It was supposed to be an off-road adventure. But in a van. A dynamic test of the new all-wheel-drive diesel-powered 2023 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. Just a tall vehicle crawling up a dirt road and maybe, just maybe, we’d get that one-tire-in-the-air photo for this article.
Rain, destroyer of baseball games and beach days, ruined the day. Apparently, the off-road course Mercedes had secured for the group of invited journalists was silly with sharp rocks. There was likely also concern about the large vans sliding sideways off the trail due to incredibly slick mud. A Mercedes leaning against a tree, boulder, or discarded Suzuki Samurai isn’t a good look for the automaker. But for a (very) brief moment, I was able to put the 2023 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter diesel with all-wheel-drive to the test.
Full Disclosure: Mercedes wanted me to drive the 2023 Sprinter with all-wheel drive so badly, the company flew me to Germany and fed and housed me, all in the name of driving this newly-updated van on the kind of terrain where you’d least expect to see it.
Right off the bat, Mercedes has gone with a less-is-more powertrain. New for 2023, the automaker replaced the six-cylinder diesel engine with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel powerplant. It’s available in either standard or high-output variants, with 170 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque or 211 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, respectively.
On asphalt, the new engine is a huge upgrade. Paired with Mercedes’ nine-speed G-Tronic automatic transmission, smoother acceleration and less in-cab vibration combine with increased low-end torque for a better driving and hauling experience. On the road, the van displayed less road noise than the last generation. Finally, the smaller engine means fewer trips to the fuel pump, which should make fleet managers and cash-strapped van-life vagabonds happy.
The Sprinter’s steering has also been updated from old-fashioned hydraulic power assist to much-improved electronic power steering. Both on-road and off, the result is lighter steering that delivers the sensation of driving a smaller vehicle and doesn’t require extra oomph while tackling tight maneuvers. It became especially helpful when the navigation sent us down the wrong street, requiring a very tight three-point turn to escape.
Meanwhile, the 4x4 system has been discontinued for 2023 and replaced with always-on all-wheel-drive. Gone is the driver-selectable four-wheel drive — and the blood-curdling thud that sounded like a bowling ball dropped into a shallow well with a lead floor whenever you’d engage the front axle. On more than a few occasions, the old 4x4 system left me wondering if my next action would be to call a tow truck after destroying something in the Sprinter’s driveline.
Mercedes says the new fully-automatic AWD system takes the guesswork out of when and where the driver should engage or disengage the system. The updated drivetrain can move up to 50 percent of the vehicle’s power to either axle. To reduce slippage at each individual axle, Mercedes uses brake-controlled torque-vectoring — when one wheel slips, the brakes slow it down, sending torque to the other side of the axle for better grip.
In practice, on a patch of slimy mud with the viscosity of pudding, my Sprinter outfitted with Continental VanContact winter tires held its own in a straight line and had no issue advancing forward or backward from a dead stop. However, those optional tires (all-seasons are standard) did little to battle lateral movement when driving the vehicle perpendicularly along a small slope (again, likely the reason Mercedes canceled the full off-road experience after it started raining).
While turning and sliding the wheels, the drivetrain would transfer power to whichever corner had the most traction. This was after the van’s tire tread was filled with mud and small bits of gravel. For campers and fleet drivers that need to tackle dirt roads during rainy conditions, the latest version of the Sprinter felt well equipped to get them to their destination. With proper off-road tires, moderately rugged dirt roads and trails should be no problem — as long as the van’s 144- or 170-inch wheelbase doesn’t get it hung up on the great outdoors.
The interior of the 2023 Sprinter is essentially the same as the previous generation, but with a technology upgrade. Mercedes’ infotainment system MBUX has made its way into the dash via a 10.25-inch touchscreen. The screen seems comically small in such a large cabin, but it’s the same system we’ve seen from the automaker since it was introduced in the United States on the no-longer-available-in-the-US-because-we-can’t-have-nice-things A-Class.
MBUX includes a better-than-average Mercedes voice assistant. Although the bar for voice assistants working in vehicles (and in general) is still pretty low, “Hey Mercedes” did a decent job of understanding my commands. Outside of a wrong turn that lead to to a recently-closed road, the navigation kept the van on the right track to my destination, the off-roading that wasn’t.
In addition to the consumer friendly inclusion of MBUX for fleet companies, Mercedes offers 12 months of complimentary Mercedes Me. The business-focused service offers up “efficient fleet management” and “data interfaces for vans,” and can be overseen by a fleet manager via a phone or desktop app.
A new option that frankly should have been available years ago is the optional rear-view camera that turns the rear-view mirror into a tiny display of the world behind the van. This is a secondary feature in addition to the federally mandated backup camera required on all new vehicles. Now, when the rear doors are opened, the back-up camera turns on so the driver can see who’s back there loading, unloading, or just getting in or out of the van.
The additional traction of the new AWD system doesn’t come cheap, though. The base-model standard-output diesel 2023 Sprinter starts at $47,000 for the rear-drive 144-inch-wheelbase model. Adding AWD requires you to option the high-output diesel engine, adding $12,550 in total. The larger 170-inch-wheelbase Sprinter starts at $54,290, and adding AWD will set you back an additional $11,550 including the upgraded engine. That brings the big-body Sprinter past $65,000, and all the above-mentioned prices are before the $2,295 delivery charge.
The slightly-less-expensive gas-engine 2023 Sprinter does not offer the option of all-wheel drive. So you’re either a diesel-based explorer or you’re stuck with a rear-drive Sprinter.
Sadly, the main thrust of our media drive was cut incredibly short by rain. While I was unable to partake in the joy of seeing how well a Sprinter van’s AWD system can tackle the foothills around Stuttgart, Germany, I instead had to make do with a mud pit with a very short downhill section. Still, even in that short period of time “off-road” and driving around Stuttgart, the changes Mercedes has made to the diesel Sprinter van (available now in US dealerships) should be welcomed by both fleets and those looking for adventure in a tall van.