While vehicles in some automotive segments are updated with regular frequency, those in segments like full-size vans tend to be neglected for extended periods of time. Take the 2013 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Passenger Van we recently tested. Aside from an updated engine -- a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 that replaced a 2.7-liter turbodiesel I-5 -- this van is largely identical to Sprinter that arrived on American shores in the mid-2000s, initially branded as a Dodge under the waning days of the rocky DaimlerChrysler marriage, and introduced the U.S. market to the virtues of the tall European-style van.
The Sprinter's OM642 diesel engine is shared with other Mercedes-Benz car models in varying states of tune, but nothing else about the Sprinter could be remotely described as "car-like." From its commanding driving position, forward-angled steering wheel, and plastic floor lining, nearly every aspect of the Sprinter is strictly utilitarian. It's purity of purpose is not necessarily a bad thing, but with new competitors just around the corner from Ram and Ford, the Sprinter's single-minded functionality may lose appeal to the newcomers' more customer-friendly features.
To its credit, the Sprinter does offer some modern niceties in the form of Bluetooth phone connectivity and a rear-view camera. But even these features show their age relative to the rest of the automotive market. There's no touchscreen interface and the Bluetooth not offer phone voice commands. The phone can be answered with the touch of a button on the steering wheel, but initiating a call through the Bluetooth interface requires reaching over to the radio and scrolling through the phone menu to select a phonebook entry. That said, voice recognition in the Sprinter might be a dicey proposition anyway, given its towering height and squeaky, rattly interior (mostly coming from the roof-mounted air conditioning unit). There's plenty of wind and ambient noise inside, which could make for some amusing, if not infuriating interpretations by the voice-recognition system.
In this shuttle-like passenger-van form, the Sprinter is no cosseting, silent luxo-barge -- though many are converted into high-end mobile executive lounges. For work purposes, the Sprinter goes about its business cheerfully and purposefully. A 3.0-liter engine in a nearly 6000-lb van may not sound like a recipe for driving fun, but the V-6's delivery of its 325 lb-ft of torque comes on early, and stretches out in a nice, long, consistent plateau from just off idle to nearly 4000 rpm, near the upper reaches of the diesel's dynamic range.
We did not get a chance to load the van down to its capacity of 12 passengers, which would likely dampen its enthusiasm, but unloaded, the van never felt underpowered either around town or on the highway. However, at the test track, the Sprinter did not exactly live up to its name, performing a leisurely 11.7-second 0-60 run.
Part of the problem is the Sprinter's transmission, which is showing its age. By now, most Mercedes models have transitioned to seven-speed units, but the Sprinter soldiers along with a five-speed automatic. This slight paucity of ratios manifests itself at a somewhat busy 3200 rpm at 80 mph, but given the Sprinter's sensitivity to crosswinds at highway speeds, a more prudent pace is advisable regardless.
Despite its imposing stature and size, the Sprinter is surprisingly agile and maneuverable in snug spaces. The rear-view camera display is a somewhat crude flip-up screen on top of the dashboard that occasionally displayed stern-looking commands in German punctuated with an exclamation point. The best we could figure, it said not to run over Dachshunds behind the vehicle.
Starting with the 2014 model year, the Sprinter will face two new formidable competitors. First is Ford's new Transit line, which has been a staple of European fleets for decades, but is a newcomer to North America. With a choice of three engines, and matching the Sprinter model-for-model with body, cab and chassis configurations, the Transit also brings a much more modern and high-tech cockpit that is much more appealing visually than the Sprinter's staid, no-nonsense dash and cabin.
Second is the Ram ProMaster, which is based on the proven Fiat Ducato. The ProMaster departs from convention by employing a front-drive layout, resulting in a much lower entry height and load floor than the towering Sprinter. On paper, the ProMaster's optional 3.0-liter four-cylinder diesel is down slightly from the Sprinter's output, but has an extra ratio along with the advantage of the lighter and more efficient front-drive powertrain. Its cabin isn't quite as car-like as the Transit's, but still promises to be substantially more technologically up-to-date than the current Sprinter.
An additional vulnerability on the Sprinter is its high price. Our tester totaled a whopping $59,170. Pricing on the Transit has not yet been announced. Pricing has been announced for the ProMaster starting in the high $20s for a gas-powered cargo model. A passenger version of the ProMaster has not yet been officially announced or confirmed, but would likely undercut the Sprinter by a significant margin.
Mercedes-Benz is not exactly asleep at the switch either, with prototypes of the next-generation model seen testing. Technological, as well as driving refinements are a given, but whether the next-gen model will leapfrog or match its new class peers remains to be seen.
|2013 Mercedes Benz Sprinter 2500|
|BASE PRICE ||$41,315 |
|PRICE AS TESTED|| $59,170 |
|VEHICLE LAYOUT|| Front-engine, RWD, -pass, 3-door van|
|ENGINE ||3.0L/188-hp/325-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
|TRANSMISSION|| 5-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)|| 5918 lb (53/47%)|
|WHEELBASE ||144.3 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT|| 232.5 x 79.7 x 96.3 in|
|0-60 MPH|| 11.7 sec|
|QUARTER MILE|| 18.4 sec @ 73.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH|| 132 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION|| 0.66 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT|| 30.8 sec @ 0.51 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON|| N/A|