By Aaron Bragman
About a year ago we told you about the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the German luxury brand's big commercial van that's gaining ground here in the U.S. We talked about the 2014 model's upcoming four-cylinder diesel powertrain to be coupled with a seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes-Benz recently brought a few test trucks to its affiliate facility in Farmington Hills, Mich., for the media to see how the smaller four-cylinder engine handles the Sprinter's bulk and whether it's a viable alternative to the bigger diesel V-6.
The turbocharged 2.1-liter diesel inline-four-cylinder is the 2014 Sprinter's new standard base engine; it makes 161 horsepower and 266 pounds-feet of torque. With the seven-speed automatic transmission it sends power to the rear wheels. Optional is last year's only engine, a turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel V-6 making 188 hp and 325 pounds-feet of torque. The older V-6 is known for its grunt and decent fuel economy, but the new engine improves upon those mileage numbers even more. Mercedes-Benz says that fuel economy for a base Sprinter jumped 18 percent by going from last year's V-6/five-speed combination to this year's I-4/seven-speed set-up, and about 2 to 3 percent comparing the 2013 V-6 to the 2014 V-6.
The new four-cylinder is available across the lineup, from the smallest short-wheelbase cargo van to the biggest 18-passenger long-wheelbase minibus. Sprinter variations are numerous — two wheelbases, two roof heights and five different body styles are available. I had some seat time through the Detroit suburbs in a long-wheelbase Crew van, which combines elements of the cargo van with sliding doors that have windows and a three-person bench seat. This versatile combination is increasingly popular, Mercedes-Benz says, as it allows for both cargo hauling and seating for five people. The second row can also be easily removed in case the full length of the cargo box is required.
One might worry that a huge cargo van with such a dinky motor would have a problem getting out of its own way, but such is not the case. Despite its bulk, it actually feels pretty peppy and spry, pulling away smartly from a stoplight or keeping up with traffic with ease. Handling is remarkable — despite being an enormous commercial truck, the Sprinter drives, handles and stops more like a midsize SUV. Anyone will be immediately comfortable behind the wheel, even though it's physically enormous. Brakes are firm and progressive, handling is precise and nicely weighted, and visibility is exceptional thanks to that deep, low windshield.
Now, as you may have guessed, there is one caveat to this performance evaluation: My brief test drive was done in a cargo-free Sprinter, carrying nothing but myself and another journalist. The true test of whether the new four-cylinder is an adequate engine for the Sprinter will come once we can get our hands on one for a longer test drive, load it up like a typical owner would and see if it still feels acceptable. Max payload capacity for the 3500 4x2 model is more than 5,000 pounds, while the maximum towing capacity (also offered on the same configuration) is 7,500 pounds (most models have a 5,000-pound towing capacity).
While Mercedes-Benz was demonstrating the 2014 Sprinters, it also revealed some interesting news about the upcoming 2015 model, which will sport two features likely to make it more appealing to certain buyers. First is "crosswind assist," which will be standard on the Sprinter 2500 model. It employs the truck's stability control program to selectively brake an individual wheel and help maintain directional stability in high crosswinds at speeds more than 50 mph.
However, the big news for the 2015 Sprinter is something that will make it unique among full-size vans: optional four-wheel drive. Available only on the V-6 model, the Sprinter 4x4 will have a part-time system with a selectable Low range, not a Mercedes-Benz 4Matic all-wheel drive but instead an on-demand set-up with a dedicated transfer case. The system can be switched on while moving below 6 mph and offers a 1.40:1 Low-range gearing advantage to the axle gears and transmission.
When operating in 4-High range, torque is split at 35/65 between front and rear axles, and brings in the stability control system with a selective brake torque algorithm to maximize traction. An optional 4-Low button is available as well, multiplying the gearing by 42 percent. The Sprinter 4x4 comes with a 4.3-inch suspension lift in front and 3.1 inches in back, improving approach and departure angles. Mercedes-Benz was careful to note that none of this makes the Sprinter a trail-rated off-roader, but clearly the most capable vehicle in its class. The 4x4 system is meant for the mining industry or messy construction sites; it's meant to get you out of trouble, not across the Rubicon Trail.
The new system will appear on the 2015 Sprinter, which itself will not arrive until the first quarter of next year, according to Mercedes-Benz. These full-size vans are well built, and pricing reflects that. Base models should start around $38,000 but flex quickly depending on size, capability and configuration.
We'll bring you a more complete test of the 2014 Sprinter as soon as we can get our hands on one.
Download the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 press release by clicking here.
Download the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter press release by clicking here.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman; manufacturer images