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First drive: FWD variants to bolster Sprinter range

Sprinting in: The third-generation Mercedes-Benz Sprinter will touch down in Australia in October, equipped with the company’s MBUX infotainment system.

New Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van derivatives to add sales volume in Australia


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21 Jun 2018

MERCEDES-BENZ Vans Australia is anticipating the new front-wheel-drive versions of its third-generation Sprinter will add extra sales volume to its best-selling large van range that rolls into local showrooms in October.
Previously the Sprinter has been offered in rear-drive configuration only, but the more affordable front-drive versions are expected to boost sales thanks to a lower entry price, while Benz has made the platform more compatible for motorhomes and delivery applications.
Speaking to GoAuto at the press drive of the all-new Sprinter in Slovenia, Mercedes-Benz Vans Australia PR and corporate communications manager Blake Vincent said the improvements over the outgoing model would ensure the new-gen van appeals to new and returning buyers.
“We think there’s incremental opportunity with the new Sprinter driven off front-wheel drive,” he said. “Particularly for motorhome customers where there’s some clear benefit over current Sprinter.
“We’re now able to offer a more car-like interior which is really attractive for motorhome (owners), but also outside of motorhome with front-wheel drive being at an entry-level price point there is opportunity there for more price-conscious customers who may not have been able to get into a Sprinter in the past and now they’ll be able to at a more attractive price point.”
Mercedes identified that many of its competitors offered front-drive versions of their vans, often at a price that the three-pointed star was unable to match due to the additional cost of a rear-wheel drivetrain, which requires extra componentry.
The company also believes the lower point of entry will help lure customers to Benz from its competitors, specifically couriers and rental businesses who generally value lower purchase costs.
Pricing is due to be announced in the next month or two, with the front-drive versions expected to undercut the current range which starts at $44,490 plus on-road costs. Rear-drive versions are likely to incur an incremental price increase.
The new front-drive platform allows motorhome builders to more easily customise the Sprinter for their respective products, with the overwhelming majority of motorhomes built using front-drive vehicles.
Mercedes identified a gap in the motorhome market that in Europe is dominated by Fiat, which claims a 70 to 80 per cent share of the roughly 100,000 vehicles sold in 2017.
In Australia, the Sprinter is used by motorhome specialists Jayco and THL, who will most likely use the new front-drive versions for future models.
Additionally, the front-drive versions offer a 50kg greater payload and a loading height 80mm lower than the rear-drive version.
The third-gen Sprinter gains Mercedes’ new MBUX infotainment system, making it only the second model in the brand’s range to be fitted with the new technology behind the A-Class hatch.
MBUX will be offered as standard on Australian versions with a 7.0-inch touchscreen, while a larger 10.25-inch unit can be optioned. Customers looking to save money can even option a 5.5-inch screen without the MBUX system.
The brand’s Pro Connect fleet management system will also find its way into Australian Sprinters next year or in 2020, following a debut in Europe this year.
Based around a phone app, Pro Connect offers 18 different features for fleet managers including vehicle status, vehicle logistics, fleet communication and maintenance management.
Mercedes has offered customers a huge amount of customisation with 1734 different variants, spread over multiple body styles, wheelbases, engine and gearbox configurations and drivelines.
Four-cylinder variants are powered by a 2.1-litre turbo-diesel mill offered in four states of tune, including 85kW/300Nm, 105kW/330Nm, 120kW/360Nm and 130kW/400Nm. The 120kW version is expected to be the most popular Down Under.
Front-drive variants are only offered with the first two engine tunes, while the 140kW version is reserved for camper vans.
A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, while options include a nine-speed auto (FWD) and seven-speed auto (RWD and AWD). Locally, Mercedes expects nearly all Sprinters to be sold with an automatic.
Also available is a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6, producing 140kW/440Nm and teamed to the seven-speed auto.
Fuel consumption varies between 6.8 and 9.7 litres per 100km depending on the variant, while emissions range between 178 and 253 grams of CO2 per km.
Australian versions will gain autonomous emergency braking and four airbags as standard, while it is yet to be determined whether other active safety features such as active cruise control and active lane keep assist will be standard kit locally.
GoAuto had the chance to test the new Sprinter outside Ljubljana, Slovenia, with around 70km spent behind the wheel of a front-drive, 105kW van with a 350kg payload in the rear.
Climbing into the Sprinter’s cabin for the first time, Mercedes has clearly gone to a lot of effort to better its rivals for interior refinement and technology.
Our test vehicle was equipped with the 10.25-inch MBUX screen, which offers screen resolution and operating sharpness to rival any passenger car, luxury or not.
The touchscreen can be operated as smoothly as a phone or tablet, while the navigation system works flawlessly, with sharp graphics and seamless adjustment.
The Sprinter gains an updated steering wheel also found in the S-Class and new C-Class, and it features twin touchpad controls (named FN pads) that operate the MBUX system and instrument cluster screen. A full set of the usual steering wheel-mounted buttons are also included.
Mercedes’ turbine-style air-conditioning vents blow air controlled by the automatic climate control system, which adds to the interior’s premium feel.
Our vehicle was also fitted with active cruise control, with the distance adjusted via buttons on the steering wheel, as well as front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera.
From an interior refinement standpoint, the Sprinter is unrivalled in the large van segment.
Under the bonnet of our test vehicle was the 105kW/330Nm turbo-diesel four-pot mated to the nine-speed automatic transmission, with peak torque available low in the rev band from 1200-2400rpm.
The engine is far from brisk but generally does a good job of hauling the Sprinter around. While the interior has some of the characteristics of a luxury passenger car, the drivetrain is quick to remind you that the Sprinter is indeed a commercial van.
Engine response is essentially uniform regardless of throttle input, meaning when merging onto a motorway, for example, the driver has no choice but to wait for the vehicle to speed up in its own time. Despite its name, sprinting is not its strong suit.
The automatic transmission is not the most intuitive unit, often holding revs around 2500-3000rpm even when cruising. 
At one point we encountered an 11 degree hill incline, and applied full throttle to help the Sprinter up.
Instead of kicking down a gear or two, the transmission held its gear, resulting in the speed dropping a few kilometres despite 100 per cent throttle input. Not even using the paddle shifters could convince the transmission to change gears, with the manual downshifts seemingly ignored.
Ride quality is supple, no doubt helped by the 350kg load in the rear. Bumps are dealt with well, while rattles in the cabin are kept to a minimum. Wind and engine noise are on par for a commercial van.
Steering calibration was light and nimble, making the sizeable van easy to steer in tight spaces and around corners.
Overall, the new Sprinter is an impressive package. The MBUX and overall interior refinement is streets ahead of its rivals, and when Pro Connect becomes available, will make for an even more enticing proposition for drivers and business managers alike.
While the lower-spec engines are adequate, we recommend opting for either the 120kW four-pot or V6, especially if hauling heavy loads day-to-day.
The huge range of options and levels of customisation also mean there is a variant for everyone, and the arrival of the new generation should mean the Sprinter can continue its streak of 20 years as Australia’s best-selling large van.

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