Completely overhauled, Benz’s utility van gains greater technology and refinement to be an even better four-wheel toolbox.
12/4/19 UPDATE: This review has been updated with test results for the high-roof Sprinter 3500XD 4×4 V-6 diesel model.
Mercedes-Benz was initially hesitant to launch the Europe-developed Sprinter van in America. The concern was that our market would be confused by a luxury brand selling a vehicle mostly for commercial use and that the blue-collar audience for commercial vans didn’t exactly align with the image Mercedes-Benz had created for its core luxury vehicles. But the market was just too large to ignore, so the Sprinter set sail for America. As it turns out, the Sprinter has not only been a sales success in the United States (it has worn Mercedes-Benz, Freightliner, and Dodge badges through the years) but has become something of a cult vehicle. In hopes of maintaining that momentum, in 2019 the Sprinter underwent a full redesign.
In tandem with the new model, Mercedes-Benz upped its commitment to the segment by investing $500 million into its South Carolina plant where vans are currently reassembled from kits. The new space includes a body shop, a paint shop, and a full assembly line, which marks a major shift in how Mercedes’s vans will be built. Instead of manufacturing the vans overseas, partially disassembling some of them, and reassembling them in America (a tactic used only on the cargo versions of the vans to avoid a trade tariff on imported trucks known as the chicken tax), all U.S.-market Sprinters will be assembled completely in South Carolina.
After Germany, the United States is the second-largest van market for Mercedes-Benz. Dealers moved 25,327 Sprinters in the U.S. during the first 10 months of 2019, although that’s less than half the amount of the brand’s best-selling SUV, the GLC-class. And those numbers still pale in comparison with the more than 130,000 Transits that Ford sold (not including the smaller Transit Connect) in the same period, but Mercedes-Benz hopes the new plant and an all-new product will help close the gap.
As evidence of how important the Sprinter is to Mercedes, it was one of the first U.S.-market vehicles to receive the brand’s new infotainment system called MBUX, which is short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience. Customers have the choice between a 7.0- or 10.3-inch touchscreen positioned atop the dashboard. The touchscreen is a first for the Sprinter and will be a first for other Mercedes-Benz vehicles once the system is incorporated across the brand lineup. Drivers or passengers can operate MBUX via touch, voice, or steering-wheel controls.
The touchscreen is set up with a fairly typical smartphone-type architecture. As was the case with the previous Mercedes-Benz infotainment system, learning the layers and hierarchy takes some time but is easy enough. Scrollable menus and clearly marked icons aid navigation. There is a volume rocker switch for those who prefer physical buttons. The steering wheel features a pair of touchpads and button layouts. The left side, which also has cruise-control switches, operates the in-cluster information screen. The right side controls the main head-unit screen with buttons for phone, menu, back, and voice control.
The new voice-control system is a big deal for Mercedes-Benz. The basic technology has been in the company’s vehicles for some time now, as is the norm today, but with MBUX, the system is billed to work as a personal assistant similar to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. The system is activated any time it hears the word “Mercedes”—although speaking with an accent can confuse the system, and it also has a tendency to annoyingly chime in when it thinks it hears “Mercedes” in casual conversation.
What distinguishes the Sprinter’s version of MBUX is a new telematics feature called Pro Connect, devised for commercial users. The program, which pairs with a specially developed smartphone app, allows businesses to send messages and destinations to fleet drivers, see live tracking and vehicle information, use artificial intelligence to discern better driving habits, and create restrictions or parameters for various profiles based on the vehicle or the driver. This makes it easy to monitor driving habits and fuel efficiency of each vehicle, distribute assignments, and oversee status updates.
Have It Your Way
The new infotainment system is just the start of the Sprinter’s interior overhaul. Mercedes-Benz looked to its passenger cars for a long, sleek, and simple design inspiration. The vans now feature a modernized dashboard, a centered row of climate control buttons, and stylized circular air vents.
The interior is not as luxurious as a typical Mercedes-Benz because the Sprinter is still primarily a working van. Beyond the infotainment screen, a miniature door-armrest pad, and a few bits of metal trim, the inside is a plastic paradise. It’s neatly organized, but nearly everything is shaped from textured, hard-touch panels. The seating position is high, there’s no center console separating the driver from the front passenger, and you can see the floorpan beneath the seats.
Because Americans are Americans, one of their top complaints about the old Sprinter was a dearth of beverage security. So now the front cabin can be configured with up to 10 cupholders, five for each side, including two that can hold jumbo fountain-drink cups. To accommodate the demands of connected drivers and passengers, Mercedes-Benz added the option for an integrated Wi-Fi hotspot and plenty of connection points. Wireless device charging is optional, and a mix of USB-C, 12-volt, and 115-volt AC outlets are available. Those who use standard USB ports will need adapters, but the system is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible.
Other changes include improved seat cushioning and a driver’s seat with optional deleted side bolstering for easier ingress and egress. On passenger models, Mercedes added the option for reclining seats in the rear rows, and the process for removing the rear benches has been simplified. With the new design, there is a lever that unlatches the seats, or they can be reclined via built-in handles atop the seatbacks. The seats can be removed using integrated rollers on the bottom; they’re still heavy, so a second person is probably required, but the overall execution is simpler.
Mercedes-Benz claims that the Sprinter can be configured more than 1700 different ways, including—for the first time—with front-wheel drive, a feature being promoted for its cheaper entry-level price and its lowered load floor. A nine-speed automatic transmission is new and the six-speed manual has been refined, but neither the manual nor the front-wheel-drive configurations are available in America. Yanks will once again have the option of rear- or all-wheel drive and can pick between a North America–only gasoline 188-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four with 258 lb-ft of torque or a 188-hp turbo-diesel 3.0-liter V-6 with 325 lb-ft.
We spent most of our driving time in and near Amsterdam behind the wheel of the 316 CDI Tourer, which has the turbo-diesel four paired with a seven-speed automatic delivering torque to the rear wheels. The engine provides a background soundtrack of turbo whistle and diesel gargle, but it wasn’t overly obtrusive. This Sprinter did everything we asked of it and handled demands from our right foot with no complaint. The seven-speed is quick to respond and always seemed to grab the right gear. Kickdown requests were responded to promptly for confident passing, and the smooth upshifts were barely noticeable. The only time the van felt remotely sluggish was during hammer-down acceleration, but even then, it was no sloth. Amusingly, the seven-speed automatic also comes with paddle shifters.
Most of our driving took place on straight highways or in traffic—both likely scenarios for van pilots—with not much in the way of curvy roads. For 2019, the rear-wheel-drive Sprinter ditches its hydraulic steering rack for an electrically assisted system, and there is zero communication from the ground to the wheel. The steering is slow but builds effort progressively and evenly. More important, the turning radius is surprisingly good for something this large.
A highlight of the new Sprinter is its ride quality. In cargo, chassis-cab, and passenger configurations, the vans we sampled felt composed and smooth. With new springs and dampers, the Sprinter is relatively comfortable and quiet and bucks the typical reputation of utility vehicles as primitive work tools. There are few creaks or squeaks, and body roll is kept in check, with the expected swaying intruding only during jerky turns or hard stops. Carried over from the previous generation is Crosswind Assist. This technology, which comes into play at highway speeds, recognizes body tilt and will brake a wheel to help keep the slab-sided Sprinter in its lane without impacting speed. Even with the numb steering, keeping the Sprinter pointed straight isn’t much work.
All of these technologies come into greater play when driving our high-roof, all-wheel-drive, dual-rear-wheel 3500XD test vehicle near our Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters. While far from being one of the Sprinter’s more common configurations, our five-seat example is a hulk of a passenger/cargo van that would be well suited to shuttle duty at a mountain ski resort. Tasked with moving its 6265 pounds is the 188-hp diesel V-6 mated to a seven-speed automatic, which it does at a rather leisurely pace. At the test track, the big Benz sauntered to 60 mph in 12.5 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 18.8 seconds at just 71 mph. You do not buy a Sprinter, at least not one this large, for speed—or for fuel economy. We saw only 15 mpg both in our normal driving and on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test. The Sprinter lineup’s substantial gross vehicle weight ratings mean that the van doesn’t get EPA fuel-economy ratings.
Our test vehicle, with its 144.0-inch wheelbase and rolling on 16-inch LT215/85R-16 Continental VanContact A/S all-season tires, returned a severely restrained 0.60 g of grip around the skidpad yet stopped from 70 mph in a decent 185 feet. Its towering seating position and overall height, while great for forward visibility and interior roominess, exaggerate the Sprinter’s already significant sense of mass and body roll in corners. Crosswind Assist works overtime at speed. Our example also pushes the limit of what you’d expect to pay for a utility van, with a load of options including a low-range transfer case, several packages of comfort amenities, and a range of assist steps and grab handles, inflating its $59,685 base price to a hefty $70,929. Yet we can think of few other vans that are as imposingly huge.
For the new generation, Mercedes-Benz maintained everything good about the Sprinter and improved what needed updating. The clean-sheet cabin is a significant upgrade in design and introduces a wave of technology specially tailored to maximize the function of a commercial van. New powertrain choices and modern connectivity are among the best of any Mercedes-Benz vehicle. This latecomer to the brand is fitting in better than ever, even if certain examples stand out like mountains.