2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4: First Drive


Editor's note: Yes, we know the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 is not a pickup truck. But if ever there was a vehicle that works like a pickup truck, the commercial van is it. That's why we're taking a closer look at this vehicle and sharing its high points. And there may be another reason this particular vehicle will be more important to us down the road. More on that later.

Even the casual observer will notice the full-size van segment is a different universe than it was 10 years ago. Back then, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van was a curiosity, sitting far apart from its competitors, all of which were based on body-on-frame pickup-truck platforms.

Believe it or not, the Sprinter commercial van came to the U.S. in 2001 and can now be found with Mercedes, Dodge or Freightliner badges on the hood. Offered only in 2500 and 3500 configurations, the Sprinter competes directly with the Ford Transit, Ram ProMaster and Nissan NV commercial vans. All of them are more efficient, larger and more capable than any of the truck-based old-school full-size vans. In fact, depending on the configuration, Sprinters can have a payload capacity between 2,900 and 5,500 pounds, with gross vehicle weight ratings of 8,550, 9,900 and 11,030 pounds.

Four-Wheel-Drive Option

New for 2015, Sprinters will be offered with a four-wheel-drive (actually all-wheel-drive) option on the entire lineup for an extra $6,500. That price gets you 4 extra inches of ground clearance, re-arched rear leaf springs and an entirely new front-drive axle (with heavy-duty coil-over struts). This package has a dedicated transfer case, splitting the traction power 35/65 between the front and rear driveshafts. Each wheel also has electronic sensors to tell the traction control system when and how to slow a spinning wheel to redistribute torque to the non-spinning tire.

For an extra $300, you can opt for the low-range gear that multiplies the transmission and ring-and-pinion gearing (by 1.42:1), giving the vehicle better crawling and gripping capabilities on nasty surfaces or terrain. When compared to a non-4×4 version, we're told the four-wheel-drive system adds about 350 pounds to the vehicle.

We recently had the chance to take eight new Sprinter 4x4s into the Canadian Rockies up some sloppy logging trails above the snow line. The trails become muddy bogs as the snow melts and freezes, with gullies and small riverlets running through the slop, so they certainly present a challenge.

All 4×4 Sprinters use the bigger 3.0-liter V-6 BlueTec turbo-diesel, which is rated at 188 horsepower and 325 pounds-feet of torque. The standard five-speed transmission is quick to respond with an easy-access stick off the center dash. Manual shifts can be done by tapping the stick side to side.

Putting It to the Test

When confronted with harsh road conditions, the driver engages the Sprinter's four-wheel-drive setup by pushing a button that connects the center differential, sending equal amounts of power to the front and rear tires. We were told the system works best in mud or sand with the traction control turned off to allow for a little more wheel slip before the brakes grab a spinning wheel. Although this sounds counterintuitive, it does prevent the system from reducing wheel speed too much, overheating the brakes and thus creating more problems. The trick with this system is to stay in the throttle to the point where the system can selectively get the right amount of power to the tire with the most traction.

Since the off-road section of our test drive was slick and greasy, the best way to hunt for traction proved to be sawing the steering wheel back and forth; having access to a low-range gear here did not help. However, had we been on a rocky, steeper surface with more technical challenges and tire traction, the lower gearing and slower wheel speeds would have been the ticket. We tested 4×4 Sprinters with and without this low-range capability (which is also activated by an electronic button on the dash next to the center-diff lock), and found the driving dynamics of the vehicles to be similar. However, with the low range engaged you will get a true 50/50 split between the front and rear axles. For that capability alone, the extra $300 is completely worth the expense.

The worst obstacle during our drive came at a remote high-elevation turnaround. We all climbed up a muddy, snowmelt-soaked two-track lane where the ruts got progressively deeper. Each van that attempted the climb had its front axles packed with more and more clay. Spotters used shovels to put dryer dirt and wood chips under the spinning front tires with marginal success. In the end, the 3500 dualies with mud-terrain tires had the easiest go of it, while the 2500 single-rear-wheel passenger vans equipped with standard-issue winter tires had more trouble.

From outside the van, you could hear the brakes working to keep the spinning wheels moving slowly enough to continue their plodding march forward. At other times you could hear the center differential trying to get as much torque as possible to the front wheels.

At certain points during the drive, when a driver's natural reaction was to let off the throttle because all perceptible momentum seemed to stop, strong "encouragement" from our trail bosses had some drivers enthusiastically back on the throttle to further engage the traction control to get the behemoths moving forward again.

The four-wheel-drive system is smart and well-engineered, but it seems to us that a manually locking front and rear differential would make this vehicle more capable and predictable, giving the driver more confidence.


But don't think this full-size van's premium price is only justifiable for its unique drivetrain. On-road performance, especially with the Sprinter's higher center of gravity, is impressive. Front double A-arm and solid rear axles have two strong sway bars that keep the Sprinter stable and in control no matter how much crosswind you experience. Add to that a laundry list of standard and optional safety features, and you begin to see why this is the most expensive vehicle in the segment. Industry-leading technology on this rig includes crosswind assist, antidrift warning, collision warning and prevention assist, lane departure warning, tire pressure monitors, load adaptive control, electronic brake prefill, roll mitigation, auto brake wiping, blind spot warning, high beam assist and, when properly equipped, trailer brake assist. Many of these electronic features are specifically tailored for the length, size and weight of the selected model. You can even get an integrated navigation system and leather seats (3500 dualies also have a full suspension seat option as well).

Mercedes is the only four-wheel-drive van player, so this Sprinter is likely to be a huge hit in its first few years with fleet buyers looking for more cargo-carrying, dirt-road-conquering load haulers. That's likely to include local and national delivery companies that service remote routes and face weather challenges. We'd also guess a huge contingent of oil and construction companies, along with motorhome outfitters, will be happy about this feature too.

As the premium player in the segment, pricing will be the biggest hurdle for these vans. More than 25,000 Sprinters were sold last year. Mercedes has almost 300 dealerships (including commercial Freightliner dealers) selling both 4×4 and 4×2 (rear-wheel-drive) Sprinters. Pricing starts at $44,596 (including destination) for a short-wheelbase, low-roof cargo 2500 4×4 but can go up to $60,000 for the long-wheelbase 4×4 passenger van with all the options. Yes, they're expensive, but they offer value and exclusivity.

We weren't the only ones to notice how nice the fully loaded crew-cab 4×4 Sprinter with comfortable seating for five and a huge cargo area behind the second row of seats almost seemed like an enclosed pickup truck. It doesn't take much imagination to visualize a closed-cab open-bed configuration based on the exact same platform that provides strong pickup truck capabilities. In fact, we enlisted the help of a professional illustrator to see what a might look like. Sure, it might cost a little more to enclose the passenger area and create a reasonable bed area strong enough to carry some heavy loads (Sprinters already have more payload capacity than any half-ton sold), but such a pickup could really shake up the full-size segment with a powerful and unique engine combined with stunning empty and loaded ride dynamics. Just sayin'.

To see a complete 4×2 price sheet for 2015 M-B Sprinters, click on the image below. photos by Mark Williams; illustration by Theo Chin/Chris Doane Automotive



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