First drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 [Review]

Mercedes\' Sprinter gets off-road rugged for 2015.

A million copies sold of anything generally qualify as a resounding success. Take a million record albums, er, discs. A million cars. McDonalds and its billions and billions of hamburgers sold. And so on. Mercedes-Benz finds itself in that enviable position of having sold, over the last twenty years, more than 2.8-million copies of its Sprinter series of vans worldwide. For 2015, they are taking nothing for granted.

Instead, they went 4x4 and took us to the land of lumberjacks, flannel shirts, moose, deer and the wishful custodian of Lord Stanley's Cup, British Columbia, Canada. (Wishful in the sense that the Vancouver Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup although the previous Vancouver Millionaires did, 100 years ago.) Hope springs eternal.

Around the block before getting hereThe Sprinter 4x4 takes a rather circuitous route on its way to American roads. Due to an outdated and bizarre humdinger of a U.S. law known as the Chicken Tax (Google it), Sprinters are totally constructed in their Düsseldorf factory only for the trucks to be relieved of their running gear, which is shipped over to Charleston, South Carolina, for reassembly. And just so they can't cheat and reassemble them while en route, the drivetrains travel on one ship while the bodies travel on another.

But not for long. Construction will soon start at the South Carolina plant where Mercedes-Benz will spend $500-million to build a complete factory instead of the reassembly center that now exists. There, 1,300 employees will build the Sprinters from the ground up. Who are you calling chicken now?

One engine, many varietiesAlthough the base engine in the Sprinter, available both as a Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner-badged Diesel vehicle, is the 161 horsepower, 2.1-liter four-cylinder engine, the 4x4 is equipped exclusively with the 188 horsepower, 3.0-liter BlueTEC V6 that produces 325 lb-ft of torque. A derivative of the engine also found in other models throughout the brand, including E, S, GLE and others, it is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control. The addition of the 4x4 system will set you back another $6,500 over the price of a conventional rear-drive Sprinter.

The Sprinter vans join the bulk of the M-B diesel lineup in using the now familiar Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) additive system, which for more than ten years, has helped to reduce the nitrogen oxide emissions that result from a non-additive diesel, with the end result being an engine that burns almost as clean as a regular gasoline powerplant.

Four by four on demandAvailable in 144- and 170-inch wheelbases, both models can be ordered with the Sprinter's new-for-2015 four-wheel-drive system with its on-demand capabilities. When needed, the driver can engage it by the push of a button just under the van's ignition switch. Each version of the 4x4 chassis can be configured by one of M-B's preferred network of "upfitters,” who can modify one of the passenger, crew or cargo vans to haul around everything from the NBA's finest to hauling the mail or in this case Fed-Ex. They are available in Low and High roofline models, the latter, which is ideal for carrying passengers, as well as cargo.

Even Mercedes-Benz itself cops to the fact the Sprinter 4x4 is not considered an off-roader, but it's still mighty capable for use at construction sites, muddy fields and in inclement weather. The system engages when the driver pushes a dashboard-mounted button, which in turn activates a torque ratio of 35:65, from front to rear axles. The Sprinter's Electronic Traction System (4ETS) is responsible at that point for keeping the four wheels spinning…or not.

It can also be equipped with an available ($300) low-power range gear for tougher terrain that shortens the gearing by 42-percent, as well as a dually rear wheel configuration.

The Sprinter 4x4 has received such a massaging that it now rides 4.3-inches higher in front and 3.1-inches higher in the rear. As a result, the Sprinter 4x4 boasts a 20-percent increase in angle of attack over its two-wheel drive counterpart. Overall, the 4x4 comes in at a relatively guilt-free 265-pounds more than the standard model.

The Sprinter competes in a segment that was once the exclusive domain of the Ford Econoline, Chevrolet Express and the GMC Savana. Now gaining in popularity, the segment includes thoroughly modern vans like the Ford Transit, Nissan NV, Ram Promaster and, of course, the Sprinter.

Restyled in 2014, the Sprinter received a facelift that left it with a more chevron-like grille. It will also be available as a Freightliner, which is a darling of fleet buyers. It is identical in construction except for its new face.

Safety assists are all on-board and include Prevention Assist, Blind Spot Assist, Highbeam Assist, Lane Keep Assist and new for 2015, Crosswind Assist, which uses sensors to brake vector its way to stability when it encounters side microbursts of wind. More rocket science than science fiction, we have experienced it. It works.

Specially-prepared Sprinter van examples are currently running in an off-road race in Morocco. Already available for several years in the European market, the 4x4's legend has preceded it to these shores: 4x4 availability is currently sold out until September 2015.

To the testThe Sprinter is a stable driving, all-wheel-drive ultra-utility-vehicle that manages to talk softly but pack a big wallop. With its on-demand 4x4 drivetrain, it can deal with mud and ruts as we saw on Canadian logging roads, and smooth highways with equal confidence. Sure it's a truck, but one that doesn't make you feel as though you went 12-rounds with it over the period of a workday.

Ruddering the electric power assist rack and pinion system saw its handling go light and easy through rougher surfaces, such as our off-road excursions, while it firmed up on paved roads. Acceleration was good for a truck that is geared to hauling parts, packages and people rather than hauling ass. We did think the gearing was high enough that passing required a heavy stab of the accelerator to really get under way when passing some of the ultra big-rigs we encountered on the logging highways.

Under various configurations, the Sprinter van can appear a touch top-heavy when equipped with the tall roof option, for example. Still, it managed to handle like a low-slung sport machine on the TransCanada highway.

What impressed us further was the quietness that came from the ultra-refined 3.0L diesel. The balance shaft-aided smoothness and lack of diesel clatter allowed for normal conversations with our drive partner that did not require anything other than our "inside voices.”

Leftlane's bottom lineMercedes-Benz's commercial vehicle division continues on a tear with the introduction of the 4x4 versions of their popular Sprinter van lineup. Not exactly the right vehicle for everyone, it manages to open itself up to an infinite range of buyers who just might need off-road high-traction capabilities in an already capable van.

2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 4x4 Standard Roof Van base price, $43,601. 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 4x4 High Roof Van base price, $49,231.

Photos by Mark Elias.

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