Not everybody wants or needs a high-rise 4x4 light commercial that can forge ahead up steep, heavily rutted, boulder-strewn tracks, or descend precipitous inclines awash with floodwater. All many operators require is a low-rise all-wheel drive van that will keep going if the local B-roads get a bit slippery in winter and will not get stuck if the driver has to take it into a muddy field.
The 4x4 version of Mercedes-Benz’s ubiquitous Sprinter more than fulfils this role and that is why What Van? has made it 4x4 Van of the Year for 2013.
A key reason for the award is Mercedes-Benz’s decision to fit the 4x4 Sprinter with a 4ETS Electronic Traction System rather than mechanical differential locks. One of the problems with such locks is that drivers have to figure out when to engage and disengage them, and that is likely to slow their progress. If they are not used to 4x4 driving then they may not be entirely sure when to take action, and may get stuck as a consequence. But the system Mercedes has fitted makes the decision for them because it is fully automatic. It kicks in when one or more of the vehicle’s wheels start to spin, braking each one individually while increasing drive torque at those that still offer sufficient grip. It also has the further advantage of being significantly lighter than mechanical diffs.
Four-wheel drive is selectable with a 35:65 split between the front and the rear axle, and gear reduction is available as standard. At up to 95mm the ground clearance is slightly higher than what is on offer from the mainstream rear-wheel drive model.
The Sprinter can be ordered in 4x4 guise at gross weights of either 3.5t or 5.0t, and as a chassis cab/chassis crew cab as well as with a van body.
For your money you get a choice of diesel engines: a 2.1-litre generating either 129hp or 163hp or a 3.0-litre V6 pumping out a mighty 190hp. A particulate trap is fitted in each case.
The 4x4 Sprinter shares many of the characteristics of its 4x2 stablemates including unimpeachable build quality, a well thought-out cab, quiet, smooth-running engines and, with the more-powerful versions, bags of torque on tap.
Our Highly Commended choice is Volkswagen’s Caddy Maxi 4Motion. It, too, is designed to keep you going in ice and snow rather than for arduous off-road mud-plugging, a fact reflected by its modest ground clearance.
Drive to all four wheels is engaged automatically whenever slippage is detected, switching power to whichever wheels are gripping. When 4x4 is not required then 4Motion reverts to front-wheel drive.
Look under the bonnet and you will find a 110hp version of the 2.0-litre TDI four-cylinder diesel used in other Caddy models and across the Volkswagen light commercial range. Equipped with a variable geometry turbocharger and common-rail fuel injection, it is married to a six-speed gearbox.
No matter whether you choose a 4x4 Sprinter or a Maxi 4Motion, make sure suitable tyres are fitted before travelling anywhere really slippery; fail to do so and the extra expenditure incurred by opting
for four-wheel drive may end up being pointless.