Whether it’s people or gear, if you need to haul a lot of it, your choices are limited to smaller vans that don’t haul enough, SUVs that may not offer adequate cargo volume, or buses and moving vans that are just plain overkill. There exists a happy medium, though, and it’s called the Dodge Sprinter.
Ignoring the fact that the Sprinter is anything but, the van is perhaps one of the best byproducts of the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler merger. The Mercedes-Benz-turned-Dodge offers far more cargo capacity than Chevrolet’s Express or Ford’s E-350, and that’s just what we needed for our annual trip to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for our Best Driver’s Car comparison.
When you have to haul seven sets of wheels and tires, two coolers, several boxes of test equipment including scales, weights, food and refreshments, a ladder, photo and video gear, personal gear, and even a scooter, you require a large vehicle. For us, it was actually a 2009 Dodge Sprinter 2500 Passenger Van with rear seats removed. This netted us windows all the way around, so we had to keep our load spread out across the entire passenger/cargo area to prevent it from shifting and breaking the glass.
Keeping the load low in the van also offered the benefit of keeping the center of gravity low, which allowed for more spirited driving even under load. The Sprinter is, of course, no sports car, so sticking with a convoy of them quickly became a lost cause when we turned off the freeway and onto the backroads of Central California.
While on those backroads, though, the Sprinter was no nap-inducer. The combination of a live rear axle, an independent front suspension, the Adaptive Electronic Stability Program, the Electronic Roll Mitigation Program, and the Load Adaptive Control system all worked together beautifully to provide a compliant ride and handling that could even be characterized as sporty, especially for a large van. Though loaded with over 1000 pounds in gear, the Sprinter was surprisingly fun to drive on twisty roads and inspired a great deal of confidence in the chassis and the grip. The steering felt nicely weighted, even if it didn’t translate all that much information from the front tires. Visibility all around is excellent.
If there’s one place where the Sprinter let us down, it’s the engine. In most day-to-day situations, the 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel is sufficiently powerful to get the job done, but attack even the smallest incline and you feel the power disappear.
Even with the van loaded to a third of its maximum payload, extended hillclimbs, such as those on the way out of Los Angeles, had the Sprinter working hard to maintain freeway speeds with the pedal on the floor. Loaded to the hilt, the Sprinter’s 154 horses and 280 pound-feet of torque would’ve had us crawling with the big-rigs over every incline.
The Sprinter’s drivetrain is redeemed by its automatic transmission. The five-speed box never complained about shifting under heavy loads and offered the ability to shift gears manually, which came in handy on those hills and back roads. It also helps the Sprinter achieve impressive fuel economy. Though heavy-duty vehicles aren’t rated by the EPA, Dodge rates the Sprinter at 19.9 mpg average empty and 18.6 mpg average with a 1500-pound payload. While our payload was lighter, our lead feet more than compensated and we finished our trip averaging 16.9 mpg.
It’s worth noting that our Sprinter was no featherweight stripper model. Our 170-inch-wheelbase Sprinter started at $48,200 and, by the time all the goodies were added on, we were rolling in a $63,365 van. That’s within spitting distance of the starting price of a Lexus LS 460.
What did all that scratch buy? On top of the standard features, we picked up heated luxury bucket suspension seats up front ($370 each), front, side and side-curtain airbags, an alarm system, extra interior lamps, heated power mirrors, a heated windshield, rear window wipers and washers, bi-Xenon headlights, foglights, automatic headlights and wipers, an alarm, a first-aid kit, a more-powerful alternator, the auxiliary rear heater mounted on the roof, air-conditioning for the rear passengers, a premium instrument cluster, an upgraded stereo with six-CD changer and telephone connection, an upgraded steering wheel with stereo controls, and more. The extra insulation that comes with the auxiliary heater also tamped down road and engine noise and helped make the Sprinter a surprisingly comfortable place to spend several hours at a time.
While we were plenty happy with the seats, gauges, and steering wheel, we did have a few gripes with the cockpit area. Our Northern California drive ran five hours each way, not even a full eight-hour shift that a delivery driver might see. In that time, we were a bit miffed that Dodge couldn’t find anywhere to place a cupholder that didn’t require a long stretch, which can be disconcerting when piloting a vehicle this size at freeway speeds.
Further, while the six-disc changer was nice, this is 2009. The stereo had a built-in telephone connection, but an auxiliary jack, USB jack, or even satellite radio were apparently too much to ask. It’s a common trend that delivery vehicles are saddled with basic stereos, and that’s a shame for the people who spend their entire work day behind the wheel.
In the end, though, the Dodge Sprinter is the van to turn to when smaller vans won’t do. The base price is more than $10,000 higher than even the highest trim-level base prices of a Chevrolet Express or Ford E-Series and nearly double those of either competitor’s base price. Still, for that you get better fuel economy, plenty of features, impressive comfort, a lot more capability, and much, much more cargo space. You’ll have to decide for yourself if your personal or business needs justify the cost.
|2009 Dodge Sprinter 2500 Passenger Van|
|Price as tested||$63,365|
|Layout||Front engine, RWD, 12-pass, 3-door van|
|Engine||3.0L/154-hp/280-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|Length x width x height||273.2 x 79.7 x 107.5 in|
|Curb weight||6100 lb (mfr)|
|Payload capacity||2465 lb|
|Towing capacity||5000 lb|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||Not rated|
|On sale in U.S.||Currently|
This wasn’t our first experience with the Sprinter as the support vehicle for a Motor Trend story. Last year, as the staff was working out logistics for Motor Trend’s Best Handling Car competition, we looked for a van to carry the test equipment, supplies, food, and whatever other items we would need during the weeklong comparison story -- which was also conducted at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and at additional testing facilities in Southern California.
Back then, we chose a 3500 Cargo Van with the high roof. That van didn’t have the same level of visibility as this year’s Passenger Van did, as the Cargo Van had no side or rear windows, but a backup system made parking a lot easier. In both cases, we made quick use of the tie-down points (included whether you’re in the Cargo Van or Passenger Van) and quickly filled the cavernous cargo area. We had so much room for gear, in fact, that we had enough room to carry another motor vehicle, in this case photographer Brian Vance’s scooter, which he used to get around the track. The Cargo Van proved a lot less expensive than the Passenger Van -- our 2007 model had an MSRP of $44,455 -- but didn’t have as many amenities. However, we were so happy with the Sprinter’s function and the refined powertrain that we opted to get another Dodge this year. —Allyson Harwood