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What we liked
>> Refined and powerful diesel V6
>> Ease of parking/manoeuvrability
>> Separation of driver from passengers
Not so much
>> Seats lack comfort
>> Reverse parking sensors should be available
>> Spare tyre is a compromise solution
About our ratings
Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.5/5.0
Most people are probably familiar with the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, if for no other reason than that it is the mainstay of the country's ambulance fleets. It is about to become even better known as it starts to replace Australia Post's fleet of Ford Transit vans.
A company must be doing something right if one of its models is proving increasingly popular with atypical fleets that require more of their vehicles than just the ability to cart stuff. So it is with the Sprinter. It's a large van and -- unlike the two quite distinct Ford models that previously filled roles transporting mail and the infirm -- the Sprinter is not without competition.
Mercedes-Benz is embarked on an aggressive push for sales of the Sprinter range. Securing the Australia Post contract for the next five years, in the face of a long-standing association (25 years) between the privatised utility and Ford, was a major coup -- and also illustrates how committed MB is to sales conquests for the Sprinter.
For 2008, Daimler has introduced changes to the Sprinter range, including a new 311 CDI short-wheelbase van variant (the vehicle chosen by Australia Post), the new Sprinter Transfer 12-seat bus, which was actually released late in 2007, and three variants of the 'Super Single' van, combining single rear wheels and wheel arches with a heavier payload configuration, in order to load Australian-sized pallets.
Plainly, Daimler is not allowing the Sprinter to rest on its laurels.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
By our count, the Sprinter range comprises 27 distinct variants, ranging in size from short-wheelbase vans to extra-long wheelbase models with cab chassis bodies in single and dual cab styles thrown in. The starting price is $41,490 for the 311 CDI mid-wheelbase cab chassis model and the range topper, the Sprinter Transfer bus, is priced at $74,990.
The prices for the full range are:
309 CDI SWB van $41,990
309 CDI MWB van $43,990
311 CDI SWB van $44,490
311 CDI MWB van $46,490
311 CDI LWB van $49,990
315 CDI MWB van $49,990
315 CDI LWB van $53,490
315 CDI EXL van $55,990
318 CDI MWB van $55,990
318 CDI LWB van $59,490
415 CDI MWB van 'SuSi' $53,990
415 CDI LWB van 'SuSi' $57,490
418 CDI LWB van 'SuSi' $63,490
515 CDI LWB van (4.5-tonne) $59,490
518 CDI LWB van (4.5-tonne) $65,490
515 CDI LWB van (5.0-tonne) $59,490
518 CDI LWB van (5.0-tonne) $65,490
311 CDI MWB cab chassis $41,490
315 CDI MWB cab chassis $44,990
515 CDI LWB cab chassis $50,990
518 CDI LWB cab chassis $56,990
515 CDI LWB cab chassis (5.0-tonne) $50,990
518 CDI LWB cab chassis (5.0-tonne) $56,990
315 CDI MWB dual cab $49,490
515 CDI LWB dual cab $55,490
515 CDI LWB dual cab (5.0-tonne) $55,490
315 CDI Transfer MWB bus $74,990
In the list above, the 'SuSi' models (Super Single) are the 4.5-tonne variants with just single rear wheels, rather than the usual dual rear wheels reserved for 4.5/5.0-tonne models. These, along with the 311 CDI SWB Australia Post-approved variant, are new models for 2008 and allow wider Australian pallets to be loaded in the rear of the higher payload vans without the need for after-market modification of the wheel arches. Pricing is $4000 more than a 3.5-tonne model with the same drivetrain or $2000 less than a 4.5-tonne model with the same drivetrain and dual rear wheels.
Where variants can be directly compared, the pricing for the 2008 Sprinter range has risen by amounts varying roughly between one and three per cent. The added cost is partly excused by the inclusion of standard Speedtronic cruise control/speed limiter, entry-assist grab handles and a visual and audible seatbelt warning reminder.
Standard equipment across the range also includes: climate control, electrically adjustable and heated mirrors, CD audio system, height-and-reach adjustable steering column, remote central locking, electric windows, stability control program, ABS/EBD, Brake Assist, traction control, driver airbag, height-adjustable seatbelts and start-off assist (manual variants only).
As for the smaller Vito model, Sprinter variants are defined by their GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) and power output, expressed in horsepower [Ed: a truck market convention], so the 309 CDI Sprinter offers a 3.5-tonne GVM and approximately 90hp power output. At the other end of the scale, the 518 CDI will tote a 4.5 or five-tonne weight (including the vehicle itself) with 180hp output.
The 180hp engine (135kW) is a 3.0-litre V6 diesel with common-rail injection and turbocharging. All other engine variants are the same 2.1-litre four-cylinder in varying states of tune. This engine powers the 309 models in 88hp (65kW) guise, plus it also powers the 311 models (109hp/80kW) and 315 models (150hp/110kW). The 150hp version also powers 4.5 and 5.0-tonne variants.
Peak power for both the four-cylinder and V6 occurs at the same engine speed, 3800rpm. The 88hp engine develops 220Nm of torque between 1400 and 2600rpm, while the 109hp engine produces 280Nm between 1600 and 2500rpm. Maximum torque for the 150hp engine is 330Nm, occurring between 1200 and 2400rpm. The V6's torque figure of 400Nm is available between 1600 and 2600rpm.
All Sprinters are rear-wheel drive and, as standard, the Sprinter is fitted with a six-speed manual transmission, additionally providing the option of a five-speed automatic. For the 180hp V6 variants and the four-cylinder Sprinter Transfer bus, the five-speed automatic is fitted as standard.
The 'SuSi' (Super Single) variants introduced with the new model year Sprinters are unique to Australia and have been developed specifically to cope with larger Australian pallets.
Australian pallets are wider (1200x1200mm) than their European counterparts (1200x800mm) and to accommodate these previously, vehicles had to be fitted with a false floor or the wheel arches needed to be modified after-market.
Mercedes-Benz anticipates the SuSi models will find favour with freight-forwarding companies, refrigerated food suppliers and mobile workshops.
The SuSi models are specified to a higher GVM, in spite of being fitted with single rear wheels. This allows less intrusion in the load area from the rear wheel arches, in turn providing wider and easier loading of pallets by fork lifts.
Various wheelbases are available across the Sprinter range, starting with a short-wheelbase for the 3.5-tonne vans (3250mm). Mid-wheelbase measurement (for vans and cab chassis models) is 3665mm and the long-wheelbase measures 4325mm. The extra-long 315 CDI van provides more rear overhang, but is built on the same 4325mm long-wheelbase.
Standard and high-roof bodies are available in short-wheelbases and medium wheelbases. Long-wheelbase models and the 315 CDI Extra-Long are sold in either high-roof or super-high roof styles.
The 12-seat Sprinter Transfer bus is based on the 315 CDI MWB model with the five-speed automatic as standard. Due to the seating arrangement, it cannot be specified with the optional right-side loading door.
Mercedes-Benz specifies a braked towing capacity of 2000kg for all variants of the Sprinter. Payload ranges from 1280kg (318 CDI LWB with super-high roof) to 2990kg (518 CDI LWB cab chassis for 5.0-tonne GVM).
The SWB 309 CDI with standard roof will accommodate a 7.5 cubic metre payload measuring 2600mm long, 1780mm wide and 1650mm high. At the other end of the scale, the 315 CDI EXL with super-high roof will accept a 17.0 cubic metre load measuring 4700mm long, 1780mm wide and 2140mm high.
Vehicles with the one-piece tailgate (ie: not the barn doors), are also fitted with a low-hanging strap to haul the tailgate back down. The optional barn doors, when specified, will open through a 270 degree arc, folding back along the outer sides of the vehicle to facilitate reversing right up to a loading dock.
Mercedes-Benz offers a load area partition with a fixed window. This is basically a bulkhead to separate the cabin of the vehicle from the cargo area. Unless you really require the walk-through facility that is part and parcel of the Sprinter's standard specification, the load area partition option is highly recommended, reducing NVH considerably.
Increasingly, occupational health and safety concerns provide the catalyst for a commercial vehicle fleet operator deciding to buy a Mercedes-Benz van over a competitive vehicle that might cost less to purchase.
The Sprinters come equipped with an adaptive electronic stability program, which, linked through ABS and EBD, can re-calculate the vehicle's weight, balance and even centre of gravity on the fly, to minimise the risk of the vehicle losing control.
As well as those braking-related safety features, the Sprinters are also fitted with four-wheel discs, Brake Assist and traction control.
Inside, the driver is protected by an airbag and both the driver and front passenger are kept safe by three-point (lap/sash) inertia reel seatbelts which are height-adjustable, as are the headrests.
It could probably be classified as a safety issue; the spare tyre for the SuSi models doesn't really pass muster. The SuSi Sprinters are fitted with different width tyres from front to rear -- 205mm at the front and 285mm at the rear. The spare measures 235mm, which is a half-way house solution. Mercedes-Benz strongly recommends fitting the spare and driving gently to the nearest repairer to have the punctured tyre repaired or replaced. So the spare is better than a spacesaver in a passenger car, but almost as badly limited.
This is almost a case where an aerosol tyre repair kit might actually be preferable to the spare, since it could generally be relied on to fix punctures in both the front wheels and the rear -- including the dual rear wheels of the heavier models. According to Mercedes-Benz, these "tyre fix" kits "don't have wide support in Australia".
Earlier in this review, it was mentioned that the Sprinter is up against a lot more competition than the Ford Transit faced during the 25 years the Ford was Australia Post's preferred van.
Starting alphabetically, there's the Fiat Ducato, the Transit itself, Iveco Daily, Renault Master, Toyota HiAce at a pinch and -- brother under the skin -- the Volkswagen Crafter.
Ford's VM Transit is likely to be the vehicle most operators will immediately compare with the Sprinter -- and it certainly is markedly cheaper -- but cannot seem to muster the same cargo volume or the large aperture for rear-door loading. On the other hand, the 2.2-litre diesel in the front-wheel drive Transits develops more torque than all the four-cylinder Sprinters, other than the 150hp models. It's a similar story with the 2.4-litre rear-wheel drive Transit diesels -- more torque on paper than any Sprinter other than the 180hp V6 models.
Although it's not as well known in the market, the Fiat Ducato provides more torque than the Sprinter in all variants other than the 150hp four-cylinder and 180hp V6 variants. Towing capacity is half a tonne better than the Sprinter's and it's generally cheaper.
The Iveco Daily competes closely with the Sprinter, but seems to be higher-priced than the Mercedes. Boasting an extensive range, the Daily is sold in variants ranging from 3.5 to 6.5 tonnes GVM. A 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel matches the Sprinter's V6 for torque (400Nm) and a 2.3-litre turbodiesel shared with the Fiat Ducato develops more torque (320Nm) than all four-cylinder Sprinters other than the 150hp models.
Renault's Master range is -- as is the case with the Ducato -- a limited one, but whilst the entry-level models are in the same ballpark for pricing as the Sprinter, the price doesn't rise as steeply for longer wheelbase and higher roof models.
The HiAce is probably mixed in with this lot by association in size with the nether end of the Transit spectrum. Both the front-wheel drive Transits and even the Super-long wheelbase HiAce are effectively half a class below the Sprinter in size and performance, although the Toyota's 3.0-litre turbodiesel develops 286Nm of torque, which is (barely) better than the Sprinter's 109hp engine. As against that, even the 'Super long' wheelbase is shorter than the Sprinter's short-wheelbase length and the towing capacity is half that of the Sprinter's.
Which brings us to the Volkswagen Crafter. Both the Volkswagen and the Mercedes were developed in concert, as the respective wheelbase measurements indicate.
Each vehicle has its own powerplants, with the Crafter driven by Volkswagen's five-cylinder turbodiesel in various states of tune. As for the Sprinter, the Crafter is available in van, cab chassis and dual cab styles -- and the sheer diversity of model variants is bewilderingly huge. Even Volkswagen's basic 65kW five-cylinder turbodiesel develops the same torque as the 88hp four-cylinder Sprinter -- and power is the same too. Given almost identical dimensions and closely aligned pricing, the Crafter doesn't necessarily have a USP that gives it a particular advantage over the Mercedes.
ON THE ROAD
Backing the Sprinter is a surprisingly easy task, considering the length of the vehicle. What a shame then, that Mercedes-Benz doesn't fit reverse parking sensors as standard to all vans. That would be the icing on the cake and wouldn't cost the earth.
With its large mirrors, the Sprinter offers easy parking, up to the point where the driver has to guestimate the distance to an object behind the vehicle -- and that's where the reverse parking sensors would come in handy.
The large exterior mirrors feature a split-level view, with a wide-angle lower section for reversing and the normal upper section for checking traffic to the ¾ rear. It's a good solution and, if not for the aerodynamic issues involved, would be sensible in passenger cars too, but not many passenger car drivers back using the mirrors.
From the driver's seat, the mirrors are just one example of intelligent design. The centre front seat is virtually adult-sized and there's a handrail separating it from the driver's seat, ensuring the passenger won't inadvertently distract the driver or knock the auto gear selector, which is mounted in the centre fascia adjacent the driver's left knee. In Drive, the selector is almost horizontal, but in Park, it's almost vertical, allowing easy walk-through access from the driver's seat.
The Sprinter's dash layout is generally fairly sensible. A high-rise cowl over the instrument binnacle reduces the likelihood of reflected sun glare obscuring the LCD read-out between speedo and tacho for the odometer, tripmeter, digital speedo, auto gear indicator and fuel gauge. Facing forward and located over the centre fascia is a large, covered storage bin, which will hold a compendious street directory.
Unusually, the cupholder has its own built-in light. Although it seems like the most frivolous of luxuries, there are probably drivers who will think it's one of those "why didn't someone think of it before" inventions.
The seats proved to be a bit flat and not that comfortable. Lateral grip is a compromise, tending more towards ease of access than holding the occupant in place.
Out on the road, the V6 turbodiesel in the long-wheelbase 318 CDI was willing and even slightly sporty sounding. The engine combined well with the five-speed automatic transmission, which, while it wasn't as quick to kick-down as some might expect from passenger car automatics, it did what was required to keep the lower-revving diesel working in the appropriate engine speed range for a balance of optimum fuel economy and performance. When it did shift down (or up, for that matter), the auto was extremely smooth.
The Sprinter Transfer bus was fitted with the 2.1-litre four-cylinder engine, developing 150hp (110kW) of power and driving through the standard five-speed automatic transmission. To make the jump from commercial vehicle to bus, the Sprinter Transfer gained extra heat and sound insulation in the roof lining and below the floor. There's no extra insulation in the body sides, but the fabric and vinyl trim do soak up some sound and heat by their nature.
The vehicles were tested without much of a load on board (four in the bus and only the driver in the van), but the Sprinter's dynamics were impressive nonetheless. Even without a load to hold the rear down, both vehicles were generally settled, although the ASR could be provoked by accelerating over mid-corner bumps. In the dry, the ESP was much harder to provoke.
At open road speeds, the Sprinter feels large, but not ponderous. It was easy enough to place on the road and surprisingly agile by comparison with the reviewer's expectations. It could even be hurried along country roads at a brisk pace -- vindicating the Sprinter model name.
So, notwithstanding the high centre of gravity and the need for suspension to carry a decent payload, the Sprinter's level of grip and cornering poise are actually pretty good. That's just the sort of dynamic competence you want in an ambulance.
Perhaps it's also at least one element of the whole package that a wider cross-section of fleet operators want in their vans.
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