29 Oct 2018

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2019 first drive review

Is Australia's best-selling van still the best?
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No matter how much success you've had, staying on top in the rapidly evolving van market is no easy task.

Mercedes' third-generation Sprinter arrives on the back of a model that has been the sales leader in its segment in Australia for the last 12 years – but it's a feat that is under threat. Ford recently updated its Transit with a sharp-looking, value-packed line-up, and fellow German brand Volkswagen has broken the shackles it shared with the three-pointed star on its first Crafter, producing a new stand-alone model with plenty of bells and whistles.

In a bid to retain its lead, the new Mercedes van brings a bevy of variants – 1700 including body types, lengths, drivelines and cab designs – and following form, first-in-segment safety tech.

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Vehicle Style: Van and cab-chassis

On test: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, front-wheel-drive auto with 2.1-litre engine.

Engine/trans: 85kW/300Nm or 105kW/330Nm 2.1-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel | 9spd automatic, front-wheel drive

OVERVIEW

Do you need to haul cargo or people? The Sprinter caters for small to big businesses, from delivering parcels and groceries to chauffeuring large groups. It’s also the backbone for pop-up stores and campervans, with a tractor head variant arriving in quarter two 2019 for aftermarket builders.

But the third-generation brings a further trick that will arrive 12 months from now, Mercedes Pro, that provides a plug-and-play fleet management interface for small to large fleets.

Sprinter van pricing starts at $46,008 plus on-road costs for the entry-level short-wheelbase variant with the least powerful 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel motor, producing 84kW and 300Nm through a six-speed manual transmission. The more powerful 105kW version of the same motor adds around $5500 on top of that and the range-topping long-wheelbase body, powered by a 3.0-litre V6 with seven-speed auto, costs $76,069 plus on-road costs. In all variants, the seven- or nine-speed automatic is a $2875 cost-option.

Apart from the basic van shape with an empty carcass out back, inside is a 7.0-inch infotainment display or optional 10.25-inch high-definition screen, both with the brand-new Mercedes-Benz User Experience system as standard.

Further equipment includes touch-pro steering wheel, reversing camera, cruise control, satellite navigation, keyless push start ignition, automated emergency braking with brake assist, reverse AEB, blind spot assist on vans (not cab-chassis), lane departure warning, driver fatigue warning, crosswind assist and front and side window airbags for both front occupants.

Options include LED headlights, keyless entry, climate control, electric seats with memory function, bulkheads, barn door sidewalls, LED strip lighting, adaptive cruise control, active steering assist and a 360-degree camera.

Engines available are 84kW/300Nm and 105kW/330Nm versions of the 2.1-litre twin-turbo diesel and a 3.0-litre V6 turbo producing 140kW and 440Nm. The tractor head for motorhomes will be a 120kW version of the 2.1-litre engine not available in the vans. The driveline comes in front-, rear- or all-wheel drive configurations with either a six-speed manual or seven- or nine-speed automatic transmission.

The maximum servicing interval is every 40,000km or two years, whichever comes first, and the warranty period covers three-years/200,000 kilometres including complimentary 24/7 roadside assistance during that time.

Fixed-price servicing is catered for by three different plans – ServiceCar, BestBasic or SelectPlus – and if prepaid receives a minimum 20 per cent saving compared to pay as you go.

WHAT'S THE INTERIOR LIKE?

The Sprinter is three-generations old and holds its place as the most popular van in Australia since being introduced in 1995. The third-generation builds on the familiar formula but with some changes to the front-wheel driveline, namely the new nine-speed automatic transmission.

The rear cargo area remains relatively unchanged in dimension to the previous model, meaning those who want to use an existing fit out should be able to do so. The front-wheel-drive variant has dropped 80mm lower which will help reduce strain when moving cargo, and the payload has increased by 50kg.

Mercedes’ new MBUX system isn’t just hype and it works well, with further enhancements and abilities coming via online connectivity next year. The Sprinter also comes with comprehensive safety gear such as AEB and lane departure warning as standard and optional adaptive cruise control and active steering assist, both of which can help minimise driver fatigue. There’s also the option for a 360-degree camera.

The Sprinter is the only van on the market to come with the option of a 360-degree camera - perhaps Mercedes felt it had to debut yet another safety-tech first given it paved the way for ABS, electronic stability control and active crosswind mitigation into the segment. The 360 camera works well, and we put it to the test by driving a windowless van around a Motorkhana circuit using just the vision on the screen. It has obvious benefits when moving in tight quarters.

MBUX debuted earlier this year in the new A-Class hatchback and is the culmination of an almost $1.5 billion project undertaken by Mercedes-Benz to remain technologically-relevant as smartphone mirroring becomes the norm (Apple CarPlay is coming to the Sprinter, though). The crux of MBUX is that artificial intelligence will learn driver habits such going to certain destinations at particular times of the week, when a specific contact is called and what seat/climate control/radio station the driver prefers – all adding potential ease of use for a multi-driver work van.

It is commanded by using natural turns of phrase such as ‘Hey Mercedes, take me to the MCG,’ rather than the usual robotic navigation lingo.

For a car, a van is pretty darn practical and a variety of fit-out options can be tailored to slot inside the back.

The front cabin is also spacious and there are plenty of storage holes and pockets littered around. In the centre of the dash, the pop-up console bin has two USB-C 5v ports for charging devices and further options including wireless charging, 12volt, 230volt sockets and LED lighting strips can be fitted throughout.

A great deal of detail has been directed at ensuring drivers don’t feel fatigued or strained when sitting down for an eight-plus hour day. The seats have been designed to be ergonomically supportive and there are a variety of adjustments that can be made, and the steering wheel is both tilt and reach adjustable.

Electric seats can also be optioned that – another first in the van segment – have three-way seat memory function which will be useful for multiple drivers. MBUX can also remember specific settings for up to 10 drivers, though that information can’t be shared around a fleet of cars.

Some of the finishes on the dash feel cheap though, and the area over the passenger’s airbag is particularly soft and flimsy.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO DRIVE?

A daring road loop was on offer for this launch drive that took place in the Adelaide Hills district, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the front-wheel drivelines on offer.

Loaded with 500kg in the rear, the medium-wheelbase van with the milder 85kW/300Nm 2.1-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel struggled to keep pace with traffic uphill between 80-100km/h. It had to be worked to around 3000rpm to keep up and felt out of its depth in this setting but was less stressed around town, with only some hesitation to move off the line.

The 105kW/330Nm version of the same mill plugged the hole in hesitation when accelerating from a standstill and was easier to drive with a similar load in the cargo area, though it demands a premium around $5500 over the base variant.

Fuel consumption varies between 6.8 and 9.7L/100km depending on body type, wheelbase, roof height, drive type and engine variant.

Despite a slightly asthmatic engine option, the Sprinter is easy to drive and there’s a layer of refinement underneath that moves the van game along, slowly. Not everything is sharp, such as brakes that feel soft and steering which is light, but as a tool to drive all day, the Sprinter achieves a relaxed balanced ride.

The new nine-speed automatic is also a slick unit and matches well to both the 85kW and 105kW versions of the 2.1-litre diesel. Paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel can override the gear selection when required but the transmission picked the correct gear quickly in the variety of different situations we threw at it.

With a high payload capacity around the two-tonne mark, the rear suspension can be a little firm but the ride is generally well composed and compliant, particularly under the front of the cabin.

On the safety front, the cruise control is sharp and doesn’t creep running downhill with a load, and the 360-degree view with reversing camera will help avoid potentially costly mistakes when vision is obstructed.

The reverse AEB was demonstrated but with a hitch, not activating at all times, proving driver attention shouldn’t be replaced with safety assist technology.  

TMR VERDICT | OVERALL

Like the update before it, the Sprinter brings some key safety updates that could prove a winning point for fleets. The focus on multi-driver convenience will also appeal to large businesses and it’s further bolstered by some of the best-connected tech in any car, let alone van.

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