I woke up naked and freezing, stretched around a heater like some desperate, heat-starved lizard with a headache so strong I was sure I’d been put to sleep by a frying pan to the face. A typical morning—until I noticed the Rocky Mountains instead of my Babes & Big Rigs calendar in the window. Welcome to van life.
(Full disclosure: Mercedes-Benz flew me out to Colorado to drive a few variants of the Sprinter and Metris vans. They also provided grub, booze, and some delightful pills to help me overcome altitude sickness. They were surprised, but accommodating, when I asked if I could sleep in the van instead of a hotel room.)
It was the ass-crack dawn. A rooster cleared his throat as the first fingers of sunlight started spilling over America’s most beautiful skyline. Life pulled straight off a Bierstadt painting, or a Coors Light can.
Of course at this moment, such beauty was completely lost on me. Fighting for consciousness through the thick fog of stiff muscles and a swollen brain I fumbled for pants and pieced my situation together.
I was in a trailer. No—a camper van. A beautiful one, too. A brand-new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter modified to be an off-road luxury apartment with meaty tires, stadium-sized LEDs and a toilet tucked under the sink. Right, this was that Mercedes press drive in Colorado I’d been looking forward to. Did the Germans poison me because of all the mean things I said about the AMG G-Wagen?
Nope. It was just good old fashioned altitude sickness. A fierce dose of it too, all amplified by my decision to rehydrate with whiskey instead of water the previous night.
That brings us to the first thing I learned about the Sportsmobile Sprinter; if you behave like an indecorous vagabond who lives in a van by the river, it doesn’t matter how nice that van is. You’re still going to feel like a microwaved cow pie when you wake up in it.
Lucky for me my van was actually parked on the grounds of a resort where Mercedes-Benz had paid a doctor to be on-hand distributing Diamox pills. I snarfed them out of his hand like a goat at the petting zoo and washed it down with a couple cups of coffee.
By the time I hiked back to the van, Sportsmobile CEO Alan Feld was ready to meet me with a firm handshake and a big smile. “Sleep alright?” he asked.
I lied, we kicked the engine in the guts, and headed for the horizon in pursuit of adventure. Or, wherever the first cafe was that didn’t serve instant coffee.
But let’s back up a little. When I first realized I was going to get a couple nights in a $100,000 off-road RV, I asked the readers what they wanted to know about the experience. Now it’s my pleasure to share some insights, along with a few supersaturated photos to sear your eyes into staying awake through my whole story. Giddy up!
“What exactly is a Sprinter anyway?”
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is that enormous rollerskate-looking van you might have ridden from a small airport to a ski resort in, or seen drop off your last Amazon order.
You may recognize a Sprinter as a Freightliner or (formerly) a Dodge, but it’s the same van under the stickers and it’s made by Mercedes. The 2016 model packs a four-cylinder turbodiesel engine hooked up to a seven-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive or, as is new in the U.S., 4WD with low range.
The Sprinter might not have much horsepower (it’s close to the output of the Civic you drove in high school) but it can be set up to tug around 7,000 pounds off a trailer hitch or more than 3,000 pounds in its cavernous belly.
It’s also pretty well composed for something with that kind of carrying capacity, is extremely well built, and gallops along at 80 MPH, for a while at least, without sounding like a blender full of bolts.
“What’s so ‘Sportsmobile’ about this one?”
Sportsmobile is a certified Mercedes-Benz van customizer that takes these behemoths and bestows complete RV conversions on them, with an emphasis on exploring off the beaten path.
My new friend Alan has been running the company for quite a few years, and has programs in place to turn just about any Ford, Chevy, Nissan, Dodge or Mercedes van into a mobile adventure base camp.
If you want to mount surf racks on your old shaggin’ wagon and live without an address for a few years, Feld’s not the guy to call. His clients are more on the “just retired from a career in finance” types of adventures.
What I’m saying is, the “basic” Mercedes campers Sportsmobile offers will set you back about $75,000. Start adding accessories and the price clears six-figures in no time.
“Is it worth $100,000?”
As usual there’s no simple answer to that without knowing what your car budget looks like. But objectively, the Mercedes platform is solid. Everything that’s not OEM feels like a quality component. The sun shades, cabinets and everything else down to the carpeting is as nice as anything in a decent house.
The RV add-ons are seamlessly blended into the vehicle’s architecture. Is it as refined as a luxury car at this price point? No, the sun heats up the enormous windshield nicely enough for prime napping conditions but you’re in no danger of daydreaming you’re in an S-Class.
Obviously you could buy a really nice Jeep, a camping loadout that would last you through the zombie apocalypse, and quite a few hotel room splurges for this kind of money. But some people like the bring-your-own-all-inclusive sleepover experience, and for that the Sportsmobile is hard to beat.
“What kind of toys does it have?”
The van I drove was carrying a fridge, sink, microwave, closets, a bench seat that snapped down to a bed and rotating front seats. A secondary sleeping area popped up out of the roof at the touch of a switch, that rig’s called The Penthouse and adds about $6,000 to the price of your van.
Electricity comes from a big power inverter and a secondary diesel generator. That also powers a 19,000 BTU heating system to keep you warm at night. Kind of.
“Can you be more specific about wattages and power specifications?”
Not really; the Sprinter is a big canvas. The boys and girls building this thing can set it up pretty much any way you want. That means if you need to run a microwave or an XBox or a TV, you can fit the tech to make that happen.
“Now what about my poop?”
What indeed? The Sportsmobile is billed as a self-contained adventure unit; a beast of burden for lugging your entire existence into some highly Instagramable camping site which will inherently be a long way from a toilet.
Well, you disgusting dumpers, you’re not gonna like this; the bathroom facilities on the Sportsmobile I drove were what Mr. Feld described as an “emergency only” provision.
It’s a plastic bucket dressed up as an ottoman.
To avoid the weight and complexity of a plumbing system, this rig omits a dedicated pooping station. And for that reason I guess this particular Sportsmobile is really more of a “mobile living room” than a true mobile home.
However, an electric-flushing marine toilet is on the options list.
“Can you actually take it off-road?”
It’s got 4WD, it’s got low-range. Crawling angles are 28 approach, 27 departure, 25 breakover. That’s decent for something with these dimensions, but the weight and length is going to get you tangled up on anything much more technical than a very nasty fire road.
Not to mention the height of this baby; at about 100” toes to top you’re going to take the whole forest down with you if you try wheeling in New England or the Northwest.
The Sportsmobile certainly looks much more capable than your creepy uncle’s old Winnebago. To be completely honest, I think a beater RV on some aggressive tires would have a decent chance at keeping up with this thing with a brave driver at the wheel. But they’d be working and praying pretty hard.
“How does it deal with extreme weather?”
Mr. Feld assured me he’s had this thing all over the Mojave, Mexico, and plenty more arid wastelands around the country. I can’t speak to the vehicle’s heat resistance because I got to experience the van in the Spring at 8,000 feet above sea level. And I froze my butt off.
With all the nice cabinetry and throw pillows and switch-on lighting in this thing, it’s easy to forget that you’re sleeping in a car. Until the sun goes down over the Rockies and you’re gathering floormats to use as extra blankets.
You can run the diesel generator powering the furnace all night long and not worry about running out of fuel. But even doing that I ended up closer and closer to the heater, until I was literally bent around the hot air vent like I was protecting it with my life.
Just bring some cozy sleepwear because the insulation is better than a good tent, but not by a massive margin. I don’t own pajamas and I didn’t realize I was on a BYO-blankets media trip. If I had, I probably wouldn’t be bitching as much.
“How much fuel does it use?”
Good news; not as much as you probably think. We were running between 16 and 21 MPG on diesel up and down the hills of western Colorado. Obviously that dropped right into the single digits while we were chugging through mud, but for a vehicle with this much mass I was pretty satisfied with its overall performance.
“Could you daily drive it?”
Sure, it’d be no harder than dailying an old limo. But who the hell would want to do that?
The Sportsmobile Sprinter, because it’s a Sprinter, feels competent and composed on the road. But it’s a lot stiffer than a car. It’s too long for a parking space. It’s easy to unsettle it with a quick course-correction. And it’s way to tall for garages and drive-thrus.
So if you can just barely afford one of these babies, make sure you scrounge up enough cash to get a little motorbike dingy for it too.
“Where can I get one?”
Sportsmobile has three shops where they put these together, and apparently welcome visitors so drop them a line! The company’s also willing to introduce you to an owner if you want to get a more complete rundown of what the thing’s like to live with, and maybe even experience it for yourself before making the house-sized investment to have your own.
“So what’s the verdict. Do I want one of these things or nah?”
The main draw of the Sportsmobile is portable luxury with a healthy dose of capability. And the bottom line is, if that’s your dream car you should get your checkbook ready.
But to really figure out if a Sportsmobile’s for you, you’ve got to look long and hard at what you want to get out of your Big Off-Road Adventure. Obviously if your destination is the astroturf of a KOA, there are plusher RVs for a lot less coin.
And if you’re down with the dirt and you just want to go hog wild in the woods on weekends, I’d say get an old pickup, dirt bike, tent combo and use the $90,000 left over for beer and ammunition.
I see the appeal of rolling up to the beach and have your whole living room and sleeping quarters right there, ready to go. But I’m not sure I’m sold on the concept of living out of this thing for more than a couple consecutive days.
Tents really aren’t that hard to set up. I can go 72 hours without a microwave or sink. Since I’ve got to hunt for a bathroom anyway, I’m not sure dragging a stateroom over an off-road trail makes a whole lot of sense. And when I’m on an outdoor adventure, it’s nice to actually spend it outside.
The Sportsmobile is a beautifully built machine and it can be a lot of fun, but it’s not the definitive solution for every backcountry camp trip. Just make sure to pack your own Diamox pills. You’ll have plenty of room for them.
Images by the author
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