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April 5, 2007
No one who knows me would mistake me for a motor-head. I am way too "mechanically challenged" to ever get that moniker bestowed on me. But, hey, I love cars and trucks and other mobile machines as much as any other true-blue, red-blooded American. ...

No one who knows me would mistake me for a motor-head. I am way too "mechanically challenged" to ever get that moniker bestowed on me. But, hey, I love cars and trucks and other mobile machines as much as any other true-blue, red-blooded American.

After all, I grew up on a steady diet of the Car and Driver magazines my big brother Brian--a bona fide car nut who successively owned a Z28, Chevelle SS, and Triumph TR6 in that Last Really Fun Decade, the '70s-- brought home month after month after month.

I should add it was not only the glorious car pix and the gloriously irreverent tone throughout that drew me to that enthusiast's bible but the quality of its writing. I particularly recall --30-odd years later-- the sublime prose of Englishman L.J.K. Setright. But the book was also home back then to such master wordsmiths as humorist Jean "The Christmas Story" Shepherd, comic genius Dick "The Smothers Brothers" Smothers, and the irrepressible Brock "Cannonball Run" Yates. Too bad all their Car and Driver stuff is not online-- now that would be a trip to Surf City!

I don't know who invented that staple of automotive journalism, the media ride-and-drive event, but I can tell you that back in the day Car and Driver ran the most illuminating and often hilarious road test reports.

And if you're still with me (blog entries are supposed to be "short" but there's no statutory definiton of that term so don't sue me) that brings me to what this entry is all about: the recent eye-opening and, I gotta say, fun ride-and-drive for the brand-new '07 Sprinter put on by Chrysler Group Communications. While I'm at it: a tip of the cap to Dodge's Bryan Zvibleman, Randy Jones and their commercial vehicle communications team and to commercial-vehicle marketing manager Pamela Niekamp for hosting the event. They were showing off the capabilities of the Dodge Sprinter but this DaimlerChrysler "Eurovan" is also available here in the U.S. badged as a Freightliner. Read "Sprinter plant up and running"

Over the past 26 years I've been on my share of ride-and-drives of everything from pickups to big rigs on closed courses and open roads here and in Europe but the recent spring day spent driving Sprinters over hill and dale was such a cut above other such events it registered with me, well, as quite the grip-and-grin.

The Southern California setting for this road trip didn't hurt. The members of the mostly trucking press on hand took turns behind the wheel of about 11 Sprinter cargo and passenger vans, piloting them much of the morning and part of the afternoon over well-plotted routes that included mountain switchbacks, country roads and, of course, freeways.

The vans were either powered by a new 3.0-liter V-6 diesel or a new 3.5-liter V-6 gas engine and driven through a 5-sp automatic transmission. I drove both diesel and gas jobs and both powertrains were plenty quick off the mark and had no trouble going up the coastal mountains (big hills, really) or passing at (or above) posted speed limits on the freeway. It should be noted none of the vehicles were loaded but they gave all indications they were packing plenty of power to spare.

Other than different wheelbases, body lengths and roof heights, the biggest difference among the Sprinters was their seats and exterior colors. That's because part of the Sprinter marketing approach is to roll these trucks out nicely loaded with a long list of standard features.

As evidenced by the ride-and-drive, these range from very impressive side mirrors with integrated wide-angle lens to the incredibly impressive new Adaptive ESP (electronic-stability program) system that includes sensors to take into account vehicle payload during braking and steering maneuvers.

In fact, the real clincher of this event was the special course laid out for us on a parking lot at the Ventura County Fairgrounds specifically to show off what the Adaptive ESP system does to boost the safety quotient for any Sprinter driver.

The handiwork of Stuttgart, Germany-based Thomas Kunzelmann, manager of technical product & media support for DaimlerChrysler AG, the course consisted of a high-speed slalom, a skid pad turning circle (complete with a water tanker to keep wetting it down), more high-speed slaloming and then the grand finale-- or coup d'etat as it first looked-- a high-speed "deceleration" lane.

Thomas was kind enough-- actually he did seem to be enjoying himself rather well-- to take each willing participant through the course with himself at the wheel.

Once the smoke off the tires blew away, he then welcomed us into the driver's seat. Then, from the passenger seat (did I mention he was a brave fellow?) , he directed his guest through the course, explaining all the while the idea was to "get the feel of how the system will work" to keep the Sprinter stable, upright and on course in the face of the kind of evasive maneuvers that might be needed to prevent a horrific collision.

I have to admit I was a little busy with both hands on the wheel to take notes on my own performance, but I am pretty sure I got through the initial slalom run without taking out any cones. The skid pad was so much fun -- sorry, but I did not look at the speedo-- that I went around the slippery circle one, two, three times before exiting for the next slalom stretch. Then came the big finish. Upon stopping it as Thomas directed,I found the Sprinter again aimed square at a building behind a little array of cones.

OK, Thomas said, speed up to 55 MPH and then slam on the brakes to see how the Sprinter will stop in a straight line-- and without going past the final cones. Despite having been right next to Thomas when he pulled this stunt not so long before, some of my natural caution (good sense?) came back as that building down yonder got closer and closer. I think I may have hit 45 or so before I slammed on the brakes.

Not quite a stunning performance to report, I admit, but then I don't know the Sprinter "inside and out" as I was assured Thomas does. On the other hand, I did hop out of the cab with a very good sense of what that system can do-- keep you and others safe even in very adverse driving situations.

Final driving impression: I've been told it took a while to wipe the grin off my face.

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