Putting the Sprinter 4x4 to the test

Putting the Sprinter 4x4 to the test

A scenic and muddy tour through the Canadian Rockies in the newest version of the Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner van.

Getting your hands on a factory all-wheel-drive commercial van hasn’t been easy – while the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 has previously been available in select European markets, they’re only now coming to North America for the model year 2015. And with demand for the 4WD version of the popular Euro-style van currently outpacing the German automaker’s sales forecasts, even the US 4x4s are currently sold out through September.

“We have to say that we haven’t expected that many customers interested in a 4x4,” said Mathias Geisen, GM of marketing for Mercedes-Benz Vans USA, which also provides Freightliner with its own branded version of the Sprinter. “So customers who currently want to go for a 4x4 are going to wait ‘til October.”

But during the official Sprinter 4x4 Press Test Drive, a three-day, two-night road trip through the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia, a group of American automotive journalists had nine of the brand-new 4x4s at our disposal, covering the Sprinter’s wide array of configurations. Ranging from the three different body styles (cargo, passenger and crew), the assortment included a breadth of features available for the 2015 Sprinter: the 144” and 170” wheelbases, low-range option, varying roof heights, and the optional suite of assistance systems – including the Crosswind Assist, which is now standard on Sprinter 2500 models for 2015. Activated at speeds of 50 mph and over, the feature was initially developed for Mercedes’ GL-class SUVs, until engineers decided the tall, flat-sided vans would also greatly benefit from the enhanced electronic-stability control.

Starting from the Kelowna airport, the nine-vehicle caravan wove its way through southeastern B.C. along the Trans-Canada Highway to a ski resort in Revelstoke, where locals and visitors alike were bemoaning the (relative) lack of snow. The same went for Mercedes-Benz, which had already previewed their new Sprinter’s all-wheel-drive capabilities during an earlier event at a man-made off-road track in South Carolina, but now were looking to show off how it handled in the wild.

“It’s pretty impressive how this vehicle behaves in these muddy or snowy conditions,” promised Geisen.  Another day, and another two-plus hours spent winding along a pine tree-lined two-lane highway beside the Columbia River, and we’d eventually find snow, along with giant ridges of 4x4-testing mud. But there was one unintended benefit of a clear ride up: with panoramic views of the Rockies, the drive north from our first stop was impossibly scenic. You could see why we were each paired with a driving buddy, not so much to lessen the load – two hours in the Sprinter’s newly-redesigned cab proved vastly more comfortable than either of my seats on the flights over – as to lessen the temptation to take your eyes off the road.

Leaving cell service behind as soon as we got a few minutes north of Revelstoke, there wasn’t so much as a bar to be seen again until we’d make the return trip some 24 hours later. But that just meant there was nothing to distract from soaking in the scenery and appreciating the Sprinter’s smooth and relatively quiet ride. (Unless you count our tiny carry-ons sliding around in a cavernous back big enough to fit an entire 767’s worth of luggage.) Sharing the remote highway with logging trucks and not much else (despite the repeated “moose crossing” signs), we were able to use the empty roads to test out the Sprinter’s various electronic safety features, like the Lane Keeping Assist that could effectively tell the difference between an “evasive maneuver” and simply drifting across the double yellow.

Of course, distractions were no issue when we got to the main event of the three-day ride-and-drive: a steady uphill climb through mud and a light dusting of snow to the top of an active logging road near B.C.’s Mica Dam. A good 3,400 ft. above sea level, according to our hosts from the Mercedes-Benz Canada Driving Academy, it’s the sort of road that commands your complete attention.

In the Mud and Snow

After turning the four-wheel-drive on (and the traction control system off) with a push of a button, the caravan was on its way. Another button would activate the optional low-range gear, which is available for an additional $300 and shortens the gearing by 42%.

Meant to put the new Sprinter 4x4 and its 4WD capability to the test in exactly the type of real-world conditions that Mercedes is predicting it’ll be used for, the 4x4s ripped through the sometimes foot-deep ridges of mud with relative ease – the Sprinter’s all-wheel-drive and the sparkly flecks of mica combining to make the road look a whole lot more inviting than it would’ve in a less-capable vehicle. The breathtaking vistas from above the snow line didn’t hurt either, necessitating frequent stops by the group for postcard-worthy pictures. And while the Sprinter wasn’t indestructible – one journalist did manage to get momentarily stuck on a particularly muddy incline – the 4x4 performed quite well overall.

While not officially considered a true off-roader, Geisen predicted that the 4x4 will be the perfect option for companies operating in the snow belt, or those working on construction sites, saying, “This is why we decided not to go for a permanent 4x4, but for the 4x4 system you can select.” Once activated, 35% of torque is distributed to the front axle, with the remaining 65% delivered to the rear, making the Sprinter more sure-footed in difficult terrain without much effect on payload – depending on body style, the all-wheel-drive option only adds about 265 lbs.

The 2015 Sprinter’s 6-cyl. turbocharged diesel also boasts extended service intervals of up to 20,000 miles and increased fuel efficiency (up to 700 miles between fuel stops, according to an ad shown during an accompanying press conference). It was a claim our caravan would inadvertently put to the test when our designated refueling stop on the way back turned out to be “out of gas” and more importantly diesel, too. But even without filling up, every Sprinter made it back to Kelowna without incident and with fuel to spare, covering the 700-plus km round trip (around 435 mi.) on less than a single tank.

Rotating through the vans gave us an opportunity to test the Sprinter’s full range of configurations, from the new super-single rear wheel option to a roof with enough stand-up height to fit NBA 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki, joked Geisen. “The versatility of the Sprinter is increasing from day to day, because we are launching more and more variants to make sure that it fits to the application the customers want to go for,” he explained.

It all results in enough potential customization to ensure that, like snowflakes, no two Sprinters rolling off the assembly line are alike. “I always thought the E-Class was complex, but I’ve got to say, the Sprinter is even more complex,” said Geisen. “If you have a look into our factory, there’s hardly any Sprinter like the other. So that’s good for the customer; they can really decide exactly the way they want to have it.  But it’s pretty tricky when it comes to producing these vehicles, because we really have thousands of variants.”

In a bid to make matters easier, Mercedes announced earlier in March that they’ll be investing almost $500 million to build the new generation of Sprinters in Ladson, SC, where the US-market vehicles are currently assembled after being shipped over piecemeal from Germany. “It will have a separate assembly line, paint shop, body shop, all of that. It’s no longer a kind of assembly line, it’s a real factory. It’s the first real van factory that we’ll have in the US,” said Geisen.

“The US is already the second-biggest market for the Sprinter worldwide,” he explained. “Being closer to the market makes a lot of sense.” Along with the newly-announced addition to the Mercedes-Benz van line, the Metris (otherwise known as the Vito in the rest of the world), it shows that the company has “a long-term strategy” for the North American van market, according to Geisen. Combined, he said, the announcements prove that selling vans in the US isn’t just a “hobby” for Mercedes. “We’re here to stay and we have some bigger plans of what to do here in the US with our vans,” he added.

The addition of a 4x4 option for the 2015 Sprinter is another step in that direction, making the workhorse cargo and crew vans even more capable than previous models in challenging conditions. Because as fun as it was to drive a fleet of Sprinters across the mud, snow and rain-soaked pavement of the Canadian Rockies, you’re not investing the additional $6,500 it costs for the 4x4, with its 3.0L V6 BlueTEC diesel engine (and 188 hp and 325 lb-ft), for scenic views.

Besides offering increased work capacity, the upgrades made to the 2015 model also result in better total cost of ownership. “After 20,000 miles and three years, it keeps its residual value above 50%, which is well-ahead of any other competitor,” according to Geisen. Which is probably another good reason why the Sprinter 4x4s are currently sold out into the fall.

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