The "we invented the car" folks now selling Mercedes-Benz cars, trucks, and buses like to brag that their Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft ancestors also invented the truck in 1896. Roughly 100 years later, Mercedes introduced the original Sprinter van, which made its splashy North American debut -- all narrow and light and fuel efficient and maneuverable -- in 2001 as a Freightliner, and in 2003 as a Dodge. It got a total makeover in 2006, and this year -- just in time for its first real Eurovan competition in the form of the Ram ProMaster and Ford Transit -- it gets a freshened face, an even more efficient powertrain, plus enhancements in the safety, comfort, and convenience realms.

Joining the 3.0-liter/188-hp/325-lb-ft V-6 turbodiesel and five-speed automatic that has been propelling all recent Sprinters, is a new 2.1-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, featuring two-stage turbocharging, state-of-the-art direct fuel injection at 26,000 psi courtesy of piezo injectors, and a dual-mass flywheel and balancing shafts that reportedly allow it to idle quite smoothly. Meeting the toughest U.S. and European emissions regulations requires an AdBlue selective-catalytic reduction agent that's replenished via a filler under the hood. With output rated at 161 hp and 265 lb-ft (the latter from 1400-2400 rpm) and the added leverage of a (world van exclusive) seven-speed automatic transmission and new 3.69:1 axle ratio, this BlueTEC four-cylinder is the standard engine in all Sprinters -- even the 11,030-pound GVWR models. We'll let you know how sprightly that I-4 feels as soon as we get a chance to drive it, but we suspect bigger-is-better American customers will spring for the now optional V-6 when ordering 3500-series Sprinters.

Other fuel-efficiency optimizing efforts include a smart-charging alternator that ramps up battery recharging during deceleration and braking; electro-hydraulic steering assist, a fuel pump that tailors its output to demand, and a freewheeling A/C compressor that produces little or no drag except when needed. Sprinter GVW ratings exempt it from EPA fuel economy testing, but Mercedes claims the V-6 delivers nearly 25 mpg on the highway (30 percent better than similar gasoline powertrains), and the I-4 is said to be 18 percent more efficient than the V-6 turbodiesel.

Other enhancements for 2014 include a new grille, lamps, LED daytime running lamps, and a less smiley bumper fascia design that incorporates a step to aid in cleaning the windshield and extends the nose by 2.4 inches. The hood is slightly higher for pedestrian safety. Inside the steering wheel, shifter and seat are redesigned, and there's a new radio head unit with 5.8-inch screen, Bluetooth, iPod and aux connectivity, and available Becker MapPilot navigation. (The last employs a controller that plugs into the glovebox, so a fleet could prewire all its vans for nav and share a smaller number of controllers.) A new Active Safety Plus Package brings Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Highbeam Assist, and Collision Prevention Assist; Parktronic can also be added. And the stability control system can sense and compensate for a shifting load in the truck.

A combined total of some 5 million durability miles have enabled Mercedes to stretch the Sprinter's service interval to 15,000 miles, which greatly reduces a business' cost of ownership (note that SCR replenishment will be required before that mileage unless the vehicle is used strictly for constant-speed highway running). The multiplexed electrical system features silver-coated connectors to resist corrosion for long-term durability, and the Sprinter is available in a vast array of configurations on two wheelbases (144 and 177 inches), three body lengths, two roof heights, with optional left-hand sliding door and seating for 2, 4, 12, or 18 passengers. All of this seems to engender extreme loyalty and causes customers to hang onto their Sprinters for a long time, making used ones a rare enough commodity to rank the Sprinter as the only Mercedes-Benz offering to achieve a 5-star resale-value rating from the Automotive Lease Guide, retaining 50 percent of its value after three years and 60,000 miles (the next-best Benz is the S-Class at 3 stars).

Passenger and crew cab window-van models are imported directly from Duesseldorf, all other North-America-bound Sprinters are built there, partially disassembled, shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, and reassembled to avoid the 25-percent chicken tax. Pricing of the 2014 model has yet to be announced, but we expect the added feature content to offset the four-cylinder's potential price drop, leaving base prices virtually unchanged from the current $36,165 (chassis cab), $37,285 (cargo van), and $41,315 (passenger van) -- that's already a premium over the front-drive Ram ProMaster ($27,525/$29,625/-), and it's likely to fall directly in line with Ford Transit pricing. Let the sales race begin...


Upfitter's Dream

Currently, some 75 percent of Sprinters are sold with modifications provided by one of 85 companies certified through Mercedes-Benz's Sprinter Preferred Upfitter Program in such diverse categories as luxury vans, high-cube bodies/boxes, expediters, ambulances, recreational vehicles, service bodies, refrigeration, armored, and broadcasting. The certification process involves factory visits by M-B personnel to assure quality and compliance with safety standards. Approved upfitters get product info in advance, and can have the vehicle's electronics system tailored to suit its needs. For example, the headlamps can be programmed for "wig-wag" back-and forth blinking in an ambulance.

Most upfits are facilitated, contracted, and arranged by the Mercedes or Freightliner dealer. Invoicing is usually separate, but upfits within 110 percent of the original price of the Sprinter (i.e., a $50,000 upfit of a $45,000 Sprinter) can be rolled into a lease payment. Several upfitters have located plants adjacent to the Sprinter's Charleston final assembly location, which allows their customers to save on delivery charges by utilizing Mercedes-Benz's factory-to-dealer delivery infrastructure.

Two of these include Morgan Olson's Ultimate Delivery Van, an 850-cubic-foot 4000-pound payload high-cube featuring options like a sliding side door, hydraulic lift gate, and walk-through access from the cab; and Paul Maranda Enterprises' 111CA service body. Lightweight composite construction means this 50-inch-wide by 17.4-foot-long pickup body with container boxes on the side weighs just 1250 pounds, leaving 4500 pounds for payload.

Other examples of the upfitting trade on hand at the Sprinter launch included an RV from Winnebago Industries. The Class C (chassis-cab) View Profile 24V model features side and rear bump-outs with a full bath and galley kitchen. Winnebago also offers Class A and B RVs (the only manufacturer to offer all three on the Sprinter), all of which are said to achieve 15-20 mpg on the highway. Airstream's Interstate ranks as the best-selling Class B van RV in the U.S. for two years running. It seats eight, sleeps two, and offers a full bathroom and galley.

The Traumahawk Ambulance by American Emergency Vehicles comes in Type II or III configuration based on either the 2500 or 3500 series Sprinter, boasting fully ducted A/C and heat, with 6 feet of stand-up room to work. And finally, Midwest Automotive Design's Business Class Van serves as a ground-based biz-jet, with captain's chairs, multi-media entertainment, refreshment coolers, etc. all swathed in luxurious faux leather and real wood.

Many of the upfitters present professed reluctance or refusal to adapt their products to the Ram ProMaster and Ford Transit. We shall see...


Sprinter's Great-Grandfather

Postwar delivery van production didn't resume at Mercedes-Benz until 1956, when the simple, no-frills L319 arrived, sporting an incredibly short, blunt nose, a leaf-sprung rigid-axle chassis, and body configurations that included cargo vans with two roof heights, a minibus, chassis cabs, and pickup trucks with one or two rows of seats. Motivation was provided by one of two four-cylinders: a 1.8-liter, 43-hp diesel or a 1.9-liter 65-hp gas-burner, and yet payload ranged from 3550 to 4250 pounds. Power steering was an optional extra. Design-wise, it featured a horizontal grille like those on Mercedes' sports cars, which the trucks would use for years to come. By late 1961, a 2.0-liter 50-hp diesel relieved the 1.8, at which time production was consolidated in Duesseldorf, where Sprinters are made today. Just two new van designs have been introduced between the L319 and Sprinter; the T2, and the TN/T1, so at 19 years young, don't expect a radical Sprinter reboot for a little while yet.