Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van review

By: Matt Wood


While the architecture remains virtually unchanged, some safety features and a seven-speed full auto transmission are new highlights

 

An evolution of another sort has recently taken place at Mercedes-Benz however, and an update of the Sprinter van has seen it arrive packed with more safety features as well as a new transmission.

The basic architecture of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which was introduced in 2006, has remained the same, though a subtle remodelling of the radiator grille has changed the snout of the Benz’s biggest van slightly.

The Sprinter has been the best-selling van in its class in Australia since 2010. It also takes out the top sales position in the German market, while coming in at number two overall in the European Union.

Engine

The range of engine options for the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter consists of three different variants of the 4-cylinder common-rail direct injection (CDI) turbo diesel and the king of the castle V6 turbo diesel.

These engines cover power ratings from 70kW to 120kW for the 4-cylinder range and 140kW for the V6 engine.

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Transmission

The big news in regards to the driveline is the introduction of the 7G-Tronic full auto transmission. This transmission has been in service with the Mercedes passenger car range since 2003 but now has been beefed up to deal with up to 700Nm of torque.

European van makers tend to suffer from the lack of an automatic option on the Australian market as manual transmissions are still all the rage in their home markets. To get around this most offer an AMT as an alternative.

However, self-shifting AMTs tend to suffer from a driveability and manoeuvrability point of view and are often viewed as a compromise.

Benz has a real drawcard with the 7G-Tronic as it is the only large van supplier in the Australian market with a full fluid torque converter transmission as an option. The auto is an option across the Sprinter range but comes as standard equipment on V6 models.

The gear ratios of the transmission have been revised for van duty to provide the best balance of torque and economy in a commercial vehicle.

The lower gears in the transmission have been geared towards pulling a heavy lump of van away from a standstill efficiently, while higher gears have a lower ratio for economical cruising.

This keeps the tacho needle in the peak torque range of 1,200 to 2,400rpm.

One thing I wasn’t aware of is the Sprinter actually comes out of the box with a power take-off (PTO) unit already installed at the front of the engine.

Given the Mercedes-Benz cab-chassis variants available this is an interesting feature for operators wanting to run hydraulic equipment.

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Cab and Controls

The front of the Sprinter chassis is fitted with replaceable cross members (shoes) that have been designed to absorb impact but still be easily replaced.

On top of this, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is now available with a Bosch 9i Adaptive ESP unit that gives the van a raft of new safety features, some passive and some active. It’s no surprise the Sprinter achieves a 5-star ANCAP rating, either.

The Adaptive ESP system detects and calculates the load and centre of gravity of the vehicle and directs braking to the corner of the vehicle that needs it the most to stay upright and in a straight line.

While this technology has been around for a while, and is even common in other brands of vehicle, Benz has added a few more strings to the ESP’s bow.

The new crosswind assist function becomes active at speeds over 80km/h. If the vehicle swerves or rocks without any steering input from the driver the system applies braking force on the side of the vehicle for it to remain stable.

The collision prevention assist function comes into play at speeds over 30km/h and has a maximum range of 65m. The system gives the driver a visual warning on the dashboard, then sounds an audio warning and then primes the brakes for a hard stop.

It doesn’t, however, intervene and hit the brakes; the driver still has to do that. Blind spot assist has four sensors on either side of the vehicle. A red triangle illuminates when there is a vehicle in the blind spot and the system will beep at you if the indicator is activated.

Lane keeping assist will also beep if you drift out of your lane, and will beep earlier if it detects you’re fiddling with the stereo.

On the braking side of things there are some new active features. For a start there’s a brake disc wipe function that regularly wipes the brake disc with the brake pads in wet conditions to make sure the brakes will perform at their optimum level when required.

The other interesting brake function is an electronic brake pre-fill that senses when the accelerator is suddenly released and primes the braking systems for an emergency stop.

Auto windscreen wipers and auto headlights with high beam assist (yep, it even dips your lights for you) come standard as a part of the safety package.

ESP9i appears to be a rather clever little unit indeed, little wonder that Mercedes-Benz are claiming the Sprinter is "Australia’s safest Workplace."

Another interesting little gadget is the parameter special module (PSM) that is linked into the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter’s controller area network (CAN).

This acts as an interface between the CAN circuitry and body builders or others needing to install auxiliary equipment.

The PSM can be programmed to take care of specific functions such as remote start, or engine rpm when the PTO is engaged. It can even control external lighting; this is how Sprinter emergency vehicles are programmed to get their headlights to flash under lights and sirens.

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Performance

After digesting all of that information, we actually got to drive a cross-section of the Sprinter models both on the road and on a test track. So, we took a tour of the Gold Coast hinterland before heading to the Mount Cotton test track.

Out on the roads we rotated through the models in the range, some loaded, some empty. The combination of rear-wheel drive and super-single wheels on the rear gives the van excellent dynamics while empty or loaded.

The acoustics of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter aren’t too bad either. The optional bulkhead that divides the load area and cockpit does a good job of dulling the rumble in the back, while the cockpit remains reasonably quiet.

The 2.1-litre 120kW CDI engine is a competent performer under load and dealt with the climb up Mount Tamborine easily.

I do find lane keeping assist devices a pain in the butt once off the freeway. On narrow country roads the lane keeper beeped a few times. I always find myself muttering back at it.

One of the test Sprinters had been loaded with a tonne behind the drive wheels, something that would usually unsettle most vans. However, the Sprinter adapted to the uneven load distribution well even though the steering was noticeably lighter.

The tendency for the Sprinter to understeer was picked up by the ESP which kept it under control.

I did find the blind spot assist very handy — a couple of times the system picked up vehicles lurking beside me. Unfortunately, there weren’t any gale force winds for us to try the crosswind assist function out.

But the new auto transmission was a real stand out on the drive. It’s a hard call to provide car-like driving dynamics to a commercial vehicle, especially at the larger end of the van spectrum where gross weights collide with those in the light truck end of the market, but the Sprinter delivers this.

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With a decent 2 tonnes of payload on board I descended Mount Tamborine quite easily with only a minimum of manual intervention on the gearbox to make sure we came down the hill at a safe rate of knots.

It intuitively holds back on up changes while going downhill under brakes, yet smoothly puts power down when asked to haul along.

The 3-litre 140kW V6 is a smooth performer and the 7-speed auto is standard behind this power plant.

When talking about our afternoon at the Mount Cotton circuit I feel I should adopt a serious tone, speaking earnestly about how important stability control programs are. And they are, but boy did we have some fun trying them out.

Out on the skid pan a fine layer of both water and diesel awaited. One Sprinter van had its ESP systems disconnected, the other cab-chassis Sprinter had them all functioning.

I found myself reliving dreams of speedway glory as I circulated the skid pan sideways, with only a couple of spin-outs.

But, to then jump into the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with functioning ESP and try the same antics was a real eye opener. I just could not get the empty cab-chassis to hang its tail out. Even switching the traction control off only worked briefly as once the ESP kicks in the traction control resets to its default ‘on’ position.

It was the same out on the flooded gymkhana course the guys from the Mercedes-Benz driving academy had set out. Again it was the loaded 419 CDI with its higher gross weight that really pushed the ESP program.

I threw that van at the course with the engine roaring but as soon as things started to look a bit untidy the ESP kicked in and straightened the whole thing out.

A brake and swerve exercise resulted in a tad of understeer and a straight line pull up. The harsh braking and thrashing had an interesting effect on the brake pedal.

I was simulating emergency braking scenarios and the brake pedal constantly varied in feel and travel due to the brake wipe and pre-fill function.

Verdict

The evolution of vehicle safety has taken us past the point of accident survivability; we’re now talking about not having the accident in the first place.

Mercedes-Benz may well be short-circuiting Darwinian theory, but I reckon most of us would be happy this is the case.

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Specifications

Make/model: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Engine: 2.1-litre 4 cylinder CDI, 3-litre V6 CDI

Power: 4 cylinder: 70kW to 120kW/6 cylinder: 140kW

Torque: 305Nm to 360Nm (4 cylinder)/440Nm (6 cylinder)

Transmission: 6-speed manual with ECO stop/start function/7-speed automatic (standard on V6 models)

Drive: Rear

Variants: Short wheelbase; medium wheelbase; medium wheelbase high roof; long wheelbase high roof; long wheelbase super high roof; extra-long wheelbase high roof; extra-long wheelbase super high roof; cab-chassis single cab; cab-chassis dual cab. All-wheel drive and dual-wheel variants also available.

Load volume: 7.5-17 cubic-metres

ANCAP rating: 5 stars

Starting list (excludes on-roads) price: $44,290 Sprinter short wheelbase 310 CDI (70kW)

 

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