First Drive – 2019 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Cruising Holland in the Work Van Legend
Mercedes-Benz has been quite the tease lately, giving van fans only slight hints at the all-new machine coming to American showrooms by the end of 2018. But today, after years of waiting for an all-new model and months of anticipation after it was announced, we’re finally behind the wheel of the 2019 Sprinter.
Mercedes-Benz has justifiably high hopes for this new Sprinter. In the U.S.—as in many other parts of the world—the word “Sprinter” is synonymous with large vans, a vehicular Kleenex tissue or Xerox machine, if you will. For many of the uninformed, if it’s a tall and relatively narrow van, it’s a Sprinter (even when it’s a Ford or a Ram or a Nissan).
As such, it was crucial for Mercedes-Benz to retain the Sprinter’s unique personality and styling, as well as its comprehensive lineup of body styles and sizes, in order for it to build on the legend of its predecessors. At the same time, the new Sprinter needed to add available active safety features, better infotainment options, and improved interior quality to keep it relevant and competitive with similar vans. As you’ll see, we think the company mostly succeeded.
Power and ControlAs we mentioned in our first look of the new van, the 2019 Sprinter will be available globally with a variety of engines; front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive, and several different wheelbases. However, in the States, we won’t get front-wheel drive or most of the gutless engines found in other markets. We also won’t get automatic engine idle stop, a feature that isn’t even optional on U.S. Sprinters—that’s a serious oversight because we think businesses would appreciate even the slightest efficiency gains, compounded over a fleet of 10 or so vans. The U.S. will, however, get exclusive use of one powertrain, the gasser.
2019 marks the return of the gas engine to the Sprinter lineup, a 2.0L turbocharged I-4 that makes 188 hp and 258 lb-ft. This engine will come paired exclusively with a nine-speed automatic, a gearbox that should provide the smallish engine with a decent amount of giddyap. The gasser will likely serve as a low-cost base model.
Another Sprinter/U.S. reunion will come in the form of the 2.1L turbodiesel I-4, which returns after an absence for 2018. With 161 hp and 266 lb-ft, the turbodiesel makes identical numbers as it did when it was last offered on the 2017 Sprinter. Again mated to a seven-speed automatic, expect decent but not blistering performance from the 2.1L oil-burner.
The Sprinter’s top engine option will be a 3.0L turbodiesel V-6, which makes 188 hp and 325 lb-ft—again, identical to the model it replaces. However, unlike the 2018 Sprinter V-6 and its antiquated five-speed auto, the 2019 Sprinter V-6 gets a modern seven-speed, allowing the engine to work more effectively to move the van down the road. Expect real-world fuel economy figures to improve (the Sprinter isn’t required to be rated by the EPA), and we achieved an impressive 22 mpg as indicated by the trip computer at freeway speeds on roads with some traffic.
Mercedes-Benz will still market an all-wheel-drive Sprinter, hopefully retaining the current model’s robust transfer case and optional low-range gearing.
Those powertrains will be available in payload packages and body configurations that echo what’s currently found on the Sprinter. Expect available GVWRs of 8,550 pounds, 10,000 pounds, and 12,125 pounds, with a maximum towing capacity of 7,500 pounds and a maximum payload of about 6,000 pounds. Two wheelbases will again be offered, as well as two body heights. As before, the 2019 Sprinter will be available in passenger and cargo configurations, as well as a single rear bench “crew van” variant. There will also be a chassis cab available for upfits like box vans, dropside beds, and hydraulic dump bodies.
European-market vans will also be available in eSprinter all-electric form, but that machine isn’t due in the U.S. any time soon. The reasoning Benz engineers gave is range: In its current form, the eSprinter is only capable of traveling 95 miles on a single charge, while the company’s product planners learned that potential U.S.-market electric van customers would demand a minimum range of 100 miles and an optimal range of 200. As battery tech progresses, expect to see a whisper-silent, zero-emissions Sprinter in your neighborhood some time in the future, although we wouldn’t hold our breath waiting.
Workman-ChicAside from its sheer size even in short-wheelbase, low-roof form, the first thing you notice upon approaching the 2019 Sprinter is its snappy new styling. Slimmer, more aggressive headlights dominate the front view, bookending a big three-pointed star in the grille. The front end is much less busy than the outgoing model, with fewer bulges and more carlike styling. The story is similar on the bodysides, as the 2019 Sprinter softens its predecessor’s bold character lines over the front and rear wheel arches. Around back, the rear doors lose their knife-slash sculpting beside the taillights. On the whole, the box-it-came-in 2019 Sprinter is still very much a large van, but Mercedes stylists did a good job keeping the styling as fresh as possible.
Inside, however, things are completely different. Gone is the old model’s casket-shaped center stack and piddly infotainment screen, replaced by a horizontal styling theme and available 10.25-inch touch-sensitive widescreen display. The steering wheel on even the base 2019 Sprinter is a serious update from the tillers found Benz’s outgoing vans. The new hoop gets more natural thumb grips and durable-feeling rubber padding, contributing to a better driving experience overall. The 2019 Sprinter also gets redesigned seats, although we must cop to some lower-back fatigue after a full day in the saddle. We don’t recall having that problem on the outgoing Sprinter.
German ElectronicaOn European models, a stereo system is optional, with the first rung up being a single-DIN radio/CD combo that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1991 Toyota Tercel. However, we expect the U.S.-market Sprinter to come standard with at least the 7-inch touchscreen. Both it and the 10.25-incher come with Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX), the company’s all-new infotainment suite that allows for easier control of secondary functions, reducing distraction and improving ergonomics.
MBUX operates in one of three ways: tiny square thumbpads on the steering wheel spokes, directly via the touchscreen, and with voice controls that Mercedes says recognize natural speech and accents. The thumbpads were our favorite method of control; simply running your thumb a fraction of an inch across the little square’s face allows you to select another on-screen icon, and the pads’ sensitivity is just right. The right pad controls the center display, while the left operates the instrument cluster information center. Unfortunately, we had a hard time getting our preproduction test vehicle’s voice activation to work reliably, but there are still several months before the Sprinter goes on sale for the company to figure it out.
In our long, traffic-stifled slog from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, Holland, we heard no complaints from our rear-seat passengers who were happily connected to the van’s available 4G-LTE wireless hotspot. The 2019 Sprinter also gets a whole lotta USB inputs, including three in a binnacle on the top of the dashboard and one in each row of rear seats (if equipped).
When the 2019 Sprinter goes on sale at the end of 2018, it will be the first vehicle to feature Benz’s new MercedesPro telematics system. Available as a smartphone app, MercedesPro can sync with an entire fleet of 2019 Sprinters, allowing logistics managers to monitor the location, fuel and maintenance status, and trip-by-trip movement of each vehicle in the fleet. MercedesPro also turns a smartphone into a key, allowing workmen to hop in their assigned vehicles and drive off to work without having to hunt down a lost keyfob. MercedesPro is the company’s effort to include the 2019 Sprinter in the “Internet of Things;” that Big Brother–esque buzz aside, the app suite does a good job of integrating useful technology into a work vehicle.
On the Road AgainDriving the tall, relatively narrow 2019 Sprinter is much easier than it should be, thanks to Mercedes’ exemplary suspension tuning. With very few exceptions, the Sprinter is able to handle freeway curves, onramps, and traffic circles with ease, even at speeds that’d surely upend cargo or induce carsickness in back.
Steering is completely numb thanks to a soulless electro-mechanical power steering rack, but hustling the big van down the road is still drama-free thanks to Crosswind Assist and Load Adaptive Electronic Stability Program. While we didn’t push the van too hard on the motorways and B-roads that crisscross the Netherlands, we never felt unsure of the van’s grip on the road.
There’s just one fly in the Sprinter’s dynamic ointment, and it’s a minor one, so minor that this author wouldn’t have noticed had another journalist on the trip not pointed it out. The brake pedal squishes through its first third of travel with little braking force before suddenly grabbing hard, making driving in stop-and-go traffic an exercise in involuntary headbanging. More familiarity with the system would likely help us learn how to more smoothly modulate the brakes, but it was just slightly annoying on our one-day drive route.
Our trip took us through urban Amsterdam, suburban Leiden, and industrial Rotterdam, giving us ample time to evaluate the Sprinter’s virtues in a variety of environments. While its size is a bit intimidating on narrow European roads, it comports itself well with clear front and side sightlines, an available 360-degree camera system, and a reasonably tight turning circle. On the motorway, it sped up to 80 mph with ease, keeping up with traffic thanks to plenty of turbocharged passing and merging power. One caveat: we were only able to drive the 2.1L diesel I-4 and 3.0L diesel V-6, so we’ll have to wait and see how the turbocharged gasoline I-4 does in similar situations.
Even with the most stiffly sprung payload packages, the 2019 Sprinter’s ride quality is never harsh. And driving vans that had been deliberately laden with cargo only improved the impression of smoothness. Admittedly, the Netherlands knows how to build and maintain a road, so we rarely encountered broken pavement, but over cobblestones and gentle road undulations, we had no complaints save a gritty howling coming from the tires on certain pavement surfaces. Wind noise is omnipresent in echo-chamber cargo vans, but the better-insulated passenger vans made it easy to carry on conversations even with our rearmost riders.
Speaking of that configuration, our shuttle-spec tester was equipped with all the bells and whistles Mercedes-Benz has to offer: Distronic adaptive cruise control with pre-collision monitoring, lane departure warning and prevention, blind-spot monitoring, that aforementioned 360-degree camera, heated front seats, wireless charging, and formal-looking black cloth upholstery with silver accents. Families would love it.
Complaints about the Benz’s drive experience are few: those howling tires and nonlinear brakes, as well as the infotainment system’s occasional refusal to listen to our commands. The dash-mounted cupholders are probably too small for anything larger than a 12-ounce can (there are bigger cupholders below), and there’s limited covered storage on base models (no glovebox and only a few uncovered binnacles on the dashtop and above the windshield). Located near the base of the windshield, the front USB ports are a long reach away, so you’ll want to set your phone up with the infotainment system, place it in the cubby, and leave it there till you arrive at your destination. And that’s about it for niggles.