Even though Mercedes-Benz is known more as a luxury car and SUV company, it has been building commercial vehicles, including buses and delivery vehicles, for more than 100 years. Before the Sprinter van was first introduced to the U.S. in 2001 as a Freightliner, people knew about the G-Wagen, and some knew about the Unimog, but those cool trucks were the extent of the automaker's North American truck line .
Besides Mercedes-Benz not being known in the U.S. for its extensive truck history, when the Sprinter entered our market, its oddball European styling was unlike that of any other van on the road in North America. The E-Series Ford and GM Express/Savana twins have looked the same for a long time, and based on that tradition, the Sprinter just looked...funny. Yet Mercedes stuck to its guns, and the rest of the van market is heading in that same direction. Ram Truck and Ford are also bringing proven European vans to North America, and GM certainly has the option of doing the same when it finally replaces its Express and Savana.
Disadvantage number three: Mercedes-Benz's cost of entry is highest. Its 2012 2500 cargo van starts at $36,290 ($37,285 for 2013) and the 2012 Chevrolet Express 2500 starts at $28,585. However, for that price, Mercedes throws in a 3.0-liter, 188-hp, 325-lb-ft turbodiesel V-6 engine -- the only one available -- for better range (up to 24.9 mpg on the highway) and longer service intervals, a bevy of standard safety equipment, and a very high depreciation rating, meaning its resale value is high. If you're willing and able to pay the entry fee, the Mercedes offers genuine value.
Not only that, but this platform is built ready for work. It boasts best-in-class payload capacity at 5358 pounds, largest maximum cargo volume (547 cubic feet), a GVWR up to 11,030 pounds, rear doors that open 270 degrees, the widest side and rear doors and lowest step-in height. Someone who is 6'6" tall can stand inside the high-roof model. All of this is on a vehicle that has the tightest turning radius in its class at 54.6 feet. That means the Sprinter can carry the most cargo and is easier to maneuver around town when delivering that cargo to customers.
With all of this to offer, it's no surprise that about 75 percent of Sprinters are upfitted, meaning an approved third party modifies them for fleet customers. Upfitters start with a choice of five platforms -- crew van, minibus, cargo van, passenger van, and cab chassis -- and build to each customer's specifications. And these aren't just plumber trucks. These upfitters often cater to specific parts of the market, such as ambulances, armored trucks, news vans, luxury vans (the ones we sat in are nicer than limos), refrigeration trucks, and more. While each upfitter has what are essentially demo models to demonstrate the possibilities, customers can order them specific equipment.
Mercedes-Benz brought together a broad range of upfitted Sprinters for us to drive, so we could get a sense of the vehicle's capability and versatility. While the 2013 model-year vans haven't gone on sale yet, there were several 2012 models to choose from for our drive. We started with the wonderfully named TraumaHawk ambulance, built by American Emergency Vehicles Industries.
Based on the Sprinter 2500, this vehicle's interior cargo area came with cabinets along one side in back, a gurney, rear-facing seating enabling one EMT to help the patient while on the road, and room for more storage. Up front, there was a radio -- to communicate with the hospital and HQ--and, of course, the controls for the lights and sirens.
Driving the TraumaHawk was much like driving a regular Sprinter van. There was ample power, and getting up to speed took little effort. Braking was excellent. The added equipment did make the vehicle heavier, and you could tell it was carrying gear, but that didn't have a noticeable effect on the drive. The ambulance proved easy to maneuver through traffic, and wasn't the slightest bit intimidating. There was plenty of visibility, thanks to the large windshield, secondary side mirrors, and rear window.
While driving through the streets of Chicago, it was really tempting to flash the lights and turn on the sirens, but that would've been illegal, so we waited until we were on private property to try 'em out. (And yes, it was really cool.) We weren't expecting EMTs driving other ambulances to wave to us as we drove, but they did. We liked being able to experience the camaraderie that exists among emergency personnel, but it was only a peek into their world. We got to have fun driving a vehicle with cool gear; they use it as a tool to save lives.
On the other end of the Sprinter spectrum, both because of the vehicle's use and considerable length, is the Winnebago Itasca Reyo 25T RV. This is a Class A motorhome built on the Sprinter F50 chassis. It has a slide-out wall, really soft Ultraleather seats, beautiful cabinets, and what looked to be a comfortable, spacious sleeping area. The only thing we had to do before hitting the road was slide the wall back in. With the wall in place, the motorhome is a few inches wider than a regular Sprinter. There were two things I thought when I first got behind the wheel of this vehicle: first, that it would feel underpowered because of the added weight and length, and second, that it would be hard to park. Neither was true. The 3.0-liter diesel provided enough power, and it seems like the RV would be fun on a cross-country drive. I do wonder what it would be like on a steep grade -- I presume that's when you'd chug along in the slow lanes, but I'd bet you could still easily get past big-rigs. Parking was easy as well, thanks to the rear-view camera and the vehicle's relatively tight turning radius. Another cool feature this Winnebago had were side-view cameras. When you use the turn signal, the screen in the center stack shows what's next to the RV on that side. While it does take some recalibration to drive a vehicle this size -- it's 32 inches longer than the long-wheelbase van -- there are plenty of features that make it easy to safely drive the Class A.
Our third drive was in a flatbed truck built for Cox Communications. This one is a regular-cab model, based on the Sprinter Cab Chassis. Like the rest, it uses the 3.0-liter TD/five-speed automatic combination, but this was the sole pickup of the bunch. The bed was purpose-built for the needs of the service department of a telecommunications company. It has a narrow bed with diamondplate on the bottom, and instead of a traditional tailgate, it uses a Tommy Gate liftgate. In this Sprinter truck, each side is essentially a rolling cabinet made up of a series of small locking storage boxes. Because it's set up so the gear isn't stored deep in a van, it's easier to access it quickly when on the job.
When you look at the MSRPs for full-size vans, the difference in price for the Sprinter becomes obvious. However, with this drive, Mercedes showed what you get for the money: extensive safety features, such as load-adaptive ESP, front and rear stabilizer bars, ABS, skid control, rollover mitigation, and optional side and side curtain airbags; the fuel economy, torque, reliability, and long service interval of a diesel engine; and Mercedes quality. While it'll be interesting to see what happens when the Ford Transit and Ram Truck vans go on sale in the U.S., Mercedes has no intention of resting on its laurels. It will continue to stay competitive, even as the segment goes through major changes in the next year or two.