Pooler, Georgia, is the assembly point for Sprinters as well as the location of Roebling Road Raceway. This made it an appropriate destination for our first look at this van. Taking the Sprinter to the track would provide a chance to test its towing utility and its usefulness as a weekend apartment and all-around headquarters.

The Sprinter is available in commercial and consumer versions, with three different wheelbases (long, extra long, and incredibly long) and two different heights (tall and funny looking or even taller and funnier looking) for consumers. The passenger versions (eight- and 10-seat configurations are available) feature fixed windows in the passenger space, and panel versions are available for people without friends or family.

Pickups and SUVs have largely assumed the role of tow vehicles for hauling boats, horses, race cars, and motorcycles, as the full-size, rear-drive van market has languished. With that in mind, Chrysler cancelled a new van that was under development a couple of years ago, opting instead for the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van favored by commercial customers all over the Continent.

Commercial customers in the U.S. have quickly adopted the vans, which sell here as both Freightliner and Dodge vehicles, for urban parcel delivery and hotel airport shuttle service. But we wanted to know what the passenger version is like for family hauling and recreational towing.

The sturdy, body-on-frame rear-drive, 3/4-ton Sprinter 2500 is well-suited to towing, and its commodious interior can take as many people and luggage as you're likely to need. Ours comfortably seated 10.

The potential weak link for people pondering the possibilities of such a vehicle is the 154-horsepower, 2.7-liter common-rail fuel-injection five-cylinder turbodiesel powerplant. The company claims 22 mpg for the van, but with a vehicle of this size and the frontal area of a billboard, that seems optimistic.

Towing a 950-pound Formula Ford race car on a 500-pound flatbed trailer and carrying another couple hundred pounds of tools and spare parts inside the gigantic cargo area, we got 13 mpg, with the cruise control set on 70 mph much of the time. Four refills of the 26-gallon tank showed this was a consistent result, not the outcome of unusual circumstances. Around town, with less aerodynamic drag and with no trailer, the van ought to achieve economy in the 20s without difficulty.

The little motor pulled the light trailer smartly at highway speeds, but the Sprinter makes use of a few of the five gears in its automatic transmission when climbing even slight grades and loses speed on steeper hills. With a heavier trailer using more of the van's 5000-pound towing capacity, steep hills wouldn't be much fun.

The company brought the Sprinter into the U.S. nearly unmodified from its European-tuned specifications just to get a product on the market, and the vehicle is ideal for several applications here. But it would be even better with a bigger optional engine, such as the Cummins turbodiesel used in the Ram pickups. The van is built in 3/4- and one-ton versions, so there isn't much doubt that it's strong enough to accept that engine's output. An updated version of the Sprinter is scheduled for a few years from now, so if this lighter-duty hauler doesn't suit your purposes now, maybe a future model will.

The Sprinter's interior could be called cavernous, except that there are plenty of caverns that aren't as large. Motorcycles, ATVs, kayaks, and more will not only fit inside the Sprinter--you wouldn't need a trailer--they'll fit with space left for passengers and supplies.

For the race weekend, I used the six feet behind the last row of seats to carry toolboxes and parts en route. At the track, I unloaded the cargo and inflated my double-bed air mattress with a compact shop vac, using the cargo hold as a bedroom for the duration.

Camping in the van at the track was quite pleasant, thanks to the generous amount of space inside. The temperature inside the Sprinter was comfortable as well. With the roof-mounted rear air-conditioning unit, the van quickly chills the interior to a nice temperature. An option to run that supplemental air-conditioner on 110-volt AC shore power would've been a nice addition, so I hope they'll consider that possibility.

A plastic ceiling-mounted distribution channel carries cool air from the A/C forward. This cuts into the 73 inches of interior headroom, but only in the middle of the van. On both sides there's still plenty of space for most of us to stand upright while changing into a driver's suit, riding gear, wetsuit, or whatever manner of attire is required by your particular activity. Even the low-top version has 64 inches of headroom, if you don't mind hunching over a bit.

Interior amenities were a curious mix of commercial-cargo-van Spartan and European luxury-brand rich. The rubber floormat made vacuuming Roebling Road's sand out of the interior an easier task, but it wasn't exactly Berber carpeting, for those looking for that kind of thing. And a CD player isn't even available as an option with the AM/FM/cassette stereo. That radio did, however, have startlingly good reception.

On the luxury side, the Sprinter featured heated bucket seats for both front-seat occupants, power windows and locks, and enough thermostatically controlled HVAC capacity to provide the physical plant for a small apartment building. More important, the Sprinter is equipped with standard anti-lock brakes and Electronic Stability Program stability control to help keep the shiny side up.

At the other end of that steering wheel, the wheels turn to sharp angles left and right, giving the Sprinter a tight turning radius (36.7, 42, and 47 feet for the 118-, 140-, and 158-inch wheelbases, respectively) that makes the van no harder to park than say, a Suburban, despite its significantly greater length. Feel through the steering wheel is good, making it easy to keep the Sprinter on track.

On the highway, the accurate steering was a help, because the Sprinter's huge profile made it susceptible to buffeting from the bow shock off tractor-trailers when passing them. And the tall van has a high center of gravity, giving the Sprinter the feeling of a sailboat heeling from one side to the other when it crosses over the center of a crowned highway, as when changing lanes on the Interstate.

Getting into the driver's seat takes a bit of effort because of its height, made worse by the lack of a grab handle to assist the ascent to the summit. Once in place, I couldn't find a seat position that didn't leave my view of the left-side mirror split by the window divider in the driver-side door. Fortunately, the Sprinter was equipped with convex towing mirrors on both sides, which provide an excellent view of the road around the van, but the obstructed view of the flat mirror was consistently distracting.

The view is excellent otherwise, with a large windshield and windows all around providing a clear view of surroundings. People who have an equally clear view of what they want in their next utility/recreation machine should take a close look at the Sprinter. One of its six variations of length and height is likely to provide an interesting option for a wide variety of activities. And maybe if we buy enough Sprinters, DaimlerChrysler will think about giving us a stronger engine for true heavy-duty towing duty.

2004 Dodge Sprinter 2500 SHC Super High Passenger Van
General
Location of final assembly Dusseldorf, Germany and Gaffney, South Carolina (cargo van only)
Body style Full-size van, pass and cargo, cab/chassis
EPA size class Passenger van
Drivetrain layout Front engine/RWD
Airbags Front
Powertrain
Engine type I-5, cast-iron block and head
Bore x stroke, in 3.46 x 3.48
Displacement, ci/L 164/2.7
Compression ratio 18.0:1
Valve gear DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Fuel induction Common-rail turbodiesel
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 154 @ 3800
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 243 @ 1600-2400
Transmission type Five-speed automatic
1st 3.60:1
2nd 2.19:1
3rd 1.41:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.83:1
Reverse NA
Axle ratio 3.72:1, 4.11:1
Final-drive ratio 3.09 (w/3.72), 3.42 (w/4.11)
Recommended fuel Diesel #2 or #1
Dimensions/Capacities
Wheelbase, in 158
Length, in 263
Width, in 76.1
Height, in 103.3
Track, f/r, in 65.0/64.2
Ground clearance, in 8.3
Approach/departure angle, deg 26/14
Breakover angle, deg 15
Load lift height, in 28.0
Cargo capacity, cu ft 473
Curb weight, lb 5539
Payload capacity, lb 3011
GVWR, lb 8550, 9900
Towing capacity, lb 5000
Chassis
Suspension, f/r Independent wishbone with strut, transverse leaf spring/solid axle, parabolic spring
Steering type Power assisted rack-and-pinion
Turning circle, ft 47.0
Brakes, f/r Vented discs/solid discs; 4WABS
Wheels 16x6.0-in stamped steel
Tires 225/75R16 BSW all-season
Equipment
StandardTransmission oil cooler; air-conditioning w/auto temp control; AM/FM/cassette stereo; 10-pass seating
Optional Luxury bucket front seats; power locks/keyless entry; power windows; front auxiliary heater; 150-amp alternator; rear air-conditioner; heated front seats; tinted windows; foglamps
Price
Base price $34,472
As tested $42,978
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