SPRINTER DEBUT | UTE Review -2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

One of the world’s best vans just got better – Warren Caves takes a first drive of the 2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

It’s not often that an existing light commercial vehicle model continues to win accolades and awards when a replacement model is waiting in the wings, but that’s exactly the case for Mercedes-Benz and its Sprinter van range.

The current model Sprinter has been well publicised through ongoing editorial features in Delivery Magazine, and has been recognised for its outstanding efficiency and safety with various accolades gained from the Delivery Magazine Best Van of the Year and Best People Mover of the Year awards.

On the eve of the launch of the new Sprinter onto the Australian market, Australia Post confirmed the purchase of 1300 Sprinter and Vito vans for supply over coming months and years. The model mix will include the current Sprinter, and, subsequently, the next-generation Sprinter that will be introduced into Australia in October.

Prior to the launch of the new third-generation Sprinter van, due into Australia in the fourth quarter of 2018, Delivery Magazine was invited to join an exclusive test drive programme in the stunningly beautiful European landscape of Slovenia. Lush green countryside, surrounded by majestic, snow-capped European alpine peaks, intersected by narrow village streets and high-speed motorways provided diversity of road conditions and topography and the opportunity to gain definite impressions of ability.

Significant upgrades have been added to the new range, which spans an impressive 1700 variations of build, to provide sector specific solutions tailored directly to customer needs.

This level of customer specific configurability ensures purchasers get a vehicle that suits their particular application and operational requirements perfectly. As a result of this customised approach, MB vans state a build time for orders of around four months – an acceptable lead-time, given most businesses will plan acquisitions well in advance.

Variations of design extend to wheelbase, tonnage, cab design, load height and minibus formats. The Sprinter can also be supplied as a chassis cowl, which supplies the cab, chassis and componentry from the B-pillar forwards, allowing bodybuilders the freedom to add their own rear chassis section and bodies for motorhome applications.   

For the first time, third-generation Sprinter vans are now available with the well proven, Mercedes Benz, E-Class sourced, 3.0-litre V6 Turbo diesel engine (also soon to be released in the X-Class pickup) and seven-speed automatic transmission.

Available in either front, or rear-wheel-drive, the FWD version sports a 2.2-litre four-cylinder, turbodiesel engine in three tune specifications of 84, 105, 120 kW, and 130 kW for motorhomes. Preliminary fuel burn figures are listed at 7.8-7.9 l/100 km. Transmission choice for the FWD is either a six-speed manual or the 9G-TRONIC nine-speed automatic.

The rear-wheel-drive model is treated to the V6 diesel engine, rated to 140 kW of power and 330 Nm of torque at 1200-2400 rpm. This option is only available with the 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission.

According to Blake Vincent, MB Australia’s PR and corporate communications manager, the front-wheel-drive option is regarded by the manufacturer as the workhorse of the range with the widest sales potential.

“We feel this is the best and most cost-effective option for fleet buyers, with the nine-speed automatic being the most popular choice,” explained Blake.

Also benefiting the FWD version is the engine and transmission orientation, which allows for an 80 mm lower floor height for more ergonomic loading/unloading, and an increased payload by up to 50 kg. This will also benefit motorhome manufacturers by providing an increased in useable internal living space without the need for extra external height.

The V6 diesel is, as mentioned, directly borrowed from the E-Class series, albeit in a different state of tune. Putting out 140 kW and 440 Nm torque, spanning 1600-2600 rpm, it stands to reason that the heavier end of the transport arena and the motorhome market may find the extra power and torque of the bigger V6 an appealing and less stressed choice.

MB engineers have looked hard at the needs of the busy small delivery workday to incorporate functionality and connectivity within the cabin workspace.

Recently released in the Mercedes-Benz A-Class model, the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz user experience) multimedia interface system with seven-inch touchscreen control panel (10.25 is available as an option) has been migrated across to the Series III Sprinter, in the start of a move that will see the system proliferate across the range of MB products. This multimedia interface performs all the functionality and connectivity functions for the vehicle and can be operated by either the steering-wheel controls, on the right spoke of the wheel, or via the touchscreen main unit.

Sprinter’s online system can be fully integrated into a company’s IT and inventory control.

The steering wheel is a totally new feature for the Series III Sprinter. As mentioned earlier, the right spoke controls the main infotainment system, screen and phone connectivity, while the left spoke controls the in-dash screen functions of fuel data, gauge mode selections, and cruise control.

At first, the steering wheel appeared “really busy”, with a plethora of buttons and symbols to select. This would definitely take some getting used to; however, once you have your orientation, quite literally everything is at your fingertips.

While Delivery Magazine compiled a comprehensive review of the third-generation Sprinter in the April/May issue of this year, here’s a brief overview gained at firsthand of what you can expect from the next-generation models.

MB engineers focused strongly on safety, incorporating a suite of the latest active safety systems that include lane keeping assist, active lane keep assist, active brake assist, a range of parking assist packages including the 360-degree camera view option, crosswind assist, active distance assist (DISTRONIC) and traffic sign assist. If they could add cappuccino assist, your day would be complete.

The E-Sprinter, Mercedes-Benz fully-electric version of the Sprinter, is due into Europe in 2019, following the release of the E-Vito later this year.

According to Mercedes-Benz, the new Sprinter is a “smart piece of hardware”, that is a comprehensive answer to the challenges of mobility and transportation in the 21st century

Delivery Magazine drove a Sprinter in panel van, mid-wheelbase spec, fitted with the four-cylinder 2.2-litre turbodiesel, producing 105 kW and 300 Nm of torque, mated to the nine-speed automatic transmission and loaded with approximately 350 kg of simulated cargo.

Immediately noticeable upon sitting in the Sprinter is the new dash layout. MB is migrating a lot of features from their passenger car range in a move that brings levels of design, functionality and productivity to new heights.

The work van is coming of age, with styling and comfort high on the “must have” list, and why not? This is a working environment like any other, and employees and owners spending long hours behind the wheel or loading and unloading should expect the same level of ergonomics and practicality within the workspace as anyone else.

Improved seating for the new Sprinter range features electronic controls as standard for the driver’s side and optional for the passenger side, with a low seat base for easy, repetitive entry and exit. The seats, both treated to armrests, are of the same quality, and were supportive and welcoming from start to finish on the 120 km route that incorporated a variety of driving environments from winding rural roads to built-up traffic and motorway experiences. A middle seat is also an option, taking the seating capacity to three, including the driver.

The road test circuit was preloaded into the MBUX multimedia interface system (which used to be called a map), and after a brief roadside orientation it was easy enough to navigate through the menus to enable voice guidance from the very polite lady who didn’t even appear to the least bit annoyed at my sometimes-questionable sense of direction. Thankfully, all directions were projected in English (as my German is horrible), and between the two of us we managed to negotiate the Slovenian road system without major drama.

Not wanting to create an international incident, my first experience of driving in Europe was swift, albeit a little clumsy to start. Making life on the right-hand-side of the road a little easier was the commanding view from the Sprinter’s large windscreen and truck-type wing mirror arrangement with split views via the upper and lower, straight and convex glass. Manoeuvring the large van in reverse was assisted by the clear camera display of the surroundings and the trajectory displayed on-screen, dependant on the steering wheel position.

Sprinter comes standard with a left-side sliding door, with options for dual sliding doors and electric door opening from in-cab or via a key controller making it a handy feature for busy parcel delivery operators to remotely open doors upon returning to vehicle, with instant access for returning trolleys or pick-up parcels to the cargo area.

On the road, the 2.2-litre diesel was quite perky and efficient at getting the vehicle moving, as the nine-speed transmission shifted swiftly through the ratios to top gear. Gear changes were crisp and firm under moderate to heavy throttle, settling down to more subdued, practically unnoticeable transitions under a lighter foot.

Engine speed at 110 km/h was a leisurely 1750 rpm, which places it bang in the middle of the torque sweet spot. With such tall final drive gearing and nine transmission ratios, the synergy between engine and transmission would likely result in reasonable fuel economy.

While the four-cylinder engine seemed more than capable during our test drive under lightly loaded conditions, there were no long steep uphill pulls to fully test out the torque capabilities, although I suspect that for parcel delivery and light to medium payloads this would have to be the pick of bunch. The availability of nine ratios, closely spaced, ensures torque distribution is always on point. For those desiring to load closer to maximum payloads or motorhome fit-outs and towing small cars behind, I believe that the V6 RWD would be a more sensible choice.

Road manners and handling were as expected of a van this size; though, even when pushed a little through corners at speed, handling was precise, with little to no adverse road feedback or body roll. The crosswind assist feature adds a further reassuring level of handling. Ride comfort from the rear leaf-spring suspension was good, thanks to the 350 kg ballast in the back. There are options for rear suspension changes depending on use, with a glass fibre spring option that adds a payload gain of up to 12 kg, plus the option of air suspension for a more refined experience when carrying sensitive or fragile loads.

Noise levels at highway speed were good, thanks to a solid bulkhead behind the seats that kept road noise and echo encroaching into the cabin space to a minimum, although some wind noise around the windows became noticeable as speed increased, but this was not annoying.

On a couple of occasions, the active lane keep assist reminded this driver that he was defaulting back to the left side of the road, activating an audible warning and steering-wheel vibration as a friendly reminder.

The FWD Sprinter range will hit our dealerships with Euro 6 compliance, featuring SCR technology (AdBlue), while the RWD models will arrive with a mix of Euro 5 and 6 compliances. Preliminary carbon emissions are stated at 205-208 g/km for the four-cylinder model.

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans have been the best-selling large van for the last 20 years, and MB has put a great deal of design thought and innovative connected functions into the third-generation model.

Unique options and scalability of design place the Sprinter in a strong position in the large-van market sector, catering for the bare-bones buyers seeking practicality and safety without the bells and whistles, for a bottom-line-benefiting purchase to more refined buyers of motor homes and silver service limousine type operations. The options of individuality seem endless, and the car-like characteristics creeping into the cockpit seem a little alien to a working van environment, ultimately setting a benchmark not seen before in this field.

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