By on May 27, 2012

“Could I get hold of a Sprinter?” Alex was putting together a review series on cargo vans, but wasn’t able to get one from Mercedes. Perhaps I could? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t have a clue about how to evaluate such a beast. Then Alex posted his series, and commenters lamented the absence of the Sprinter. So here you go, my best shot, courtesy of the good folks at Mercedes-Benz of Novi…

Offered for a few years as a Dodge, the Sprinter introduced Americans to Europe’s idea of a proper van, which is quite different from traditional American vans. Get used to this big foreign-looking box: Ford and Ram (remember, it’s now a brand) have similar vans on the way. Soon GM and newcomer Nissan will be the only players offering traditional American vans.

The European van concept has some clear advantages, beginning with the driving position. The driver sits high behind a minimal instrument panel and huge windshield. The engine intrudes into the passenger compartment, but much less than in the GM vans, so foot room is only slightly constricted. From the knees rearward there’s no engine cover (GM) or massive console (Nissan) to get in the way. The seats, much firmer than you’ll find in other vans, look and feel German, though more VW than Mercedes (this is a commercial vehicle, after all). Shaped to provide good support, as the hours accumulate they’d likely prove more back-friendly than the mushy seats in other vans. An option package includes front height, rear height, recline, and lumbar adjustments. These manual adjustments might be a little less convenient than the power controls in other vans, but they also have no motors to break.

Mercedes offers the Sprinter in four body styles: 144-inch wheelbase regular roof, 144-inch wheelbase high roof, 170-inch wheelbase high roof, and 170-inch wheelbase extended length high roof (cargo van only). Even the regular roof offers a higher ceiling than you’ll find in a GM van, 60.6” vs. 52.9”. The high roof adds another foot, such that anyone up to six feet in height can walk around inside without fear of hitting their head on the ceiling. For people who actually work inside the van, this is a major selling point. Among current competitors, only Nissan also offers this feature from the factory. The rear cargo opening is also wider, 61.6” to 57.0”, and this width is maintained floor to ceiling by nearly vertical body sides (American vans are jelly beans in comparison). [Commenters report that the tall, virtually flat body sides harm crosswind stability at highway speeds.] Cargo length is 128.5”, 169.3”, or 185.0”, depending on the body length, compared to 124.6” or 146.2” in the GM vans. In terms of cubic feet, the Sprinter’s 318, 494 or 547 easily beats the GM van’s 270 or 314. Even the short, regular roof Sprinter can hold more than the long GM, and over twice as much as the typical minivan.

Bottom line: there’s a lot more usable space inside the Sprinter. This volume is easily accessed through wide, floor-to-ceiling door openings (right slider standard, left slider optional). The rear doors can be opened 270 degrees. The Sprinter 3500 can carry up to 5,375 pounds (vs. 3,992 in the GM van) and tow up to 7,500 pounds (vs. 10,000). The tested 2500 has a 2,872 pound payload, vs. 3,009 in the GM 2500 van.

Passenger capacity ranges from two to twelve people—the Sprinter can be equipped with one, two, three, or four rows of seats. Even with four rows installed, there’s over six feet of cargo space in the 170-incher. Theoretically, Mercedes could fit a couple more rows, but has ceded the 15-passenger market to the domestics. Passenger-pleasing factory options are limited to roof-mounted rear HVAC vents; this Mercedes isn’t remotely about luxury.

With such high cargo and towing capacities, you might think the Sprinter has a monster engine lurking under its stubby, steeply sloped hood. But the sole engine option, a 188-horsepower (at 3,800 rpm), 325 pound-feet (at 1,400 rpm) 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel V6, is much smaller and far less powerful than the V8 engines offered by GM, Ford, and Nissan. The only available transmission is Mercedes’ tried-and-true five-speed automatic. Is this somehow enough? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to adequately test powertrain performance. During my test drive this powertrain accelerated the van as quickly as I’d desire in such a vehicle, with no apparent strain, even at 80 on the highway. Thirteen seconds to sixty might seem sluggish in a contemporary car, but this is a box big enough to swallow the contents of 3.5 minivans. Unless you’re up to no good (white vans being the preferred conveyance of TV terrorists) or out to stop people up to no good (SWAT, the A-Team), you’re not seeking an AMG variant. The problem: sixty arrives in 13 seconds with no add-ons, no passengers, no cargo, no trailer, and no big hills. Add one or more of these and the relatively small diesel might seem overwhelmed. [Update: commenters report that engine performance isn’t an issue with heavy loads. Braking performance might be more of a concern.] The engine is obviously a diesel only when idling and at low speeds. There’s not much engine noise even with the accelerator pressed to the floor. The transmission could be quicker to react. Surprisingly, shift paddles are not an option.

Fuel economy is a major selling point. Craig Astrein, Sprinter specialist at Mercedes-Benz of Novi, claimed that the Sprinter manages low 20s around town and mid-20s on the highway. Given the vehicle’s size and 5,545-pound curb weight, this seems hard to believe. But following a 2/3 suburban, 1/3 highway loop with a few foot-to-the-floor acceleration runs the trip computer reported 17.6, which is better than my family’s 7-passenger, 85-cubic-foot Ford Taurus X in similar conditions. Adblue is required, but this isn’t nearly as expensive or as hard to find as it used to be.

Having never driven such a large vehicle before, I was most concerned about handling. Thankfully, the view forward could not be more open, especially compared to the Nissan. Looking through the huge windshield, there’s little sense of the big box behind you. The view rearward depends on whether the Sprinter in question is a cargo, passenger, or crew (two-row) van, as the first can have no windows behind the first row. Large dual-element mirrors compensate. For operating in close quarters, front and rear obstacle detection is an option. The steering is, no surprise, slow and very light, but seems almost natural after just a few minutes on the road. Body motions are more tightly controlled than in the typical van, yet the ride is just a touch jiggly even without a load, at least in the 2500. (A Nissan NV 3500 rides like the truck it is in comparison, but it’s likely not fair to compare a 2500 with a 3500.) Stability control is standard, but with visions of a big white box on its side I didn’t push the Sprinter hard enough to test its operation.

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter starts at $37,285 for the 144 and $42,395 for the 170. The high roof (standard on the 170) bumps the price upward by $2,670, the extended wheelbase adds $2,440, and the extended rear overhang tacks on $950. Basic amenities (such as the seat adjustments, power mirrors, cruise control, and a trip computer) add about $895. For vehicle wearing the three-pointed star, this is cheap. For a cargo van, not so much. A Chevrolet Express 2500 extended length van with the 280-horsepower 4.8-liter gas V8 and similar features lists for $31,740. Opt for the 260-horsepower 6.6-liter Duramax diesel, though, and the GM van’s price advantage entirely disappears. The choice then becomes one between cubic inches and cubic feet.

Until the new Euro-sourced Ford and Ram vans arrive, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is in a class by itself, with a high roof, huge cargo volume, well-behaved suspension, and efficient (if possibly inadequate) diesel engine. According to Craig, tradespeople who visit wealthy clients’ homes also value the prestige conveyed by the three-pointed star. Even if their actual client is a dog.

Craig Astrein at Mercedes-Benz of Novi (MI) provided the tested vehicle. He can be reached at 248-426-9600.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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42 Comments on “Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van 170...”

  • avatar
    Rental Man

    Seats might remind of VW as this truck ie a VW-Mercedes joint venture & has a VW sister sold in Europe.

  • avatar
    Rental Man

    The Sprinter has 2 pass seats up front. American & Nissan decided the 3rd person should keep on sitting on a paint bucket. Why? Nissan talked about the large work area for a computer, I think another legal seat that can fold down like in the Pickup Trucks would be a better option.

  • avatar

    Harder to park than a step due to the length-width disproportion. More likely to bruise head & shoulders navigating with the narrower, lower cargo bay. First boost gotta know +ve terminal only connect or you’ll waste significant looking for the non-existent -ve. Generally not liked as much as a step. Lousy snow belt traction.
    Front & rear swing-out doors engage cyclists and hydrants etc. Sliding door opens into traffic when stopped on left side of a one way.

  • avatar

    The guy who delivers bread to this area has a Dodge 2500 Sprinter that has been a good truck for him, as compared to the Isuzu he had before.

    I have only seen one version of the Sprinter that was converted for passenger use, and I believe it was a Freightliner version. It looked like a huge van, had glass all around and had three rows of seats behind the front buckets with plenty of stand-up head room. Other than that it looked just like the one pictured.

    When I saw it at the Quartzsite camp ground, it had been towing a huge travel trailer, so it is versatile enough and even more spacious than a 15-passenger van.

    Carrying freight may be what the Sprinter was designed for, and many parcel delivery services use them for that, but I believe that a market exists for Conversions of all types as well.

  • avatar

    I could live with the lack of power and stay in the truck lane on inclines, but the purchase price is an issue.

  • avatar

    I bought a 2006 Sprinter cab chassis with a box body in May of 2006. I paid for the truck with the money saved on fuel. My previous truck was a Ford F350 cab chassis with box body. Driving a thousand miles a week in the Ford, my fuel costs were over $1500.00 per month. The Sprinter used half the gas, so I actually was saving about $200.00 per month even with the truck payments. In six years, the Sprinter proved fairly reliable. The transmission failed after 75,000 miles and cost over $4000.00 to repair. I replaced tires every 70,000 miles, brake pads every 50,000 miles and brake rotors every second set of pads. After six years and almost 300,000 miles, I sold the truck for $11,000.00 when I closed my business. I liked the van, I enjoyed driving it, and I never felt it was too slow. When I bought it, my break in was to travel from South Alabama to Wisconsin to pickup an airplane. Driving easily during break in, the mileage was above 18 mpgs. For the whole time I owned the truck, the mileage normally averaged 16 mpgs.

    • 0 avatar

      Except for the transmission thing, that’s a pretty good testimonial. Wasn’t the Sprinter a 5-cylinder diesel at the time?

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, this was the five cylinder version. 165 horsepower, 265 pound feet of torque. I never felt the need for more power. Being turbocharged, the engine had a bit of turbo lag at low speeds. Taking off from a stop, you had to feather foot the throttle, as the turbo would spool up in about one second and double the available torque, It took practice to drive smoothly around town. The transmission had a very low first gear that would be ideal on steep mountain roads, but was overkill around the gulf coast. I like the truck, I hated the dealer.

  • avatar

    These could totally capture the mobile meth lab market.

  • avatar

    I want one.

  • avatar

    Please describe your first hand experience with the ‘inadequate” diesel with a load of cargo and/or passengers? I’ve driven cargo-laden Sprinters, and it’s always provided plenty of motivation when needed.

    • 0 avatar

      Note the “possibly.” I stated that the power felt adequate during my drive. But the numbers don’t add up. If 188 horsepower / 325 foot-pounds are enough here, then why do other vans have far more? Simply overkill?

      • 0 avatar


        My 96hp Jetta TDI (turbodiesel) felt faster than my 200hp V6 Ford Escape. Both cars weigh about the same (3400lbs-ish), and roughly the same torque (196 ft-lbs of torque). The Jetta handled better and pulled just as well as the big honkin V6 in my Escape — at the throttle positions that I actually use.

        Modern diesel just drive better than gas cars. If owning a Volkswagen such a way to get f-ed in the wallet, you wouldn’t get me to drive anything else. Owning a shiny just-out-of-warranty Volkswagen gave me real respect for the reliability of my old beater Fords.

        I guess there’s no chance of shoehorning a Sprinter engine in to my Escape…

      • 0 avatar

        Typical American overkill. And mostly because they have the same engines as pickup trucks, which are really cars in America. And you pay for it at the pump. Look at it this way – the current diesel Duramax is MORE powerful than what you would typically find in a 40T dump truck. In a VAN! This is ridiculous. Even at max GVW, a fully loaded Sprinter has many times the power-to-wieght ratio of a semi-truck, or even a bus, yet they manage to do just fine over the road. You don’t need 0-60 in 10 seconds while towing a 10K trailer. You might go up long steep grades at 55 instead of 65, big deal.

        I think the way to compare gas and diesel engines is by the torque figure – the hp figure is largely irrelavent in a truck. A gasoline engine of the same torque output will always have a higher hp figure because it can rev higher – hp is essentially torque X rpm (yes, I know there is a little more to it than that). But in a torque-tuned truck engine you are not going to be revving the weee out of the thing. And because all diesels are now turbocharged, they typically make thier max torque figure over a MUCH lower and wider range of rpm than a non-turbo gas engine can. Makes for very good fuel economy under load.

        A friend of mine has a pair of used and abused Sprinters for his scrap metal business, one long, one short. They have given him excellent service and quite decent fuel economy. They also seem to put up with a ridiculous amount of overloading – his are registered as under 10K GVW so he is not subject to being stopped and wieghed in this state. He takes much advantage of that loophole. Nothing like a full load of scrap batteries to wiegh down a truck….

      • 0 avatar

        Not overkill, simply lack of development efforts by domestic automakers over the last 50 years.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      Torque figures seem comparable to whatever small V8 the domestics fit in their trucks. So starting from 0 they should feel around the same.

      I would only be bothered about performance when fully loaded and going uphill somewhere. This is when I would see if performance is comparable.

      I thought they got better fuel consumption. Go figure.

      I don’t think the “overkill” is just “lack of development” or “laziness” on part of the US team and must be more related to employing other performance standards.

      “You don’t need 0-60 in 10 seconds while towing a 10K trailer. You might go up long steep grades at 55 instead of 65, big deal.”

      You might not need that, but some customers will find that unacceptable. I am inclined to think that going slower because the thing CAN’T climb a hill loaded (or just maintain speed) will piss more than one.

      Being said that, I’d take American *overkill* over European *rightsizing* whenever possible.

  • avatar

    I have looked hard at these in various forms, and and am always astonished at the prices- they should be lower in price than the vehicle they are based off, not higher.

    It’s an $800 garden shed, with two $100 chairs in it, and a $39,000 engine – free chrome star on the front for your troubles. I just can’t look at these any other way.

    Ford did the same thing- the Transit Connect is the old Focus, with a $500 shed on the back (no control blade either) for Fusion money.

    They are supposed to be moneymakers, but I would feel like a sucker if I bought one of these things. I might pay twelve grand for a TC and 14 grand for a Sprinter, but the sticker price doesn’t seem to match what I see them as being worth.

    The real moneymakers are used Rangers with a topper on the back. You see one of those on the road, they are probably doing alright for themselves. These mighty boxes don’t line up in value the same way at all.

    I hear the Sprinters are known for poor reliability in fleets, and the German curse of being perfect or a lemon – but is there any word on reliability of the newer ones?
    It would be nice to think they have improved them, as I thought they stopped selling them entirely because they were flops.

    The story of the fried transmission in the sprinter above is not surprising. I would expect about the same in a heavily loaded Transit Connect. That’s alotta load and heat for a Focus transmission. If you own any of these mighty boxes, hang a transmission cooler up front for good luck.

    Hopefully this is a worthwhile contribution.

  • avatar

    Just doesn’t look right.

  • avatar

    where the the edit button?????? $#^%@^$#^T$#

  • avatar

    It looks to me like a cross between a regular van and a step van. Interesting ground to occupy and evidently quite successful.

    Do they even make step-vans anymore?

  • avatar
    The Wedding DJ

    I have ridden in the passenger bus version of this, and I was really impressed with how smooth and quiet it was. Any preconceived notions I had about an engine that size powering such a massive vehicle were quickly dispelled. Anyone who’s running an airport/hotel shuttle or tour bus (which was my experience) would do well to get one of these. I’m a “buy American” kind of guy, but the Sprinter is far superior to any Chevy or Ford van. I wish I could afford one.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    While working as a driver for a party planner a while back naturally I was interested when a rival company traded their Econoline for a Dodge Sprinter . Don’t know how the company owner- who after all was paying the bills – felt about it but the driver didn’t like it and thought it was too bulky and that it was a handful in crosswinds . He also said the height could be a problem , particularly when trying to deliver to hotel ballrooms for example . I remember scraping the roof on Ford extended cargo vans , which is nowhere near as tall as the Benz , in some low-slung parking garages .

  • avatar

    I used to drive a high roof, long wheelbase sprinter for work quite regularly. I’d put about 1000 miles on it over 3 days, about 1/3rd of that on the equivalent of logging trails, gravel roads, off-road etc.

    Mine was a 110bhp 2.1 turbo diesel (standard though) and was never lacking in power or torque, even fully loaded. Ours had a full height steel bulkhead to protect against cargo moving forward and a 3 passenger seat up front. It drove better than any other commercial vehicle on the market and I can attest to doing 60mph in one on a logging trail.

    Absolutely brilliant vehicles, not cheap though, especially as the North American market demands the 3.2v6 and an auto; think how much money you could save driving the 2.1 4 cylinder with a standard…

  • avatar

    FedEx Express began updating its fleet with these last year. We are replacing walk-in/step-vans and older Sprinters with them. The walk-in that you’re used to seeing as a FedEx truck is more expensive with lower fuel efficiency. The walk-ins have a tighter turning radius and are easier to move around in, but the new-gen Sprinters are more comfortable, quieter, and better insulated from noise, temperature, and dust. I have logged thousands of miles in the new Sprinters under a wide range of conditions. Power isn’t a concern, loaded or not. It certainly feels quicker than a 13 second 0-60 time would lead you to expect. Off the line in city traffic, it is plenty peppy. The brakes, on the other hand, are a little soft and numb even in an empty truck. Load it up, and they begin to feel like not-quite-enough. Modulating them to keep things from shifting in the cargo area is an acquired skill. Cross winds are no fun, but the overall ride is quite comfortable, and I believe there is a correlation here. The suspension is pretty soft, with an initial compression that soaks up all but the nastiest bumps. As the truck settles in to a turn, it seems to hold on pretty well, but it seems that some sort of anti-roll or slightly better (AMG?) shock absorbers might tame not only some of the body lean, but might also improve the cross wind stability a bit. With many of our fleet hitting 35k+ miles, we are seeing where the wear issues lie pretty quickly. Front suspension geometry means front tires get eaten up very quickly (15-20k miles) and we have seen a number of front struts go out prematurely. running lights and headlamps eat bulbs regularly, and I’ve seen a couple with digital displays in the gauge cluster that have minds of there own. The digital fuel gauge is awful and poorly placed as well.

    All in, I like these. Unless freight volume dictates, I will generally take a Sprinter over any of the other vehicles in our fleet (14ft walk-in, 19 foot walk-in, 1st gen Sprinters, Ford Econoline).

    • 0 avatar

      Crosswind stability is mostly affected by the design of the body side. Tall, flat body sides tend to perform poorly. But, as noted in the review, they also enable the width of the cargo area to be largely maintained floor-to-ceiling. I suspect these vans are mostly used in urban areas in Europe, so cross-wind stability at highway speeds likely seemed a much lower priority than practical cargo volume.

      • 0 avatar

        Once you get body sides the size of these I’m not sure there is a lot you can do about cross-wind stability. In Europe they do see plenty autobahn duty but not at higher speeds. Having said that I remember a ride in a VW T4 Transporter airport shuttle that hit 90mph!

        They use these for ambulances out here, and from what I have heard the current model are a lot better than the earlier model

      • 0 avatar

        Everytime I visit friends in Germany, Mercedes Sprinters, Citroen Jumper and other delivery vans are some of the most aggressive drivers I encounter on the German autobahns. Most of them top out at 160 to 170 km/h and they sometimes even flash their lights at you on the fast lane. Oh yes.

  • avatar

    By 2030 these will be the new “free candy” vans. Or “free ipod” by then?

  • avatar

    I’ve observed that the Sprinter vans employed in my Midwestern area by local tradesmen seem to be rusting out at alarming speed. It’ll be interesting to see if this was because of cheap metal used during Chrysler’s Nardelli near-death experience, or if it continues to be true.

    • 0 avatar

      The first-generation Sprinters (and their VW equivalents) have a reputation of rusting out rather quickly in Europe to. This has been improved on the second-generation models AFAIK.

    • 0 avatar

      Nardelli didn’t take the helm at Chrysler until 2007, by that point, Daimler was already phasing out distribution of the Dodge grilled Sprinter as a condition of the Chrysler spin-off, so this is one thing that can’t be blamed on him. The Sprinters have always been pretty cheaply built vans, especially for the money. Poor attention to detail too, the sloppy welds on the sheet metal seams would never have passed muster at LDV, let alone Ford or Vauxhall.

    • 0 avatar

      My company’s 2005 Sprinter window van is great except for the paint. Rust is cropping up everywhere and we are currently pricing resprays. I don’t know if you can blame Nardelli since our van was built by Mercedes in Dusseldorf, if I recall correctly.

  • avatar

    I recently saw a 2nd-gen one with an unbelievable amount of rust for what couldn’t have been more than a 5 year old vehicle.

  • avatar

    I loathe this class of cargo van. The beauty of a step is its all walk thru. The Sprinter is all stoop.. and swing out doors.

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