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First drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Where to? Mercedes' go-anywhere 4x4 Sprinter will stoke your wanderlust

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van made a quick U-turn in the parking lot of Mercedes’ South Carolina facility and accelerated to 30 mph. I sat in one of two racing seats mounted behind the driver, strapped in with a five-point harness. Behind me, a specially-built rack carried three 55-gallon drums mounted high in the cargo bay, each nearly full of sloshing water.

The professional driver jerked suddenly at the wheel to avoid a barrier of traffic cones, first to the left, then back to the right. The van tipped forcefully to the left, raising the right front tire off the pavement. Sensing disaster, I gritted my teeth and gripped the ‘oh shit’ handle with enough force to make my knuckles go white.

If not for outriggers fitted to the demonstration vehicle, this exercise would have ended with a Sprinter lying on its side. Active ESP, a stability system designed to prevent tip in just such a maneuver, was intentionally disabled. Another run – at a slightly higher speed but with the Active ESP system on – would prove the effectiveness of this innovative safety feature.

2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter front red

The driver again hurled the vehicle toward the cones, swinging left then right. Sensing danger, the stability system selectively braked to keep the van upright. Who knew vans could be so thrilling?

Simply capable

Now in its second model year after a 2014 refresh, the new Sprinter leads a pack of domestic copycats with features like Active ESP, the new Crosswind Assist feature and – for the first time – a 4×4 option. While both Ford and Ram have ditched their decades-old full-size van platforms in favor of Sprinter-like European designs, neither offers four-wheel drive.

The Sprinter has always been exceptionally easy to drive given its oversized proportions.

The Sprinter has always been exceptionally easy to drive given its oversized proportions, but these systems add to its ease of use and its capability. We sampled a variety of Sprinter configurations, from passenger and cargo models to up-fitted campers finished by Airstream and Winnebago. Even drivers used to small cars will find the Sprinter easy to handle.

Although the Sprinter driver sits behind the front wheels, the feel is bus-like. That’s a compliment, not a dig: a high seating position and excellent forward and side visibility make the relatively large van surprisingly easy to drive, even for someone with little big-vehicle experience.

Finding a comfortable driving position is simple, too, thanks to a supportive, eight-way adjustable seat and tilt-telescope steering wheel. Large side mirrors with convex secondary mirrors make positioning the Sprinter easy despite the lack of a standard backup camera.

Also bus-like is a relatively tight turning radius that masks the vehicle’s length. At speed, steering is nicely weighted and communicative. Brakes are commendable, too, easy to modulate and powerful when you need them to be.

The base four-cylinder diesel is far from mighty, making 161 horsepower and 265 pound-feet. But the small turbocharged motor is a hard worker, and the seven-speed automatic does a good job of keeping it in its sweet spot.

Automakers are not required to rate fuel economy for heavy-weights like the Sprinter, but the base four is the choice for efficiency. I clocked 19 mpg on a suburban driving route with relatively heavy traffic and stops at several red lights.

The optional diesel V6 is significantly more powerful, with 188 hp and 325 lb-ft. It’s paired with a five-speed automatic and is the sole engine offered with the 4×4 drivetrain. Off-road capability is not the only reason to choose the V6. Drivers that choose larger, heavier versions of the Sprinter or who plan to carry significant weight will prefer the more robust performance of the bigger motor.

On the trail

More impressive than the drivability of the new Sprinter is the off-road capability of the 4×4 version. The agile van made easy work of a technical dirt course fraught with deep gullies and steep ridges. High ground clearance improves the Sprinter’s approach, departure, and break-over angles. Torque is split 35 percent at the front axle and 65 percent at the rear. Low-range gearing is available as an option.

2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter driving 1

With such a long wheelbase, it’s no Jeep Wrangler. But you can’t carry your whole crew and a week’s worth of gear and supplies in a TJ. Just saying.

More advanced safety features

In addition to its Active ESP system, Mercedes also includes standard Crosswind Assist on 2500 models.

Mercedes also includes standard Crosswind Assist on 2500 models.

To demonstrate the technology, the automaker lined up three airboats, each with a 600-horsepower V8 turning a massive propeller to produce 90-mph winds. Without Crosswind Assist, the gust blew the Sprinter sideways, requiring correction by the driver. With the system active, however, selective braking keeps the van on course. The system is active at speeds of 50 mph and greater.

Other active safety features available on the 2015 Sprinter include a collision warning system, parking sensors, blind-spot detection, and lane-departure warning.

Broad lineup

After sampling a range of 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter models, I know exactly which one I’d choose: a short-wheelbase, low-roof crew version with the optional V6 and – of course – four-wheel drive. But that’s one of many variants.

With five models, three roof heights, three weight ratings, two wheelbases and two engine choices, drivers can choose one of about 50 Sprinter configurations to suit their particular needs.

Re-assembled in the USA

Mercedes ships Sprinters as incomplete units to avoid the ludicrous so-called Chicken Tax, a 25-percent tariff on French and German commercial vehicles that dates back to the Johnson administration. The Sprinter is built in Germany, but U.S.-bound cargo vans (passenger vans are exempt) are separated from their drivetrains for the trans-Atlantic journey.

The 350,000 square-foot facility in South Carolina is the reassembly point. It gives Mercedes plenty of room to grow its U.S. van operation.

Representatives of the automaker suggested they are considering U.S. assembly and even hinted that they will soon bring the Vito, a smaller van Mercedes sells in Europe, to the U.S. If it is anywhere near as good as the Sprinter, we welcome its arrival.

Highs

  • Go-anywhere four-wheel drive
  • Do-anything versatility
  • Innovative safety features

Lows

  • Slim standard feature list
  • Box-on-wheels styling
  • Relatively high price