I like vans, and I don't care who knows it. For me, there's something so deeply, satisfyingly, and, yes, maybe erotically practical about the box-on-wheels concept. It's just such a glorious maximization of usable space. That's why I was delighted to head down to SC to spend some quality van time in the new line of Sprinters.
(Full Disclosure: Benz brought me down to their Charleston, SC Sprinter assembly facility to drive as many vans as I could get my hands on, as well as giving me the usual food, booze, and shelter. I would have happily slept in a sprinter, but they stuck us in some non-wheeled hotel.)
Before I talk about these vans, it's worth talking about the facility they have in South Carolina. See, as many of you may know, Sprinters are actually built in Dusseldorf. Even the ones I drove in SC — ones put together by the assembly plant there — were built in Dusseldorf. What kind of crazy double-talk is this? The best kind. Governmental double-talk.
See, the SC assembly plant only exists because of the puckishly stupid Chicken Tax. Yes, because, apparently, we're still pissed that Germans taxed our plump, juicy chickens after WWII, we're still tacking a 25% tariff on all their cargo vehicles. So, to get around this, they build Sprinters in Dusseldorf, then take them apart, and ship them to SC for re-assembly.
It's even crazier than you think. The vans are separated into body and drivetrain, and those two parts are shipped out on separate ships. Once they make it to the US, the van bodies and drivetrains must match VINs before re-assembly — no parts swapping here. Mercedes even goes so far as to re-install the tires onto the original locations they were first installed in Germany.
So, what comes to this SC plant is a van body crammed full of wheels, trim, and seats, and a second box with engine, transmission, front and rear axles. They put everything back together, throw in a locally-sourced (the only part) battery, and the Sprinters are good to go. They also make ones with Freightliner badging and grilles for sales to municipalities that at least need to look like they're buying American.
Incredibly, all this work only adds about 7-9% to the cost of the van — far less than the Tax' crippling 25%.
I suppose it's not all bad, since it is bringing some jobs to South Carolina, and it keeps a good supply of vans right here on our shores. And this is a very good time for Mercedes to have vans, since the old King of American Vans — well, since it's American, we'll say the old President of Vanited States of Vanmerica, the Ford E-Series (think old Econoline) is finally gone, leaving a rapidly opening market with no clear new leader.
Ford's Transit line is making headway, but in Europe there's really only one true leader, and that's the Sprinter. Benz has so much of the European van market locked up, the Benz guys kept telling us it's often called the "Sprinter Segment" over there.
Of course, they also showed that cute animation that tells all those lies about Mercedes-Benz inventing the van, so maybe I should take what these guys say with a little bit of sodium chloride.
It's interesting to talk about Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles here in the US, because here Benz is pretty much exclusively thought of as premium/luxury car brand. The truth is that Mercedes-Benz is the largest commercial-vehicle manufacturer in the world, and they own many well-known brands: Faso, Thomas, Freightliner, and more.
I can't think of another premium brand that sells commercial vehicles under their own name. That shows some serious brand confidence, and I respect that.
I also really like these tri-star branded work vehicles because it gives some great insight into what a Mercedes economy car might feel like. I really found myself liking the rugged simplicity of the base Sprinter's interior, with its durable rubber floor mats, cloth seating, and hard-wearing, unashamed plastics.
I mean, if you think about it, carpet is one of the stupidest things you could have lining the floor of your car. These well-padded rubber mats from the Sprinter technically make much more sense, and I found them to be attractive in their own way. It was fun to imagine the hypothetical tiny $15,000 Mercedes-Benz hatchback that they could be in.
The basic Sprinter design is clever, both highly modern and fairly traditional. It uses a front engine/rear drive/live axle setup, which you'd think would be a bigger disadvantage, packaging-wise, compared to its FF competitors like the Fiat Promaster.
The truth is, the hardware is all well hidden out of the way, and the engine is packaged to minimize hood length and front overhang, giving over most of the wheelbase to passengers and cargo. The Sprinter is available with 4 (161 HP/266 lb-ft) or V6 (188 HP, 325 lb-ft) Diesel engines, and comes in a crapload of body styles: short, long, tall, really tall, no body, crew, cargo, passenger versions, and all those combinations thereof.
I didn't get to see and drive everything, but let's check out some of the more interesting features of what I did get to try out. Oh, and I'm going to talk about the 4x4 version in its own post, because it deserves it. Sound good? Great.
Crosswind Assist System
This is an interesting new feature for 2015. Like all tall, narrow vehicles, Sprinters can be pretty susceptible to crosswinds — or at least feel like they're susceptible. Here's the real truth about this though — this system is largely for psychological benefit.
Sure, the Sprinter is like a big sail, but the truth is all the weight is pretty low (unless you've gone out of your way to load it like an idiot) and even in pretty harsh crosswinds, the vehicle stability is just about fine in all but the most extreme conditions.
Still, people really don't like that crosswind sideways-crabbing feeling, so the new system can compensate for unwanted lateral motion via electronically applying brakes to one side of the car as needed. The previous system could only compensate for unwanted yaw motion.
To test the system, they need to have some pretty severe winds. Since Mercedes doesn't really have any pull with the god Aeolus or the shadowy Chinese consortium that operates the weather-control satellites and chemtrail aircraft, they relied on three massive V8-powered swamp boats to blast 60 MPH+ winds across the van's path.
Vans were driven past the wind blasts with crosswind assist on and off, and, big shock, the system did seem to work. When faced with three swamp boats' worth of direct wind, the system managed to keep the van from blowing sideways the 6 inches or so the unassisted van was. Though, really, if winds are blowing like that, stay home, pal.
Adaptive ESP and Getting A Sprinter On Two Wheels
This test was probably the most dramatic and fun. Because the Sprinter is so tall, keeping the van stable is a big deal. Of course, the normal balance of the van means it's not likely you'd be able to put yourself in a situation where it could tip, so the Benz guys had to work extra hard to make he van tippy. The result is pretty fun.
Their main test driver (and an old Formula Vee and other series racer) designed and built this special Sprinter himself. To make it nice and unstable, there's a tube-frame inside that mounts a trio of partially-filled water barrels high in the cargo area. Those barrels, with their water and the metal support structure, add about 2350 lbs in the van in about the worst place possible. There's also a pair of racing seats mounted in front of the barrels because what's the point in making a tippy van if you can't bring along some friends?
Because the point of this van is to show what the Roll-Over Mitigation Program does, the electronics had to be modified to turn the system off. And since the one system that would keep the van upright can be turned off, a more mechanical stability system had to be employed, specifically those two huge outrigger arms on either side of the van.
So, the test is basically this: turn the Adaptive Stability Program off, accelerate hard to 30 (in run one) and then 40 (in run two) and while at speed take a really sharp turn with the goal of flipping the van.
Without the stability system on, the van lists alarmingly as that water sloshes around. It feels pretty insane inside the van, but it's far more dramatic outside, where you can easily see two of the vans wheels whirling happily through the air. Before the van can fully tip, the outriggers impact the ground and push the van back upright. This is nice and bonkers to watch.
With the system on, you can feel both the brakes and the self-stiffening suspension parts working extra hard to keep the van upright, and I'm happy to say it works. Wheels did lift a bit, but nowhere nearly as dramatically as with the system off, and the outriggers were not needed to stop the tumbling.
All The Conversions
Mercedes invited a bunch of their conversion companies to bring by some of their Sprinter-based vehicles, and the parking lot was filled with box trucks, mobile workshops, passenger vans, and a couple campers.
My love for mobile waste-relieving drew me to one of the camper conversions, which sported a really fantastic crapper.
Also notable was this remarkably useful mobile workshop space.
I really do love rooms on wheels.
Driving Around In A Utility Company-Type Vehicle
I've always loved the Swiss-army knife utility of these van-based utility work trucks, with their long, roll-top covered beds, clusters of little compartments and trunks and lockers, work lights, and extensive superstructure support racks.
I took one out and drove it around the little area around the factory, blasting Wichita Lineman and cutting off power and cable to dozens of neighborhoods. The van was actually really easy and pleasant to drive. Even with the 161 HP 4-banger and all the extra weight from the bodywork, it still felt reasonably peppy and had no trouble keeping up with traffic.
It's tall, but really doesn't feel as top-heavy as its looks would suggest. The short, sloping hood and high position give great visibility, and the cabin, made of hard-wearing but not unattractive plastics, is plenty comfortable. The switchgear feels Benz-quality, and the new infotainment system is using essentially the corporate-standard UI, so I had a weird visual deja-vu bringing me back to my drive in the SLS.
I think the biggest interior innovation has to be the dash-mounted paper clip/holder thing. This really should become standard across the entire Mercedes line. What's a C63 AMG without a way to hold a menu from the local Greek place, or maybe a postcard of Cheryl Teigs, on the dash? Nothing, that's what.
We're on the verge of getting an entirely new vanscape here in America as the last of the old Econolines and GMC Savanas (though they're still making those!) disappear from the roads. Vans like the Sprinter start at a fairly competitive $36K (not quite Savana cheap, but not awful) and are proven workhorses.
Mercedes is also planning on bringing their smaller V-class vans here very soon as well. We're in for an interesting time here in the Vanoverse.