Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - Sprinter
Versatility caters to most buyer needs, MBUX moves the infotainment game on, feels smaller than it is, relative ride comfort, refined turbo-diesel engine
Room for improvement
Panel van’s audible body wobble, light steering, automatic transmission hunts for gears, narrow seats, Mercedes Pro is promising but not available yet
Mercedes-Benz resets large-van technology benchmark with third-generation Sprinter
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24 Oct 2018
IT HAS been a long time coming, but Mercedes-Benz’s third-generation Sprinter large van is finally on sale. It represents a massive leap forward in the technology stakes, making its 12-year-old predecessor look more than a few steps behind.
With the German brand’s cutting-edge MBUX infotainment system and the promise of its Mercedes Pro telematics setup in the near future, plus an extended suite of advanced driver-assist systems, is the Sprinter worth the wait? Read on to find out.
Consider for a moment what the world looked like in 2006. Hint: Donald Trump was a businessman who hosted The Apprentice and the Apple iPhone and iPad didn’t exist yet. Different times, indeed. Needless to say, 2018 is a different ballgame altogether.
The second-generation Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has carried on amidst the highs and lows of the past 12 years, but its retirement has arrived at long last. In its place, a new model has burst onto the scene, ushering in technologies that would even make Google blush.
It might surprise you to hear that the Sprinter is the fifth best-selling model in Mercedes-Benz’s line-up Down Under. Fifth! While the mid-size C-Class car and GLC SUV reign supreme in the gold- and silver-medal positions, the large van is not that far behind. In fact, it’s number one in New Zealand! Crikey.
Why is this important? Well, it helps to justify why Mercedes-Benz fitted the Sprinter with its brand-new infotainment system, dubbed MBUX, ahead of the S-Class limousine. Even the A-Class small car levelled up before the traditional flagship.
We could write a dissertation on MBUX, but we’ll save that for another day. What’s important to know is it’s a game-changer. In the Sprinter, it powers a 7.0-inch touchscreen as standard, while a 10.25-inch is optional. Either way, it’s flanked by cool turbine-style air vents (pun intended).
All the usual functionality is there, but there are numerous input methods, including always-on voice control. The Apple and Google influence is clear here, with MBUX summoned with the phrase ‘Hey, Mercedes’ and responsive to natural dialogue.
Before you ask why this is innovative, realise that this is a boon for Sprinter buyers, who would prefer their drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel, which now has touchpad controls for MBUX and the colour multi-information display.
Better yet, MBUX supports up to 10 driver profiles, which is perfect for businesses that put on multiple shifts. It also features machine learning that eventually offers infotainment suggestions tailored towards the individual behind the wheel. This is very handy for frequent navigation inputs.
However, Mercedes Pro looms large in the next 18-to-24 months. It introduces an integrated telematics setup that will offer an all-in-one solution for fleet managers, who currently turn to third parties for their needs. Make no mistake, this is a huge development.
Naturally, we haven’t had the opportunity yet to test out Mercedes Pro, but its Vehicle Management Tool (VMT) and the Mercedes Pro Connect smartphone application are promising, allowing fleet managers to manage and track vehicles and drivers, and log all the associated data.
We’re keen to evaluate Mercedes Pro when it comes to fruition. While its cost structure is yet to be determined, the 21 European countries it is currently launching in are offering the choice of flat-rate and subscription models. Either way, it will inevitably become a key selling point for the Sprinter.
In the meantime, Sprinter buyers have access to an expanded suite of advanced driver-assist systems, including autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and a reversing camera, all of which are critical to fleet customers.
Some will also be tempted by the Sprinter’s long options list, which includes adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality, lane-keep assist, traffic sign recognition and crystal-clear surround-view cameras. This is a quartet that is again suited to fleet customers and their requirements.
However, all of this pales in comparison to the sheer number of Sprinter variants available: 1734, to be exact. Body styles, drivetrains, engines, transmissions, wheelbases, load lengths and capacities, roof heights, payloads and Gross Vehicle Mass are among the many variables involved.
Front-wheel drive is new to the Sprinter alongside a nine-speed automatic transmission, but neither was available to test at launch. Similarly, all-wheel drive will return to the line-up in the middle of next year. Pricing for each variant is available via Mercedes-Benz Vans dealerships.
In a massive win for existing fleet customers, rear-wheel-drive Sprinter panel vans feature the same load-compartment dimensions as before, meaning their bespoke equipment can be fitted with little adjustment required. This serves as an example of the close relationship between the two parties.
While this is great news for buyers, it can get a little confusing. In any event, we first tested the rear-wheel-drive, long-wheelbase 314 VS30 panel van with the 105kW/330Nm tune of the 2.1-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine, and the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission.
Make no mistake, this is a big boy. Measuring 6967mm long and 2831mm tall, this panel van should be a handful on the road, but, surprisingly it isn’t. To Mercedes’ credit, it’s made the Sprinter feel smaller than it is, although its steering feels light and could be more communicative.
The panel van is not without its flaws. Namely, its panels are prone to flexing while on the move on anything less than a smooth, flat road, grinding on occupants as they listen to a symphony of metal wobbling. Nonetheless, its load compartment is a classic case of pick your own adventure.
Our test car’s 1211kg payload was only partially tested by the 500kg of pavers that were tied down above the rear axle. While the engine was able to pull this weight without much trouble, it did struggle to go up steeper inclines. In one instance, speed teetered at 100km/h under full throttle.
As such, depending on what the Sprinter is used for, it might make sense to option one of more potent engine tunes, but more on that in a moment. In any event, the 2.1-litre is highly refined, with a level of smoothness that makes the clatter of older diesels a distant memory. Bragging rights still belong to the six cylinder, though.
The automatic transmission is a smooth shifter, but its logic favours efficiency over performance, even when called upon. While sticking the boot in eventually results in a kick down or two, it very quickly returns to one of the higher ratios, but overriding paddle-shifters are available at all times.
Minibus and tractor-head versions of the Sprinter won’t lob until next year, so the second variant we tested was the rear-wheel-drive, medium-wheelbase 416 VS30 single-cab chassis, powered by the 120kW/360Nm tune of the 2.1-litre engine and paired to the same automatic transmission.
Even with 500kg in its tray, the single-cab chassis (1883kg payload) accelerated with more purpose than the panel van, strengthening the case for a punchier engine. What they do have in common, however, is their narrow driver’s seat that only accommodates skinnier folk.
Similarities also extend to ride comfort, with the Sprinter serving up a surprising effort. The 500kg load surely played a part in settling down the rear end, but it still resisted the temptation to bounce around after encountering potholes and speed bumps. Not nearly as punishing as one may think.
Even if its drive experience more ore less carries over, it’s easy to suggest that the Sprinter has reset the technology benchmark in its segment, but it will only set the bar higher when Mercedes Pro arrives. If Mercedes-Benz Vans wanted its flagship to appeal to fleets, it’s certainly well on the way.
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