Sometimes the first generation of a product doesn’t quite cut the mustard, and usually the second generation is far superior. It’s little wonder, then, that the next generation eSprinter is a very different and improved version to the first. But what’s different? 

Like many electric vans, the first was very much a Frankenstein’s monster creation of bits squeezed into the existing van chassis. But, while the van itself remains unchanged, the components that find their way into this new van are a long way from the original.  

As a quick reminder, the original eSprinter had an 85kW motor paired with a 55kWh battery pack. It borrowed tech from the eVito of the time – which was also a patched together electric van – and it had none of the high-end functions you come to expect from a Mercedes, like its MBUX infotainment system. Perhaps most telling of all (for Mercedes’ overall ambitions for the van) was that there was only ever one body variant – a plum average panel van in high roof and standard wheelbase.  

The new version is leaps and bounds ahead of the old. For starters, there are more than one variant. The latest eSprinter can be had as a panel van or chassis cab in two body lengths, as well as two different trim options – Pro or Select. There are even plans for off-the-line conversions, including dropside and refrigerated models. The range has grown significantly. 

Battery sizes have increased from the 55kWh of old to three differing options with 56kWh, 81kWh and 113kWh batteries – but UK customers will officially only get the choice of the top two and will have to make special requests for the smaller battery. They’re also now made of lithium iron phosphate and contain no nickel or cobalt, which is better for the environment and the countries that endure the fight for these precious earth minerals.  

The flagship 113kWh battery, which we tested at launch, is only available at the top GVW and in an L3 body size. Even at that weight, it’s still only capable of just over a 1.0-tonne payload thanks to its hefty kerbweight of 3,248kg. On the plus side, however, the large battery pack does return a substantial number of miles. Mercedes’ own testing managed to squeeze out 475km (295 miles) and the official WLTP figure at the time of launch says it’s good for 271 miles. Invariably in the real world with a payload it will be less, but it’s a far cry from the 95-mile range of the previous model.  

More body sizes mean differing maximum load volumes too. The eSprinter was originally only available in one size with a 11.0m3 capacity, but the new model will have a?loadspace?of up to?14.0m3 for the largest panel van. Like most electric vans now coming to market, the eSprinter will be able to tow, and gets a 2.0-tonne towing capacity.  

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On the inside, the eSprinter has had a significant upgrade and now gets the full MBUX system with digital dash and infotainment system. The central screen is 10.25in in size and standard on all models with a touchscreen with DAB radio, Bluetooth and wireless smartphone connectivity. The van will also be able to create its own wi-fi hotspot and receive over the air updates. 

Standard equipment on the entry-level Pro model includes heated electric mirrors, multifunction steering wheel, heated front driver seat, air conditioning and a reversing camera. Upgrading to the Select model gives the van front and rear mud flaps, there’s a leather steering wheel and a more comfortable driver’s seat. There’s also LED headlights and automatic high beam headlight assistance.  

While the outgoing and incoming eSprinters share the same appearance, there are significant changes to the technology going into the van. The rear plays home to a?brand-new axle containing the electric motor, while new high voltage components and control systems are in the front portion of the van. The battery packs are all housed under the floor in the centre of the van in a toughened protective case to prevent damage. It’s a complete overhaul of the entire driveline that makes this eSprinter something of a halfway house – closer to a purpose-built EV than an ICE chassis with EV components shoehorned into it.  

The proof, though, is in the driving and the performance of the new larger battery and more powerful motors. With 150kW, the equivalent of 201hp, on tap, the eSprinter is brisk off the line. Testing it with just a 200kg payload wasn’t going to overly stretch its capabilities, but 400Nm of torque, rear-wheel-drive and the typically sweet and responsive feedback you get from the Sprinter chassis makes it an entertaining van to drive.  

Always a strong point of Mercedes vans, the ride comfort is particularly good, while its road holding is greatly improved over the ICE van because of a lowered centre of gravity from the hefty 113kWh batteries in its belly. The eSprinter is surprisingly nimble for a large van, and while we couldn’t test it on a typical British winding road – a good portion of our route was urban or freeways in California – it responds well to a quick change in direction with accuracy and agility.

It also seemed possible that the eSprinter could live up to the manufacturer’s claims and get close to the range figures. With three battery modes to choose from – Comfort, Eco and Maximum Range – you get differing profiles of power with the most miserly Maximum Range trimming 20% off the top end to ensure you can’t scream between the lights. It’s a tried and tested system of driving modes deployed in the previous eSprinter which used Comfort, Eco and Eco+ instead. The regenerative braking system procedures will also be familiar to those who’ve previously experienced the eSprinter with the same paddle shifter giving access to D-, D, D+ and D++ modes. However, there’s a newly introduced tier called D Auto. It uses the radar-sensor to select the best of all the modes based on the traffic or the terrain. So, if you’re approaching stationary traffic and you lift off the accelerator, it will automatically put it into the most severe mode to try and regenerate the battery as much as possible and scrub off speed. Conversely if you’re going up an incline and you lift off, it will select D++ where there is no recuperation, allowing you to coast without losing unnecessary momentum. It’s a really great addition that takes the hassle out of regen modes and also smooths out the driving. It’s not perfect, and there were a few instances of it not reacting to stationary traffic, or selecting an overly zealous level of regen when it probably wasn’t needed, but it’s a mostly effective system that takes the hassle out of trying to optimise regeneration. 

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the eSprinter. Firstly, it’s an improvement over the existing model with power, range and practicality all getting a much-needed boost. Is it a gigantic step forward? No, probably not. Is it now a more attractive option? Definitely. With the largest battery, it feels like a product for the right type of customer, namely high daily mileage fleets, but with the lesser size battery it could be a sensible option for a wide range of customers. We’ll know more when it arrives later in the year.  

Bigger and better?

It seems like big battery numbers are the latest thing to be bragging about in the playground, but I’m sceptical about the direction it is going in. While real world range in excess of 200 miles is undoubtedly what the retail van market wants (perhaps even more, if you look at the direction passenger car batteries have taken), I’m not so sure that the fleet market feels the same way. 

Bigger batteries mean greater costs – not to mention less useable weight. While the 4.25-tonne derogation for electric vehicles does go some way to offset the payload, it opens up a new can of worms for anyone looking to operate them. Vehicles over 3.5-tonnes used in the operation of hire and reward fall into O-licencing territory – that’s the record keeping, driving hours and periodic testing that HGVs must go through. For fleets operating HGVs, adding a few oversized vans won’t be an issue, but for any van-only fleets, that’s a whole new headache to deal with. Then there’s the thousands of self-employed drivers (couriers mostly, that this vehicle is squarely aimed at) that operate in liveried vehicles delivering to your door. It’s a considerable grey area that I can see fleet managers wanting to either distance themselves from or not bring into scope. Big batteries are great, but the legislation needs to catch up. 

George Barrow is the UK jury member for the International Van of the Year Award.