Driving the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter commercial van is another reminder why German auto companies rock. A vehicle with such high, flat sides is always vulnerable to crosswinds. So, as a method for testing a new safety feature, Mercedes-Benz constructed a massive wind machine.
The company acquired half a dozen huge fans (each one something like 10 feet in diameter), powered them with a heavy duty generator and lined them up alongside a straight section of test track. Any Sprinter van without this Crosswind Assist System will be blown completely from one lane to the next whenever it drives past this assembly.
With the system in place -- a world first for such a vehicle, incidentally -- there's still a little deviation from the straight line. But once the driver adds some steering correction, which will probably happen by reflex as much as intent, it's a far safer situation -- and more relaxing. Anyone who has driven for hours across open country, continually making adjustments with the steering to cope with sudden gusts, knows how tiring this can be. Since this is a work van, it's worth noting that a tired worker is also an unproductive worker.
Engines of Commerce
That's just one of several ways the Sprinter makes a convincing business case for itself. The basic drivetrain is another: It's a 2.1-liter, turbocharged, diesel-powered 4-cylinder engine that uses the company's BlueTEC clean emissions system. A 7-speed automatic transmission directs 161 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels (an all-wheel-drive version is not available, but M-B hasn't ruled out such a possibility).
There are no official consumption numbers, because differences in vehicle layout and payload create an ever-shifting baseline, but the company calculates an improvement in economy and emissions of around 15 percent over the outgoing model. Yes, this 2014 model year Sprinter is an update -- virtually a new generation. The styling has been revised to evoke its passenger-car relatives, the rear axle and differential have been updated and the entry-level drivetrain is all-new.
However, dimensions remain the same, as does the 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission in the Sprinter V6 version. It makes 188 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, which is a little more help when trying to pass on an uphill section of freeway with a load in the back. The 4-cylinder still makes a decent effort.
In the Workplace
With the intention of keeping this van out on the rounds instead of up on the ramps, service intervals have been extended from 10,000 to 15,000 miles. Even though it's called a Sprinter, it's up for the long haul. Ride quality is at a level that befits such an upscale badge. The turning circle is sufficiently tight for executing delicate maneuvers in town. And the seats are covered in a hard-wearing fabric. Benz says it also has redesigned the seats for greater comfort, though a slightly wider and longer bottom cushion would have been a welcome revision. A driver's seat with its own suspension is offered as an option.
Stowage spaces abound throughout the cabin: shelves above the sun visors, trays on top of the dash, large door pockets, cup holders and a glove compartment, plus an optional clip for paperwork. For the most part, the Sprinter driver can keep organized, alert and happy, taking reassurance from safety features such as collision avoidance, lane keeping alerts, blind spot monitoring, roll-over mitigation, high beam assist and Bluetooth connectivity (a rearview camera is optional). The electronic stability program (ESP) is also adaptive. It senses how much weight the van is carrying and reacts accordingly, distributing brake forces to where they are most needed.
Large side mirrors have a convex lower section to eliminate blind spots further. They tend to create some noticeable wind noise, though. And a muted chatter from the engine also makes itself heard; M-B's diesel engines are usually whisper-quiet in passenger vehicles. And while we're talking of downsides, the plastic steering wheel isn't that grippy.
Outfitted by Upfitters
The Sprinter is like Germany's equivalent of the Ford F-150. If there's work being done (and there's usually plenty of industriousness in Germany), the Sprinter is there. It can be equally useful on this side of the Atlantic, as it comes in short or long wheelbase, with a high-roof or chassis cab, plus 2500 and 3500 forms. Around the Mercedes-Benz plant in Charleston, S.C., where U.S.-spec Sprinters are assembled, several independent upfitters have established operations -- including famous names like Airstream, for example. These companies can take a bare-bones model from the facility and equip it as an RV, luxury limousine or whatever else a customer requires.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Sprinter V6 go on sale in the United States on September 1, with prices to be announced closer to that time. As a guide, the 2013 range starts at $36,290. For fleet buyers, Sprinters also will be badged as Freightliner vehicles.
The Sprinter enjoys strong resale values. The automotive data-crunchers Vincentric named it Best Fleet Value in America for 2013. And with such a comprehensive package of safety equipment, insurance premiums may benefit, as well.
Just a couple of annoying glitches: The Crosswind Assist System (actually a function of the ESP system) won't be available until the 2015 model comes along. And anyone looking for a V6 with the 7-speed transmission should let the company know, since there are currently no plans to import this particular variant.