2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 First Drive
Going Nowhere in Daimler's Go Anywhere Van
Right around the time we were celebrating the end of the Civil War and burying President Lincoln, the British Parliament passed the Locomotive Act 1865. Also known as the Red Flag Act, it stipulated that the top speed of vehicles was 4 mph in the countryside, 2 mph in town, and that there be "a man with a red flag walking at least 60 [yards] ahead of each vehicle." I mention this because I recently attended the launch of the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 held at Daimler's reassembly plant outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Mercedes set up a short, rutted obstacle course for us to drive, and, well, we'll get to that in a minute.
Yes, reassembly plant. Most Sprinters are manufactured in Dusseldorf. The ones intended for the U.S. are then disassembled and then packed in shipping containers before being shipped to South Carolina. The craziest part? The Sprinter bodies are transported on one ship while the engines, transmissions, axles, drive shafts, radiators, and seats come to America on another. Why two separate ships? To prevent reassembly at sea. I'm not making that up. Why? The idiotic Chicken Tax. (Google it for the full horror story.) The tax adds a 25-percent import tariff on all trucks not built in the Americas. Assembly, disassembly, reassembly is Mercedes-Benz's anti-Occam's Razor workaround.
I asked the Sprinter team how much this Kabuki theater added to the price of the van and was told 7-9 percent, which is a savings to Mercedes (and a straight-up heist for American buyers) of 16-18 percent instead of just paying the tax. After more than a decade of this nonsense, Daimler has finally decided to break ground on a new U.S.-based factory to build Sprinters from the ground up, as well as the lighter duty Vito van, which will be named something else as that name focus-grouped poorly with us Americans. Too ethnic, apparently. I was pulling for Hurdler, but it looks like they're going with Metris, a mashup of Metro and Tetris. Apparently, that's the kind of name that focus groups like. Mercedes is being tight-lipped as to exactly where the new factory will be, but you can bet their three-pointed star that it will be in a Southern, non-union location. If I had to guess, I'd say directly next to the existing Sprinter reassembly plant, right where I saw a massive construction site. But who knows? Wink, wink.
Back to the 4x4 version of the Sprinter. It's not cheap. Paying an additional $6,500 will get you an AWD version of the big van, and paying $6,800 will net you one with low gears. My advice to everyone is to go for the version with the transfer case. What's another $300 at that point? Part of the cost comes from a different version of the transmission — the 161-horsepower, 266 lb-ft of torque 2.1-liter inline-four gets a seven-speed while the much smoother but less efficient 188 hp, 325 lb-ft 3.0-liter V-6 is saddled with the old five-speed unit. Both cog-swappers have a power takeoff unit that pulls 35 percent of the available torque and routes it to the redesigned front axle through a compact differential. The low gear versions feature a 4:1 reduction gear. All versions have an electronic traction system similar to what you'll find on products where the brakes are used to stop wheelspin and route torque to the tires with purchase. There's no heavy, expensive but stout mechanical locking diffs. Land Rover and Porsche's SUVs work the same way, for example.
And finally, how does the Sprinter 4x4 handle the tricky, non-pavement stuff? Couldn't honestly tell you. Remember that impossibly obscure and antiquated U.K. law I mentioned? The one with low, low speeds and a human being walking point while waving a flag? That's about what I experienced when driving the Sprinter 4x4. Mercedes had spotters standing on the course using an arm to indicate exactly where the steering wheel should be positioned every inch of the way. Should the van move faster than "slow walking pace" -- their words, not mine -- the spotter would put both hands up to stop you then walk over to the window and angrily ask if you knew what walking pace meant. So yes, the Sprinter 4x4 successfully navigated the not-quite-the-length-of-a-football-field off-road course. But I have the feeling that a Honda CRV could do the same thing at those speeds and with that sort of instruction. I have no idea how the big Sprinter 4x4 actually feels on the beaten, muddy path because I wasn't paying any attention. Instead, all of my focus was on not upsetting the spotters.
I've completed the infamous Rubicon. With Mercedes, I've driven a UniMog down a cliff at 45 mph into a frozen pond, successfully took a G65 AMG to the Swedish Arctic Circle in February, and went airborne in a 6x6 AMG. I know a tad about driving on surfaces other than pavement. So yes, I was quite frustrated that this was all I was allowed to do with the vehicle. We couldn't drive any of the 4x4s off Daimler's property because of some sort of registration hiccup. We did get to drive several other Sprinters (a $50K four-cylinder version, an Airstream, and a Morgan Olson upfitted box truck) around a suburban driving loop, but I didn't glean much from those excursions other than that the four-cylinder engine badly needs balance shafts. True, Mercedes did have demonstrations of safety features such as its Cross-Wind Assist and other stability control doodads. However, since we could only observe the stuff (no driving), I have no idea how it all feels when it works.
Rest assured I've already been talking to Mercedes about getting Motor Trend's greedy paws on a Sprinter 4x4 for a proper evaluation and test. Possibly something a little more thrilling, too. For the time being your takeaway should be this: The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has redefined the van market in the United States. While the prices are high, the total cost of ownership is low, as evidenced by the Sprinter's continued gobbling of market share. Before the Sprinter, the Big Three seemed to have a van non-aggression pack and were content to sell warmed-over 1970s products to their customers seemingly forever. The Sprinter changed that. Today's full-size American van market is bigger and better than ever, with good products such as the Ram ProMaster, Nissan NV, and Ford's brand-new Transit making things competitively interesting. Then of course there are GM's ancient twins, the Chevy Express and GMC Safari, which outsell them all. The 4x4 version of the Sprinter is a segment first. Should it be a hit, you will see the competition copy Mercedes and offer their own go-anywhere cargo vans. Is it any good? Looks like time is going to have to tell.