struggle to see around one while lurching along in backed-up Toronto traffic.