AMSTERDAM, Netherlands. Solid and smooth are the first words that might come to mind as you get behind the wheel of Mercedes-Benz's new 2019 Sprinter, which the automaker invited reporters to do for the first time. It's a vehicle built for business, and its 1,700 total available configurations allow it to be specialized to suit the particular needs of just about any fleet needing a large van.
Meanwhile, it's a Mercedes-Benz, after all, and its craftsmanship, materials and design lived up to expectations. The OEM lauds the vehicle as "defining the premium class in its segment" of cargo and passenger vans, but notably is also offering lower-cost layouts of this new Sprinter for businesses' use.
Fleet Owner's first driving experience with the Sprinter was in a "tourer" outfitted for passenger transport. This was no closed, controlled course but a trial by fire taking the van onto the streets of a bustling European capital, from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Leiden. From there, it was a pickup-and-delivery mission in a cargo van to Spijkenisse just south of Rotterdam before heading back in heavy highway traffic to the capital city.
For a first-time driver on Europe's roads, much of making that trip safely and not ending up in Belgium was on the Sprinter. Literally jumping in and pressing the start button, not even noodling around for a bit to learn the controls properly (though you should), off I went on our route thanks to the Sprinter's excellent navigation and straightforward design.
Driving in these areas of the Netherlands wasn't all that different than driving in and near many U.S. towns and cities, although the infrastructure was up a notch or two — roads and bridges, however old, all looked solid and well-maintained. More so than in many areas of the United States, though, bicyclist and other two-wheeled traffic is more common here, especially within cities, where bikes mingle with cars and other vehicles of all kinds in an intricate dance of sorts on often narrow roads.
Driving in and between towns and cities in the Netherlands isn't all that different than in many similarly populated areas of the United States, just with a lot trickier road signs sometimes.
As a driver's tool, the Sprinter becomes familiar quickly. Its just-right, accurate steering and firm but well-damped suspension let you thread the needle out on the road surprisingly well, even with the more top-heavy high-roof van we started off with. There's a good deal of agility in this hauler. You will feel the wind at times at speed — that's just physics — but built-in crosswind control tech can help if that gets out of hand.
The Sprinter sits the driver up at a fairly commanding position, not far off from that of the European cab-over tractor-trailers that were often alongside us (sometimes close enough to feel like we'd swap paint). But the van has very passenger car-like feel and control.
The Sprinter's front seats in particular seem to have benefitted from ergonomic improvements, with firm support and comfort for longer trips. But the rear seats in passenger vans also got some attention from Benz engineers and feature conveniences like USB ports for charging.
Our first vehicle came equipped with the OEM's new MBUX media system and user interface. M-B designed the system for intuitive use either by direct controls and its touchscreen, "swipable" buttons on the steering wheel, or voice command.
It's still a beta version about seven weeks prior to the Sprinter's launch in Europe, and the voice commands still needed some work in operation. But you can speak naturally to the MBUX system that's designed to learn users' preferences and habits — just preference your request to make a call or find a restaurant, for example, with "Hey, Mercedes."
The MBUX user interface can be operated by voice command, buttons on the steering wheel, or via its touchscreen and control buttons.
With the MBUX system, Benz has essentially put a tablet computer with real processing power in the dash. Although it's not required, MBUX can be an effective conduit for new, advanced fleet management services the OEM will offer customers called Mercedes PRO connect. But connectivity will be built into all of these new Sprinters, and Mercedes-Benz engineers noted that's its most important feature, additionally allowing this vehicle to be updated going forward.
Anyone familiar with smartphone or tablet operation will find the MBUX system easy to use, with all the usual pinch, spread and touch controls. Go ahead and select 3-D view on the navigation, and the system can show off its capability with strikingly detailed displays of one's surroundings as it directs you on your way.
Check out actual background image and rich detail displayed on the MBUX 3-D navigation screen.
There's similarly high resolution and quality from the Sprinter's rear and available 360-degree surround-view cameras, which provide directional lines and guides precise enough to take just about all the guesswork out of backing up and parking the van. The first vehicle's seven-speed automatic and 3.0L V6 turbo diesel helped the Sprinter live up to its name, darting easily in and out on tight roads and highway lanes. Subsequent Sprinters we drove — one with a 2.1L inline 4-cyl. turbo diesel and six-speed manual that's not available in the U.S. and another with the 2.1L and a new 9-speed automatic that is — didn't feel far behind at all.
Don't overlook the options
With the Sprinter's many available options and configurations, fleets will need to do their homework to spec this van to get the most out of it with their particular operations. There are many features that proved helpful in operation, and if they're not there — as was the case when we switched from test vehicle to test vehicle — you'll notice.
For example, the MBUX system has optional street sign detection. The "Traffic Sign Assist" feature combines with GPS to provide a constant speed limit readout, which was much appreciated in unfamiliar territory with road signs sometimes few and far between. It gives an upbeat beep and flashes a speed-limit graphic displayed on the instrument cluster screen to give you a "nudge" if you exceed the limit, but that's it; it doesn't keep going off, which would become a nuisance.
Watch video below of our road trip slideshow.
It's those subtle details and innovations that stand out with the Sprinter and complete the package. Rather than a simply utilitarian commercial van, the Sprinter has all the available advanced safety controls as Mercedes-Benz's passenger cars such as lane-keeping assist that can selectively brake the wheels to steer the Sprinter where it should be and automatic emergency braking, and they perform thoughtfully and progressively with the van's operation.
The blind spot warning in the side mirrors, for example, normally lights up a red arrow whenever a vehicle enters those spaces on either side of the Sprinter. You also get an additional auditory warning beep if that happens when you've got the turn signal on, indicating a move.
M-B put some useful additional horsepower in the Blind Spot Assist feature with the new Sprinter. There's rear cross-traffic assist, which alerts the driver if reversing and there's another vehicle or pedestrian coming up on the van from either direction. The system can even brake autonomously if necessary.
Other advancements in this Sprinter are easily glossed over on paper but make a real difference in actual use in terms of efficiency and safety and just make good sense once you experience them. One of those is the windshield washer fluid sprayers, which Mercedes-Benz relocated to the wiper arms themselves so they squirt fluid directly in front of the wiper blades. It uses less fluid and doesn't obscure the windshield, cleaning it better and faster, and doesn't puff out that raincloud of washer mist that tends to fall on vehicles behind you.
Click through our slideshow for views and more information from our road trip in Mercedes-Benz's new Sprinter, or read more from the van's launch in February.
(All photos by Aaron Marsh/ Fleet Owner)