Having been around for 18 years there is little doubt the Sprinter has come of age.
Mercedes-Benz is proud of the pioneering reputation of its large van, and the new model pushes the envelope further with a raft of new safety features. When it arrives in showrooms in September, several months ahead of its arch rival, the new Ford Transit, the Sprinter should be the first light commercial vehicle to comply with Euro6 emissions standards.
Its exterior appearance complies with the current Mercedes design lines. The radiator grille is more upright and the three louvres are perforated to increase airflow and establish a visual link with the Citan light van. The three-pointed star badge sits on a highlighted base while the headlamps feature sharper contours and are divided into individual segments by a masking surround. The new bonnet is higher, which Mercedes claims improves pedestrian protection, the bumper has a more pronounced upward curve beneath the headlamps, and the air inlet has been set further back. The rear of the van is largely unchanged but does now feature dual-compartment tail lights.
We got the chance to get behind the wheel of the Sprinter in left-hand drive mode on the international launch in Germany. The model we tested was the 316 CDI Bluetec, which is Euro6- compliant courtesy of its Bluetec engine and selective catalytic reduction technology that injects AdBlue (a solution of urea) into the exhaust gas to slash nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. We chose to drive the jumbo-sized extra-long- wheelbase, high-roof panel van to get a decent appreciation of how the pioneering new safety systems can make life easier and less hazardous for drivers on the road.
Powered by the 163hp version of Merc’s 2.1-litre diesel engine, our test van also came with the brand’s 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission, which the manufacturer claims is the only seven-speed automatic system fitted to any van in the world. It is now combined with an auto stop/start function, which you activate by halting the vehicle with the foot brake when it is in ‘D’ (drive) gear. Although this system took a while to kick in following a cold start, despite it being a reasonably mild spring morning, thereafter it worked well, efficiently cutting out the engine when stopping at traffic signals in town and firing it up again with the release of the foot brake. (On the subject of brakes, it was good to find the Sprinter equipped with a traditional hand brake rather than the foot- operated parking brake often favoured by Mercedes.) The automatic transmission is hugely impressive, operating smoothly in both urban settings, where it takes much of the strain out of driving such a bulky vehicle, and on the motorway, where accelerating to cruising speed is accompanied by none of the faintly nauseating lurching that dogs some auto-shift light commercials. Mercedes reckons that lowering the chassis by 30mm has also helped to improve driving dynamics and steering precision as well as contributing to lower fuel consumption and easier loading.
With a 500kg load on board (our vehicle’s payload capacity was 900kg) the ride was steady and predictable, and the power from the 163hp engine more than adequate. However, if operators regularly need to carry heavy loads over long distances they may want to consider the 190hp 3.0-litre powertrain.
As would be expected, the Sprinter’s cabin materials are of a high standard with tasteful chrome finishes and soft plastics in various shades of grey.
The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach and now has a thicker rim to improve touch when steering. This contributes to a comfortable driving position within a spacious and airy interior. Without a bench seat, there was a lot of room for coats and other bits and pieces on the carpeted floor between the driver and passenger seats, but a work table or storage bin could arguably have more productively filled this space.
The fabric-covered seats are firm and supportive, come with lumbar control and are adjustable for height as well as reach. They are well placed in relation to the foot pedals and the chunky, user-friendly dials and knobs on the dashboard.
Storage includes handy overhead shelves either side of the central light unit, a large lockable glove compartment and several shelves and trays on the dashboard, some of which contain grippy rubber mats to stop small items rattling about in transit.
During a long trek down the autobahn a couple of the Sprinter’s new safety features proved their usefulness.
Blind Spot Assist provides extra peace of mind when changing lanes, or can alert the driver to another vehicle undertaking, by activating a red warning light on either wing mirror when a vehicle has entered the space next to the Sprinter where the driver cannot see it. If the driver fails to heed the warning and indicates to change lane the red light flashes and an audio alert sounds. Urban cyclists may also have good reason to welcome this innovation, which is operational from 30km/h (18mph) and can be deactivated by the driver.
The Lane Keeping Assist function is equally vigilant. If you change lanes without indicating or drift out of you lane, a sharp bleep quickly alerts you to the error of your ways. The system uses a camera behind the windscreen to film the road ahead, identifying the contrasting markings. This does mean that the surface must be clearly marked, not always a given, for it to work effectively. Lane Keeping Assist is active from 60km/h (37mph) and can be turned off, useful when travelling along winding country roads. On the other hand, it could be particularly helpful to keep the driver on course when negotiating narrowed lanes in motorway roadworks for example.
The Sprinter is also available with Highbeam Assist, which automatically switches the headlamps from full beam to dipped according to the traffic situation ahead of the van or oncoming traffic.
We were taken to a test track to experience the new Sprinter’s other two main safety innovations under controlled conditions.
Crosswind Assist is the one new safety feature that comes as standard on all new Sprinter panel vans, as the others are all optional extras. It is based on the ESP anti-skid control system, activated at speeds of 80km/h (50mph) or over and aims to minimise the impact of strong gusts of winds on the van’s road position.
Mercedes claims: “The need for counter-steering in response to sudden gusts is markedly reduced, relieving the strain on the driver.” However, as anyone who has driven a panel van in high winds will know, the reaction to counter the vehicle getting blown off course is instinctive.
Put simply, the driver is almost bound to react and in doing so will override the system.
When testing Crosswind Assist, we found it required considerable concentration to hold the steering wheel steady and thus let the system intervene by determining crosswind forces through sensors measuring yaw rate and lateral acceleration. When the unit is activated it automatically brakes the wheels facing the wind, causing the vehicle to correct itself and avoid straying onto the wrong side of the road. An icon appears on the instrument panel to let the driver know the assist system has stepped in. Mercedes says the aim is to prevent the van from veering more than 50cm sideways, and claims the system measures speed, load weight and load position when judging the appropriate extent of intervention.
Another safety aid, Collision Prevention Assist, which is designed to prevent or reduce the severity of rear-end shunts,
is particularly impressive. Operational from 30km/h (18mph), CPA uses a radar-based monitoring system in conjunction with Adaptive Brake Assist. Sensors in the front bumper gauge the distance to the vehicle ahead in the same lane and the relative speeds of the two vehicles. A warning lamp in the instrument cluster is triggered if you get too close to the vehicle in front. At a further level of escalation when the danger of a collision becomes acute, both visual and audible warnings are given to alert the driver to carry out evasive action. While the driver can switch off this function, which Merc dubs the “dynamic proximity warning”, the emergency braking Adaptive Brake Assist element of the system – like ESP – cannot be deactivated. It kicks in when the driver fails to apply sufficient braking and, in order to give the traffic behind the longest possible response time to avert a rear-end crash, Mercedes claims it “generates the precise amount of additional deceleration required to avoid an accident”. Intervention by Adaptive Brake Assist is overridden if the driver applies harder braking than necessary or if the driver takes their foot off the brake pedal or presses the accelerator. Having lived to tell the tale following a high-speed demonstration, we are pleased to report that the system works.
Norbert Kunz, Mercedes’ head of product management and marketing for large vans, admits “economic viability” was a key factor in CPA being offered as an option rather than a standard feature like Crosswind Assist despite it addressing a more common safety hazard. The manufacturer cites the statistic that one in five accidents are rear-end collisions. Kunz predicts up to 20% of operators will choose to equip their light commercials with CPA but says the figure “will depend on the application (of their vans) and their fleet experience”.
Mercedes is offering the Sprinter’s safety options in two packages: the Driver Assistance pack costs £1090 and comprises Collision Prevention Assist, Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and High Beam Assist, while for £910 the Lane Tracking pack comes with Blind Spot Assist,
Lane Keeping Assist and High Beam Assist.
High Beam Assist with light and rain sensor is available separately for £252. All prices exclude VAT.
Mercedes-Benz will be confident the features on its high-quality new Sprinter will keep it a safe distance ahead of the competition.