Growing up in a family of eight kids, I learned how to drive in a 10-seat Ford Econoline van. Turns out, that was a great foundation for driving the 2009 Dodge Sprinter, a 12-seat van in which I took my family (and my sister-in-law and her two boys) from Chicago to Rochester, N.Y. All in all, I really enjoyed driving the Sprinter. It was comfortable and roomy, but it needs some entertainment updates to make it truly competitive.
The Sprinter was last redesigned for the 2007 model year; it's available in a number of lengths and roof heights, with cargo (2500 and 3500) and passenger-carrying (2500 wagon) configurations, as well as a stripped-down chassis version. I tested an extended-length Sprinter 2500 wagon with the higher of two available ceilings. Click here to compare the '09 Sprinter with the '08.
Is it Like Driving a Bus?
I have to admit, when I saw the Dodge Sprinter in my driveway I was intimidated by its size. In some ways it was smaller than the van I had been picturing in my mind, but in person it stood awfully tall and was verrryyy long. I asked myself, "What have you gotten yourself into?"
I needn't have worried. The Sprinter is a more-than-capable travel van, one that took my family to upstate New York and back in style and comfort. Sure, there were a few things we'd have changed, but all in all I wouldn't hesitate to rent one of these for another long road trip.
Beforehand, what unnerved me most about driving the Sprinter was the way I expected it to handle on the open road. Boy, was I mistaken. While there are adjustments you'll have to make, it's a very small learning curve. After only a short drive, I found the acceleration, shifting and handling to be very similar to my Kia Sedona (and minivans like it), and I can honestly say I really enjoyed driving it.
Even though it's a big van, I never lacked for power to get going or to pass on the highway. That's thanks largely to its diesel engine, which not only provides enough oomph, but also kept its gas mileage pretty low for a van this size. That being said, there was definitely an upper limit on how fast I could drive and feel comfortable with. Getting up to 70 mph was no problem, but once I passed 75 there was a growing disconnect I could feel with the road. It was nothing dangerous, just an unsettled feeling. I kept it between 65 and 72 for most of the trip.
The cruise control was a huge help for me; once it was set, just toggling the accelerate/decelerate lever at my left, above the steering wheel, provided enough throttle control. Because the Sprinter is so large, even a small push down on the decelerate lever dropped the speed quickly, so I could drop back when I had to.
No matter the speed, I found myself being more cautious as I took curves, but I never felt like I might tip over. I will admit I was more cautious than I would have been in any of the SUVs I drove for last year's vacation blog.
In something of a gain over last year's cars, visibility was no problem in the Sprinter. Even with enough suitcases and bags for eight people, there was plenty of storage space behind the last row, so my view out the back window was never blocked. That's a lot of storage space, my friends. The side mirrors had a great combination of standard flat mirrors plus some convex mirrors on the bottom that gave me a wide view of each lane on either side of the van. Lane changes were easily accomplished and there was no drama.
I suspect that for most people, the Sprinter's looks are polarizing. I liked the tall shape, the long lines and the interior. I suspect other people see it as a monolith. For me, I could appreciate the function over form, and I didn't see it as boring or dull, which is often how these kinds of vans can be seen. Likely because I grew up driving that Ford 10-seater, I thought this was much more attractive. My kids liked the looks of it less: "They're pretty awful-looking," my daughter volunteered.
Comfort & Roominess
For me, the Sprinter was definitely comfortable — so much so that I wouldn't mind it as a daily driver, if I had eight kids to haul around. My 16-year-old gave it high marks, higher even than me, and he spent all of his time in the back three rows. For one brief portion he rode in the front passenger seat, but opted to return to the back. My wife only found the Sprinter middling for comfort, but perhaps the passenger seat lacked the legroom found in back. My sister-in-law was more blunt: "The actual drive is a smooth one, but my back did not appreciate it," she said. "The seats were too hard and too upright."
That was something my 14-year-old daughter also pointed out (several times): She would have preferred reclining seats in the back rows. I don't know how easily those could be added, but if Dodge is going to market this to families, it may want to consider those.
Roominess was a no-brainer. The Sprinter has room, in spades, although perhaps not for as many people as it has seats for.
"For eight people, I thought it was great," my sister-in-law said. "But for 12, it wouldn't be comfortable."
I do think that the extra height inside gave passengers less of a sense of claustrophobia than do conventional vans, and in the driver's seat there was a sense of light and room.
"If you have 12 billion kids," my daughter hyperbolized, "it would be good."
This is where the Sprinter feels like a '90s van, not a van of the 21st century.
"It needs more stuff in it," my 16-year-old son pointed out. Even though Chrysler is the automaker that came up with Sirius Backseat TV, it's not to be found in the Sprinter. I have to tell you, there were moments with my sister-in-law's 4-year-old and 2-year-old when we could have really used it. In addition, Dodge needs to make some 12-volt outlets available in those back three rows (more about that later). The Sprinter did come with a six-CD changer, but in an age of iPods it seemed antiquated. A navigation system would also be handy, but given how many you get (for much less) on smart phones, perhaps it isn't that big an oversight.
For our trip, we bought a converter to plug into a 12-volt outlet that gave us a household outlet, and another with a couple of USB outlets. When we loaded up the van, the cupholder on the center stack was pulled out and it had a 12-volt outlet in it. Unfortunately, the lip of the cupholder blocked us from plugging in our converter. We shrugged and lamented the fact that we'd bought converters we couldn't use.
While cleaning out the car on the second morning, I tossed a water bottle and closed the cupholder when something big caught my eye. Directly below the cupholder, and I mean directly below, was a 12-volt outlet, unencumbered by any cupholder lip. Huzzah! Our converters got quite a workout on that second day. We still managed to miss the third 12-volt outlet in the cockpit area; it's on the driver's seat, but facing the passenger's seat. We didn't find that one until we finished cleaning out the car at the end of the vacation.
Also, the plastic floor in the Sprinter is grained in a way that makes it look like it's covered in gray carpeting, but when you need to wipe it down (a spill here, a smear of dirt there), you can easily take a damp cloth and clean it right up. It's such a great surface, I suspect they could make it an option on other cars in their lineup for people like Cars.com's resident Weekend Athlete, who often find their car floors dirty.
When using that 12-volt outlet built into the cupholder in the center stack, be sure to hold onto the cupholder when you plug something into it; we nearly sliced a Coke can in half because the act of pushing the charger into the outlet forces the cupholder back into its hole. Lucky for us, the can was mostly empty when we tried. In addition, while there are three 12-volt outlets in the cockpit area and two in the back, in the storage area, there are no outlets in the three rows of passenger seating. In this day and age of cell phones, iPods, GameBoy DSs, laptops, cameras and a thousand other rechargeable devices, that's a crime.
While it's clear that the Sprinter is meant primarily as a commercial vehicle, if Dodge is going to market this to consumers it needs to remember some of the advances it put into its successful minivans. Behind the driver and passenger seats in my Sedona, for example, there are these nifty pockets for passengers to store their iPods, snacks, directions, sunglasses, whatever. They don't exist in the Sprinter, and they should.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Sprinter is its gas mileage. It's a big, hulking van that seats 12, yet I averaged nearly 20 mpg over more than 1,600 miles over the course of nine days. While it's not Prius-like, there are millions of Americans out there who need to haul around close to a dozen people at a time, and this is far better than driving in a gas-powered van that gets only 10-12 mpg.
All told, I was very impressed with the Sprinter's mileage. I didn't find the diesel engine as distracting or loud as I feared it might be, finding diesel fuel was no trouble, and all in all my mileage this summer wasn't far from last year's trip. Thankfully, though, both gas and diesel were only around $2.75 a gallon, down from last year's $3.75 a gallon, saving plenty of money on fuel.
A Family-Friendly Van?
When summing up my family's impressions, it was clear that my oldest son and I enjoyed the Sprinter most; my sister-in-law liked it the least. I think Dodge has started off well here, but for nearly $60,000 it needs to find a way to add some entertainment options and power outlets to keep everyone happy on long trips. Would I buy one? If I had the eight kids my parents did, yes. Would I rent one for another long trip? With a DVD player and some more 12-volt outlets, absolutely.
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