Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - Sprinter - commercial range
Improved safety, strong diesel engine performance, choice of CNG engine, impressive fuel saving stop/start function
Room for improvement
CNG engine sluggish compared to diesels, lack of public CNG filling network, no idle-stop feature on the automatic, price increase on already pricey vans
22 Feb 2010
TRADITIONALLY, van technology has lagged behind passenger car sophistication, especially in crash safety.
European producers, however, are of the view that van drivers have every right to new features.
The new Mercedes Sprinter benefits from the technical expertise of Mercedes and its willingness to introduce new features such as the idle-stop feature that is standard with manual Sprinter model.
Fleet managers are likely to applaud the application of this technology as it can deliver fuel savings of eight per cent or more when the van is doing a lot of stop-start city travel, which many of them do.
Drivers might appreciate the feature too because it makes for a quiet cabin at idle.
Pull up to a stop, select neutral, release the clutch and the engine switches off. When you want to start just depress the clutch pedal, the engine fires back into life and you are ready to go.
It starts quickly, so no one will be held up at the traffic lights.
It does, however, take a while to get used to. Truck manufacturer Hino has found many drivers of its hybrid trucks turn off the idle-stop idle feature because they are used to hearing an engine running when they are sitting at the lights.
There really isn’t a downside to the feature in everyday driving, but is good that there is an over-ride feature just in case.
The Sprinter is not overly noisy van at idle, but silence is golden (apart from the air-conditioning and other traffic).
The ECO Gear manual transmission, which enables the idle-stop feature, makes the most of the available torque, while the wide spread of ratios means it has better economy too.
In fourth or fifth gear, the engine merely ticks over between 60km/h and 80km/h.
Shifting up to sixth for highway speeds has the four-cylinder Sprinter running at about 2000rpm at 100km/h, making for easy going cruising.
The two output versions of this engine both have a lovely supply of torque on tap, and when mated with either the six-speed manual or the automatic transmission, the engine serves up enough torque to make for easy driving.
No need to wring this engine for all its worth, as there is plenty of performance low in the engine range.
The five-speed automatic works away without fuss, going for early changes and sticking to the thickest part of the torque band.
GoAuto also went for a quick spin in the new CNG fuelled Sprinter NGT that Mercedes has just introduced, instantly noting a sharp contrast with the diesel engines.
Those diesels are low-revving luggers with massive torque outputs that we could have only dreamed about a few years ago.
The CNG engine has 65Nm less torque than the entry level four-cylinder diesel – instantly noticeable, especially after stepping out of the diesel.
It feels lethargic and the only way to get it going at a reasonable pace is to push it.
The engine sounds just like any other petrol engine, but a supercharger whine starts to make itself heard as the revs move past 4500rpm and up to 6500rpm.
The engine can be easily flicked over to petrol with little change in performance or the sound.
The interior of the CNG van is essentially the same as the other Sprinters, but it has a premium display screen on the dashboard with a diagram showing how much CNG is left in the tanks.
We visited a CNG filling station in Canberra and saw a CNG refill first-hand.
CNG nozzle slots into a secondary fuel filler above the regular petrol cap. Unlike an LPG filling system, the nozzle just plugs in – does not need to be twisted on to a thread.
The big problem is that there are hardly any public CNG filling stations.
That said, most of the companies that will buy the first few CNG Sprinters will either already have their own CNG filling stations for trucks or forklifts or install them to run the vans.
CNG provides significant emission reductions, especially carbon monoxides, hydrocarbons and particulates as well as a CO2 reduction that would allow the companies using the van to heavily promote them as green vehicles, as they do with hybrid trucks.
The $7000 premium might be considered a small price to pay for this kind of marketing advantage.
Of course, a lot of fleets will appreciate the upgrade of the existing diesel engines to the Euro 5 emissions standards.
More customers are demanding improved emission standards, so Euro 5 is an easy way to help meet those demands.
The addition of a passenger airbags improves Sprinter safety, even for the occasional passenger who deserves the same level of safety as the driver.
The Sprinter was already well specified with ESC . The new trailer support feature could save some driver’s from nasty situations.
Mercedes has retained the same interior, but it is worth mentioning that it is a good quality cabin which might not look quite as posh as a Mercedes passenger car interior but isn’t all that far off.
The Mercedes vans are not cheap, but the price tag carries a quality vehicle with high levels of safety and excellent diesel engines.
Only time will tell if the CNG Sprinter will take off. It makes a lot of sense to tap our huge reserves of the gas and reduce our reliance on imported oil, but if private customers are to convert to CNG they will need an extensive public filling station network.
Home filling stations, which hook up to the gas mains (as long as they are in a location fed by CNG) are already available overseas and could work here too.
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