Pros: Well built; good handling; great diesel efficiency; it's everything U.S. domestic vans are not

Cons: Retail channel is much smaller than that of Chevrolet or Ford; when you do find one, M-B dealers are also much more expensive

Are you looking for a car that can be all things to all people? Your first stop would be the Toyota Camry. But if you are looking for a van to carry cargo or passengers, one that can be configured to haul many things or carry a dozen people, the short answer is the Sprinter. Built by Mercedes-Benz, the people/cargo carrier can be used as an airport shuttle, commercial carrier, luxury RV or cab chassis. In many configurations, the Sprinter will meet your needs and exceed your expectations, despite its hefty $40,000 base price.

Those expectations begin with M-B's three-pointed star fronting the traditional grille and the abbreviated hood. Behind the iconic face is the heart of the Sprinter exercise, a 3.0-liter V6 Bluetec diesel providing 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque while meeting the strict emission standards set by the EPA and the California Air Resources Board. And whether opting for a standard roof with short wheelbase or the high roof sitting on either the short or long wheelbase, you'll enjoy ample space with hyper efficiency.

While the Sprinter's many features and capabilities will certainly captivate, the ringer with the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz is the enjoyment provided in its ownership. Although common in Europe, the Sprinter remains relatively unique in the U.S. And with a design distinct from its American competitors, along with a built-in durability that seemingly defies time, there's a lot to like in the 2012 Sprinter both at the time of purchase and at trade-in.

Comfort & Utility

The Sprinter's comfort level is established from the moment you step inside, whether as a driver slipping (instead of climbing) behind the wheel or a commercial passenger entering through the Sprinter's best-in-class side door. Once inside, you'll enjoy top-quality materials crafted in a precise - albeit fully functional - manner. You won't, to be sure, confuse the environs with those of Mercedes' CLS; but neither will you think you've returned to your long-forgotten Ram Van.

In the Sprinter Passenger Van, there is seating for up to 12, including the driver. Quick-release locks provide for easy installation and removal of all passenger seats except the last row. Passengers enjoy contoured benches with integrated shoulder harnesses that use supportive foam and quality coverings far removed from what we typically associate with the passenger van or van conversion. If you opt for the long-wheelbase Sprinter, you get some six feet of load length behind its rearmost seat.

If used for cargo, the Sprinter Passenger Van offers volumes ranging from 141 cubic feet with seats in place to almost 500 cubic feet with seats removed. In cargo-specific configuration, the Sprinter Cargo Van is available in three lengths, the longest of which offers more than 15 feet of load space between the front seats and rear doors - which open 270 degrees on all models. The Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van and all the passenger models have a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 8,550 pounds; the 3500 Cargo Van boasts a GVWR above 11,000 pounds..

Finally, for those families or firms with a need to (literally) split the difference between people and their stuff, the Crew Van combines the advantages of a Cargo Van with seating for up to five, including the driver. There's an optional variable load-securing system.

Technology

Most of the tech in the Sprinter is devoted to safety, but an Audio 20 radio is available; it has a dual tuner, CD player with MP3 capability, CD changer and Bluetooth with telephone keypad. In working with you to keep the van vertical, Mercedes adds an Adaptive Electronic Stability Program, which works with ABS, acceleration skid control, electronic brake force distribution, Brake Assist and ESP Trailer Stability Assist.

Under the hood, the 3.0 liter V6 is chock full of the latest thinking. Fuel is delivered via state-of-the-art common-rail technology and compressed via an intercooled turbocharger. Once ignited, exhaust gases are cleaned with Bluetec, Mercedes-Benz's proprietary Selective Catalytic Reduction using AdBlue diesel exhaust fluid.

Perhaps the most significant technology separating the Sprinter from its domestic competition is the thinking behind its design. No manufacturer to date combines commercial capabilities with daily-driver comfort to the degree offered by the 2012 Sprinter. The highest evolution of technology is when it works without the driver or passengers noticing.

Performance and Fuel Economy

The engine's 188 horsepower, delivered at 3,800 rpm, may seem modest, but the story here is torque, with the V6 turbocharged diesel delivering its maximum of 325 lb-ft between 1,400 and 2,400 rpm. In short, you can pull stumps at any engine speed above idle. Diesels are inherently more efficient than their gasoline counterparts, and although the EPA doesn't provide an estimate of miles per gallon, the number of Sprinters you see in commercial service despite the $40,000 base price testifies to their efficiency.

From a performance standpoint, whether you're behind the wheel or in the Sprinter's third row, you won't lack for reasonable acceleration or relatively relaxed cruising capability. And coming to a stop is as predictable as a sunset.

Safety

As we've pointed out, the Sprinter has plenty of Mercedes technology to help keep the driver on the road and out of trouble. Should a collision take place, however, the Sprinter is fitted with a full complement of airbags as well as easily accessed three-point seatbelts and four-way comfort head restraints on all seats. Mercedes also offers a host of load-securing options to keep your cargo where it should be, and prevent it from going where it shouldn't.

Driving Impressions

At most introductions of full-size vans, a manufacturer will load it up with people, attach a trailer to a hitch or both. In demonstrations of the Sprinter, Mercedes prefers to take testers to an autocross course, where the Sprinter's well-connected steering and composed suspension are tested at full throttle. To be sure, full throttle is engaging 188 hp and not 388 hp, but the capability demonstrated in directing a Sprinter through a turn and coming out of that turn upright can't be overemphasized.

Whether you're transporting motorbikes or best buddies, know that you're in better control of the Sprinter than virtually anything else in its competitive category.

Other Trucks to Consider

The competitive segment includes the usual suspects: the Ford E-250/350, the Chevrolet Express 2500/3500 and the GMC derivative Savana. None hold the proverbial candle to the Sprinter, although there is a price premium in the Mercedes purchase. That premium, however, will be more than made up for by better efficiency and better residuals. In our view, the only alternative to a new Sprinter is a pre-owned Sprinter.

In the near future, the choices may be greater, as Chrysler's Ram Truck considers importing of FIAT-based full-size vans and Ford looks to revamp its Econoline series in the image of its Euro-based Transit.

AutoTrader Recommends

For today's carpool lane, we'd build a short-wheelbase (144 inch) Sprinter Passenger Van with just enough amenities to keep the adults comfortable and the kids quiet. For those with active lifestyles such camping, hiking or cycling, we'd opt for the Crew Van (same short wheelbase and standard roof) and equip the load area behind the seats (some eight feet!) with provisions for cargo, coolers and contraband.

author photo

David Boldt began his automotive career in BMW and Saab showrooms in the 1980s, and he moved to automotive journallismin 1993. David has written for a varity of regional and national publications, and prior to joining AutoTrader, he managed media relations for a Japanese OEM.

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