Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - Sprinter - range
Cabin comfort, load space, safety, dynamics
Room for improvement
Premium quality means premium price
12 Oct 2006
By TIM BRITTEN
ONE thing comes home with blinding clarity in the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter: We've seen light commercials that partially close the dynamic gap to regular passenger sedans before, but never one that comes as close as this.
This became obvious at the Melbourne launch of the new Sprinter range, where a high-speed freeway cruise to a proving ground near the seaside town of Anglesea was followed by a series of convincing demonstrations that showed how different this new Benz is.
The preview fleet comprised a wide range of Sprinter variants, from low-roof short wheelbase vans with the least-powerful 65 kW turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine to a long-wheelbase cab-chassis version fitted with a 135 kW (165kW in the ML320 CDI) version of the V6 turbo-diesel that is new to Sprinter but familiar in the ML series and Jeep’s Grand Cherokee.
Cruising on the Geelong freeway in a cab-chassis fitted with a loaded tray, it was difficult to believe at times this was a truck with a load capacity of up to five tonnes.
The Sprinter cab-chassis steers with precision and offers a great balance of steering weight and road feel. There’s no wrestling with the wheel in a tight corner, where the only thing to be mindful of is the wheels hanging way out back.
The four-cylinder engine, in 110 kW form, has no problem dealing with the weight and, teamed with the optional five-speed full-auto transmission, is a smooth, strong performer.
Even the sound is muted – if not to passenger-car levels – and the gearshifts are mostly smooth. At times the transmission seemed to hang onto higher gears longer than expected to create a momentary shudder prior to downshifting.
Unlike most passenger-car autos there is, as yet, no sequential shifter for the Benz system but the transmission is intuitive enough to know the correct gear to be in – even with its occasional tendency to linger in a higher ratio.
Driving a manual-gearbox van, the car-like experience remains, with a nice shift action – once you become familiar with the slightly narrow gate – and a quite light clutch.
The cab-chassis ride, considering the LWB tray's payload, is comfortable too, although there was some understandable sensitivity to road bumps not experienced in the more leisurely-suspended vans.
But the usual things expected in a workmanlike cab-chassis – primitive driving position, noisy engine, wind roar – are conspicuously absent. Light commercial drivers have surely never had it so good.
All Sprinters get a height and reach-adjustable steering wheel, as well as supportive standard bucket seats offering height and backrest adjustment for the driver (not the passenger though).
The instrument panel, again, is car-like with the main gauges displayed clearly and controls arrayed in typical Benz ergonomic fashion.
The corporate – and optional - cruise control stalk to the left of the steering wheel operates the best system in the business. It’s intuitive, easy to find and effective on the road.
The Sprinter doesn't do badly for storage space, with large door pockets, a big glove box, spaces above the windscreen and a foldout cup holder in the lower dash – but it's not hugely generous. The wide, walk-through gap between the seats explains this.
The same cabin comments apply to the new Sprinter van range, which demonstrated its virtues with aplomb and style at the Anglesea proving ground.
The unitary-construction Sprinter vans are a lot stiffer than before and this becomes evident on the torturous road surfaces concocted to ferret out any weakness in a vehicle’s structure by the proving ground’s designers.
Both short and long-wheelbase vans handled the teeth-rattling corrugations and rough cobbles without any of the signs you might expect in such a big, empty, monocoque space.
Even the din was kept to a reasonable level – especially in a van with optional wooden sidewalls.
But the test that really showcased how far van and cab-chassis design has travelled was the off-road swerve exercise that involved flicking the vehicle to the left off bitumen and onto a gravel surface, then recovering by swinging back onto the sealed surface again.
Usually a recipe for disaster, these antics were handled adeptly by the Sprinters, which used their stability control systems to stay on line without corrective intervention from the driver.
Try this sort of exercise even in a normal car without ESP and the outcome would normally be quite different.
The same thing applied to high-speed braking on a wet surface, where cab-chassis and van versions of the Sprinter pulled repeated straight-line stops in surprisingly short distances.
And the Sprinter is good at load-carrying too. The interior space is a big advance over the previous model, with what Benz claims is the best-in-class side sliding door (power operation, and an extra door on the right side is optional) and large, twin rear doors that can be opened 180 degrees.
The Sprinter van body is also aerodynamic (0.32 Cd for the medium-wheelbase, high-roof version) and designed around passenger-car principles which provide progressively-collapsing zones at front and rear, as well as side-impact protection.
A driver's side airbag is standard on all models, but a passenger's side bag (or curtain bags) is optional.
The Sprinter comes in three wheelbases – 3250mm/3665mm/4325mm – and four lengths ranging from 5243mm to 7343mm. The vans offer a choice of three roof heights.
Sprinting to the lead? Maybe not in terms of volume, but the Benz Sprinter will surely rate as the aspirational light commercial range for many operators.
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