Published on Saturday 25 October 2014 20:00
Ten Second Review
The Mercedes Sprinter is a large van with a big heart - that heart being a class-leadingly efficient range of much improved Euro V-compatible diesel engines that take the fight to Vauxhall Movano and Volkswagen Crafter-sized rivals. These more refined units offer potentially large efficiency savings to businesses who will appreciate this model's spacious, practical, high quality virtues.
When it comes to large vans, one stands above all others across Europe: this one - the Mercedes Sprinter. Nearly 2 million of them have been produced, around half a million of these being second generation versions like the one we're looking at here. This is the best selling LCV across the Continent, a superiority underlined since this second generation version was introduced back in 2006.
This vehicle shares its design with Volkswagen's Crafter but not its engines - and it's under the bonnet that changes over recent years have moved this van further in front of its competitors. A new generation of Euro5-compatible CDI diesel units introduced in 2009 set running cost and efficiency standards that more recent rivals have struggled to better. Amongst these are vehicles like the Vauxhall Movano/Renault Master design and the Peugeot Boxer/Fiat Ducato/Citroen Relay collaboration, plus of course that VW alternative. But all are still playing catch-up behind this Sprinter. Mercedes was, after all, first to introduce a V6 engine to this segment, first to introduce Stop-Start technology to cut costs and is a leader in promoting natural gas power as an alternative.
The powerplant that forms the backbone of the range is a redesigned Euro5 version of Mercedes' stalwart 2.15-litre four-cylinder common rail diesel, an engine which has already gained a good reputation for its combination of performance, economy and refinement and, almost uniquely for a four cylinder LCV diesel, is fitted with balancer shafts to eliminate vibration and improve what were already class-leading levels of refinement.
As with previous Sprinter models, this unit comes in three states of tune, the options beginning with the 95bhp entry level version. Though this version has a useful 250Nm of torque, it has only a single-stage turbocharger that can't match the smoothness or response offered by the twin-turbo that's fitted to the 129 and 163bhp versions of this engine. These respectively deliver either 305 or 360Nm of pulling power, enough to deal with increased towing weights that in the case of the 3.5 tonne model that most businesses buy have risen to the same figure, 3.5 tonnes. Unusually for a van in this sector, there's also a 190bhp V6 CDI diesel option offering a massive 440Nm slug of torque so potent that it must be channelled through a redesigned version of the 6-speed manual gearbox.
In fact, Mercedes has redesigned all Sprinter gearboxes in recent times, adding 'ECO Gear' labeling that refers to the way that ratios have now been more widely spaced for efficient running, topped and tailed by a very low-geared 1st for snappier hill starts fully loaded and a long-striding top to massage economy and refinement on the motorway. And talking about snappier starts, if you choose the five-speed automatic gearbox option, it comes with Start-Off Assist, essentially a hill-holder clutch to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions. On the move, handling will as usual depend on the load you're carrying but traction is sure and can be boosted if your business habitually uses off-tarmac tracks, by choosing the 4x4 system that's an option on 211, 311, 315 and 318 CDI Sprinter models.
Design and Build
The look of this improved Sprinter has changed little since it was first launched in second generation form in 2006, but then large vans in this class don't tend to be bought for aesthetic reasons. The imposing twin-slat grille complete with its large Three-Pointed Star is sufficient to make the point that yours is a business not prepared to compromise on quality. And to emphasise the practical side, there are redesigned heated wide-angle mirrors and a useful step in the bumper from which it's easier to climb up and clean the tinted windscreen.
Inside, the links to Mercedes-Benz passenger cars are instantly apparent. The clear, classily penned instruments, the ventilation controls and the stereo installations are all borrowed direct from models like the B-Class and A-Class. This means that the quality is beyond the level that you might expect in a panel van of this kind. Elsewhere, care has obviously been taken to keep things tough and hardwearing while retaining the plush ambience. At the wheel, the revised seats feel supportive and while the steering column isn't height adjustable, it isn't much more to specify a 'Comfort' driver's seat that is and the angle of the seat cushion can be altered too.
The three-seater cab is standard and features a middle seat backrest that can fold down and turn into a handy table that can be used to complete paperwork and also features a couple of cupholders and a pen tray. Other storage areas dotted around the cabin include lipped shelves above the windscreen on both driver and passenger sides, this shelf behind the instrument binnacle, large door bins which though a little narrow do have a moulding that will accommodate a flask or a bottle of water, a lockable glovebox and a dash-top shelf that will swallow an A4 clipboard. Nearby is a clip that can hold loose paperwork and there are coat hooks behind the seats. As for cupholders, well, there's one built into this passenger-side dash-top shelf, another as part of this pull-out ashtray and one more to the right of the instruments.
Market and Model
List prices suggest that you'll be paying somewhere in the £20,000 to £35,000 bracket for your Sprinter van excluding VAT, depending on the variant you select and the options you choose. Van-for-van, that means a premium of around £3,000 over a slightly smaller Mercedes Vito fitted with the same engine.This is pricing that'll demand from you a premium over the kind of figures you'll be paying for, say, an equivalent Ford Transit, the Vauxhall Movano/Renault Master design or the Peugeot Boxer/Fiat Ducato/Citroen Relay collaboration. It isn't much different though, from the kind of money you'll pay for a comparable Volkswagen Crafter, this model's design stablemate, though direct comparisons between the two are difficult because they use different engines with slightly different outputs. One thing is common to all of these rivals though: none can better this Sprinter when it comes to all-important residual values and whole life costs.
As for the Sprinter model range, well first you've to decide on your bodystyle. As well as this Panel Van, there's also a Traveliner minibus option that can seat up to 17 people, plus the usual Chassis Cab and Dropside options. But if it's the van you want there's a choice of Standard, High or Super-High roof heights you might expect but more unusual in this class is the provision of up to four body lengths - Short, Medium, Long and Extra-long. Then, depending upon the kind of use you have in mind, you'll need to decide upon a Gross Vehicle Weight - 3.0, 3.5, 4.6 or 5.0-tonne. The 3.0-tonne models are badged with a number starting '2', so 210CDI, 213CDI, 216CDI and 219CDI, depending on your choice of engine. The 3.5-tonne models use the same structure but have badgework starting '3', the 4.6-tonners start '4' and the 5.0-tonners start '5'. Hopefully, that's not too complicated to grasp.
All Sprinters come decently equipped with a reach (but not height) adjustable multi-function steering wheel, a CD Stereo, electric windows, power steering, a Speedtronic variable speed limiter, remote central locking and an immobiliser. You can specify Bluetooth of course, along with an aux connection, and the top-of-the-range audio systems available from the options list boast voice control for the radio, CD player, and sat nav. One useful option is a universal interface onto which you can bolt your own MP3 player or sat nav system.
Safety-wise, you get ESP stability control with ASR Acceleration Skid Control on all models, plus ABS with Brake Assist and electronic brakeforce distribution to maximise its effectiveness, a bulb failure indicator and a useful feature that flashes the rear lights to warn following motorists in emergency stops.
Practicalities and Costs
Moving to the business end, the rear doors can be swung through 270-degrees and latched against the sides and the rear door aperture is 1565mm in width, while its height is either 1540 or 1840mm, depending upon your choice of roof height. The rear loading height can be as little as 689mm and a useful rear step (unfortunately optional) is a good halfway point to rest heavier loads before hauling them up to final floor-height. Ultimate loading capacity does of course depend upon your choice between four body lengths, the Short one that has a loadspace length of 2600mm, the Medium version that boosts this to 3265mm and the long or extra long options with their extended overhangs that boost total loadspace length to either 4300mm or an enormous 4700mm. The compact and long options sit on a standard wheelbase of 3,250mm or 3665mm but the lengthiest 'long' or 'extra long' models get an extension between the wheels to 4,325mm. If it's ultimate cargo capacity you want though, you'll need to find somewhere to park either High or Super High roof models which boost the standard 1650mm loading height to either 1940 or an enormous 2140mm. As you would expect, these heightened roofs make a big different to cargo capacity, boosting the load bay volume up from the Short length Standard roof model's 7.5 cubic metres to a truly cavernous 17 cubic metres. Plus near vertical interior walls and levelled-off wheelarches mean that you can make the very most of the space on offer.
Keeping costs down will be a major priority for potential owners, people who'll like the clever Assyst service computer that's standard on all Sprinters and is able to detect when a garage visit is required, taking into account the vehicle's actual usage. A 3-year unlimited mileage warranty is standard, as is a 12-year anti-perforation bodywork warranty. Residual Values are predictably class-leading.
As for day-to-day operating costs, well these have been reduced significantly by the cleaner Euro 5 engine range introduced back in 2009 that keeps emissions down to between 222 and just over 260g/km depending on model. Expect fuel consumption of between 28 and 31mpg on the combined cycle. The extra cost EcoStart system that cuts the engine when you don't need it at the lights or in urban traffic is an extra £500 or so, but operators have found that this system can cut their fuel bills by up to 24% or more - and that they more than get this feature's extra cost back in higher residuals at the end of the ownership period. To really maximise on lower running costs, you'll need to specify your Sprinter with Mercedes' BlueEfficiency package. As well as EcoStart, this includes battery management, low rolling resistance tyres, an ECO power steering pump, a gearchange indicator, a controlled fuel pump and a number of mechanical modifications.
Despite its European success, this Sprinter still isn't one of the first vans that many British business think of when their looking for a really large LCV. Yet on the evidence of this test, perhaps it should be. It's as big and practical as any of its rivals, with a more refined powertrain. Plus, crucially, if you specify your vehicle correctly, you'll be buying into a set of running cost figures that can't be bettered in this segment.
Yes of course there are cheaper rivals. Some of them feel a little more avant garde too and have cleverer cabs. But when it comes to the things that actually matter when running a vehicle of this kind, the Sprinter ticks most of the important boxes with the kind of thoroughness that you'd expect from something bearing the famous Three Pointed Star on its grille. All of which means that whatever your business, this could be your righthand van