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First drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter [Review]

Mercedes\' Sprinter van arrives with a few significant updates for 2015.

The Swiss Army knife of utility trucks. That's what Mercedes-Benz is selling with the 2015 Sprinter Van lineup. While you may not use all the blades on one of those legendary pieces of pocket cutlery, it's nice to know they're there when you need them. So too, the capabilities of this family of vans.

No newcomer to the segment, M-B has been in the truck business since building the first so-called truck, which was in fact, the Patent Motor Bus in 1896. It was followed in 1898 by the DMG truck that was capable of carrying up to five-metric tons.

Today, the brand still knows its way around a truck stop. In addition to the Sprinter Van lineup, the company is deep into it, by way of their ownership of such legendary brands as Freightliner, Western Star, Thomas, Setra, BharatBenz, and Fuso. That, according to M-B, makes them the world's largest maker of commercial vehicles. At the end of 2013, Daimler decided to get into the Customer Dedication style of vehicle through Mercedes-Benz Vans, which is now a separate division of MBUSA.

Previously available exclusively in Europe, M-B Vans made the decision to go global in the 1990s and now employs 15,000 employees around the world. Last year the Van division sold 270,000 units. Sprinter Vans are sold in the U.S at a network of 257 dealers as either Mercedes-Benz or Freightliner vehicles, and are identical in every way except for the logo and the grille. MB studies have shown that while private companies favor Mercedes badges, the Freightliner identity is the darling of governmental agencies across the country.

Playing chicken (tax)The M-B Sprinter Vans are now into their fourth generation. First introduced in 1995, the Sprinters have evolved into a variety of vans that range from basic cab and chassis arrangements for retail and wholesale clients needing boxes and/or refrigeration, to panel vans for the construction trade, delivery vans, and finally passenger transports. Along the way are variations encompassing campers, mobile homes, ambulances, dualie axle-equipped and new four-wheel-drive versions that can take the Sprinter places it never considered possible before.

Due to a bizarre phenomenon known as the chicken tax, the Sprinters take a circuitous route on their way to market in the USA. A brief history lesson is probably a good idea at this point: In 1963, a tax was levied against the United States on the importation of U.S.-raised chicken to France and West Germany. In retaliation, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a 25-percent tax for the importation of potato starch, Dextrin, brandy and light trucks. From 1961 to 1964, this period was known as the Chicken War.

Eventually the taxes on starch, brandy and chicken went away, but 50-years later, the taxes on completed light trucks remain. (Can you say time for new lobbyists?) In an effort to get around the tariff, Mercedes-Benz builds completed Sprinter Vans in their Düsseldorf factory and then knocks them down, and places components in containers, two trucks per. Drivetrains are put in separate containers and sent on different vessels, as the US government expected that if all the parts were transported on the same vessel, the trucks could be built on ships while en-route from Europe. Upon arrival in South Carolina, the VIN numbers are matched up again, and the vehicles reassembled at the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van factory in Charleston.

It's a roundabout sort of exercise, which still results in a profitable venture for M-B that allows them to go head to head with such competition as the Ram ProMaster, Nissan's NV Cargo Van and Ford's Transit Van.

Limited offerings, unlimited potentialMercedes-Benz Vans offers their vehicles in five basic styles that range from cargo, passenger, and crew vans, to mini buses, and partially completed cab-chassis units. Using a network of preferred ”upfitters,” the vehicles can be modified to satisfy virtually any customer, from an overnight delivery service (FedEx), to a multimillionaire NBA star who wants to shuttle his crew around in luxury. Additionally, Sprinters are available with three GVWRs (8,500, 9,900, and 11,030-pounds), three body lengths, and three roof heights, as well as two wheelbases (144.3-, and 170.3-inches) and two diesel engines, for more than 50 different variations on a theme.

Sprinter van buyers can choose the standard 2.1-liter four-cylinder BlueTec turbodiesel engine that produces 161 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque. It's mated to the Mercedes 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission and, according to the brand, is able to achieve fuel economy in the high 20 mile per gallon range.

Those needing more torque can opt for the available 3.0-liter V6 BlueTec turbodiesel that produces 188 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. It combines with a five-speed automatic transmission for up to 24.9 miles per gallon on the highway.

For those needing further capabilities, the Sprinter can be had with a 4x4 system that automatically includes the 3.0-liter V6 engine. While not exactly a trail-rated vehicle, it should do well around construction sites and other areas with challenging roadways. Activated by a button, it can vary the torque to 35:65, front and rear. The 4x4 system increases overall vehicle weight by 265-pounds. Further still, the system can be ordered with a low-range gear that is shortened by 42-percent, for increased traction.

New for 2015, Sprinter 2500 models now ship standard with the first example of Crosswind Assist for vans, which helps to compensate for crosswinds without countersteering measures. As demonstrated by three airboats at full throttle, producing 90 mile an hour wind gusts, the Sprinters held steady. The system is incorporated into the Sprinter's Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which uses inside wheel braking to help lessen the chance of a rollover during an avoidance maneuver. Rollover protection does work, as we saw while riding in a Sprinter equipped with outriggers to prevent such a stunt. Strapped inside, and running without ESP, the Van easily lifted right-side wheels off the ground in a 30 mile-per-hour excursion. Making a second run with ESP activated displayed the inside wheel braking that kept all four tires planted.

Other safeties are in place including Collision Prevention Assist to alert a driver to an impending collision, which combines with Adaptive Brake Assist. After sounding a visual and audible alert, if the system determines the driver has not supplied sufficient brake pressure, it automatically increases pressure to avoid an accident. Blind Spot Assist and Lane Keeping Assist are also along to provide safe lane changes, but are strictly warning systems and not an active lane keeper.

Décor and moreThe interior of the Sprinter Van, in its base form, features an M-B Tex style synthetic seating material that can be changed out by many of the numerous "upfitters” to the desires and needs of the end user.

In today's connected vehicle sphere, the Sprinter is nobody's lunchmeat. New telematics are part of the mix and feature a 5.8-inch screen with Bluetooth and USB technologies. Adding to that is an available Becker Map Pilot Navigation system, which is almost a necessity in today's fast-paced business climate. Mounted via USB connection in the glovebox, it can be removed for updates or transferred to another vehicle. A backup camera is also on the option sheet and is just perfect to monitor rearward conditions while hitching a trailer or backing up to a loading dock.

Over the roadBehind the wheel of the Sprinter 2500 Van equipped with the 4-cylinder turbodiesel and seven-speed Shiftronic transmission we saw an engine that was an eager performer with surprisingly good acceleration and an adept ability to cut tight corners and fit into spaces that would spook a standard light duty pickup truck or work van. We could see why it is the darling of small shops and delivery companies with the ability to get in and out quickly and on the way to the next stop.

Configured with the passenger van option, it can carry 11 passengers and a driver, as well as luggage. Driving the 4x4-equipped van allowed the Sprinter to gingerly side step divots and ruts on a work site and demonstrated the ability to throw traction from a slipping wheel to others that were firmly planted. Still, we wouldn't get our hopes up for a successful run on the Rubicon.

The transmission provided great acceleration from the four-cylinder mill, and according to a Mercedes-Benz demonstration driver, was just as fast as the six-cylinder turbodiesel with the five-speed automatic transmission. Regardless, they are both governed to a maximum speed of 82 miles-per-hour.

Easy to drive, with a commanding drive position, its transmission sounded and operated more like a CVT than a conventional automatic transmission. Still, there were smooth startups with no drivetrain harshness, nor hunting for gears, as well as and more than enough torque to carry a wide variety of loads.

Leftlane's bottom lineMercedes-Benz's Sprinter Vans bring a touch of European utility to the work truck market on these shores. Fully customizable, they can be outfitted from a blue-collar work rig to a Black Tie ride suitable for a drop-off on the red carpet. All it takes is some imagination. 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van 144” base price: $35,995 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Passenger Van 170” High Roof base price: $46,1802015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 Cab Chassis 170” High Roof base price: $35,800V6 engine option, $985Destination fee, $995

Photos by Mark Elias.

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