Mercedes rethinks the Sprinter

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(February 25, 2018) Mercedes’ latest Sprinter is a clean-sheet design with increased load capacity, new connectivity solutions and driver assistance systems, and more. However, it’s most impressive change is the addition of a front-drive version to complement the current rear- and all-wheel drive models.

Ford was the first to build a rear- and front-drive van on the same platform with its 1994 Transit. Like the new Sprinter, it had to accommodate both transverse front-drive powertrains with end-on gearboxes, and conventional longitudinal rear-drive setups that placed the engine, gearbox and driveshaft in a straight line from the front of the van to the back.

This necessitated an engine compartment and front structure that could handle both layouts, making it possible to have a common structure through the B-pillar. Behind that, the main rails were shared, however, because the floor of the front-drive version eliminated the driveshaft tunnel, Ford could drop the floor to lower load height. This also made it possible to use a simple beam axle. Mercedes appears to have followed the same strategy with its latest Sprinter.

The main disadvantages of front-drive in this application is that it has a larger turning circle, and less traction at the drive wheels — and, therefore, less directional stability — at maximum load.

On the plus side, it has a lower load height (3.15 in. lower in the case of the new Sprinter), a slightly greater (by 1.64 ft3) cargo capacity, and better traction and handling when lightly loaded. It is, however, the better choice for those applications where initial cost, partial-load handling and traction, low NVH, and load height and cargo volume are paramount.

Front-drive Sprinter packages transverse powertrains in common engine compartment, lowers load floor.

The front-drive Sprinter is powered by a four-cylinder, common-rail turbocharged diesel engine displacing 2.1 liters. It is similar to the rear-drive diesel of the same displacement (a 190 hp 3.0-liter inline six is an option on rear- and all-wheel drive models), but has 14 more horsepower (177 hp) in the most powerful version. (The lower power versions of the inline four are rated at 114 and 143 hp for both drive configurations.) Unlike the rear- and all-wheel drive versions, which continue to use Mercedes’ proven 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission, the front-drive Sprinter is offered with either a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic gearbox. The nine-speed automatic is the only transmission offered on North American models ordered with the available gasoline-powered engine, however.

There are a number of safety systems offered on the Sprinter that are new to the van segment. These include a radar-based cruise control unit that, if necessary, can bring the vehicle to a stop should the driver not respond adequately to slowing traffic; Lane Keeping Assist that initiates one-sided braking to bring the van back into its lane; an attention monitor; optional LED headlamps; a wet wiper system that passes washer fluid through the wiper arms and sprays it directly in front of the wiper blade to improve wiper efficiency, reduce fluid consumption, and lessen overspray; a standard Parking package that combines ultrasonic sensors with a reversing camera, and shows the camera’s image — highlighted by dynamic guide lines — on the multimedia display; and an optional Parking package upgrade that adds a 360-degree view provided by four cameras located around the vehicle to give an overhead view of the van and its surroundings.

The addition of tough, heavy-duty cladding to the rear wheel arches makes it possible to load cargo on top of the arches, increasing load capacity.

Twin rear tires can be replaced by “super single” tires to increase loading width from 38.5 to 48.4 in., and the rear doors can be opened to the side of the van without having to manually release a catch when the doors reach 90 degrees. In addition, there are flooring options available, ranging from the standard steel floor to heavy-duty wood (perfect for when load must be distributed over a few load-bearing points), or — when a more even load distribution is available — a lightweight plastic floor. Also the underbody and side walls are galvanized to improve corrosion protection.

More than 1,700 variants can be ordered, from long- and short-wheelbase campers, passenger and cargo vans, to pickups. Not all will be offered in the U.S. and Canada when it goes on sale later this year.

The Virtual Driver