Van love: My obsession with the Mercedes Sprinter
Van ownership has been lost on an entire generation of car owners. Here's why the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van is the coolest thing on four wheels.
I knew I’d love the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van before I flew to Germany to test it. I’d driven the Dodge Sprinter (a rebadged Mercedes-Benz) and fallen in love with that, and this one has a smaller, more fuel-efficient diesel engine and a 7-speed transmission mated to the same ‘ol great chassis, so how could it be bad?
In case you’re raising an eyebrow and wondering if I’m heavily medicated, let me just say that I am not a van enthusiast, if there is such a thing. I like old Porsches and BMWs, I watch rally racing and I had the same Lamborghini Countach poster many of you did.
Over the years, I’ve driven just about every desirable car made, so please know that I don’t say this lightly: I’m obsessed with Sprinters. And I’m hardly the only one. Car geeks – real car geeks – seem to be universally behind me on this one, and I want to try and explain why that is.
For one thing, the 2014 Sprinter is ridiculously easy to drive. The long-wheelbase version is 170 inches long, and yet you feel like you’re behind the wheel of a minivan 90 percent of the time. Sitting low in the chassis, the Sprinter’s interior is actually refined enough to sport the Mercedes-Benz logo on the steering wheel – the fit and finish is somewhere between a Mercedes-Benz sedan and one of its giant trucks.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, there’s Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port and an auxiliary input. There’s also a 5.8-inch display and optional navigation system. Nothing is lacking in the driving experience: the new 2.1-liter four-cylinder diesel engine is fantastic, putting out 161 horsepower with the full 265 pound-feet of torque available at 1,400 rpm. The 7-speed automatic transmission is well-matched to the diesel, and the Sprinter’s steering and brakes are great.
Then there’s the fascination with the idea of having a lot of space, but in a very compact package. It’s a kind of efficient overkill, and that’s attractive. I like it, especially in an era when automakers seem concerned only with how many seats can be crammed into an SUV. For an entire generation of drivers, many weaned in minivans and now off to buy SUVs and crossovers, the joys of van ownership haven’t been lost so much as they were never had in the first place. There’s a certain freedom in being able to pick up a couple friends, pack up whatever you need (and a bunch of stuff you don’t) and head out toward nowhere with room to spare. In this way, the van is like that other lost bastion of passenger and cargo capability, the station wagon.
The other undeniable attraction to the Sprinter is the true breadth of its customization potential. Cruising the Web for more info on the Sprinter, I came across the company Lexani Motorcars, based in California. Among their custom offerings are ultra high-end versions of the Sprinter passenger van. We’re talking bed, bar, TVs with game consoles and iPad integration, the works. This is the kind of custom van that goes far beyond ratty carpeting and questionable sword-and-sorcery scenes airbrushed on the sides. This is what the "undercover" Russian ambulance fraudsters should have been using to whisk through Moscow traffic.
The dream would be to have one of these super-lux Sprinters painted up like a fleet vehicle for one of the bigger delivery services. With fully-reclining seats, it would literally be the ultimate "sleeper" vehicle. Who would know of your secret lair inside? But I won’t mention the probably rampant illegality in disguising a private vehicle as part of a corporate fleet.
In any case, if you have any excuse to go test drive a 2014 Sprinter, do so. You’ll be blown away by its ease of use, and you’ll probably want one for yourself. Who knows — maybe we’re on the verge of a comeback of the humble van? The Sprinter’s good enough for it, that’s for sure. And the Ford Transit van is right around the corner.
When it comes down to it, there is no better tow vehicle in the world for an amateur racing car (AutoX, HPDE, time trials, etc) than a full size van. A minivan or pickup truck will do in a pinch but the minivan just doesn't quite have the towing capacity for it and the pickup truck doesn't have an enclosed cargo area. Plus the load floor of a pickup tends to be a little high. The weight of an amateur race car varies from around 500lbs for something like a go-kart to about 1,000 for something like a Formula V car to 2,500 for a Miata to 3,500 lbs for a Mustang. Budget about 1,000 to 1,500 lbs for a trailer. The Grand Caravan can tow up to 3,600 lbs so it MIGHT be able to tow a Miata or less, but I wouldn't want to do it too often. I would want to see at least a 5,000lbs tow capacity to be happy if not more. Even an E-150 has a tow rate of 7,500 lbs.
In my mind the perfect tow vehicle for an amateur racing program would be a van equally at home with "Free Candy" painted on the side as it would towing a Porsche 914 to AutoX. A good old fashioned cargo has the towing capacity as well as a low load floor and tall roof height to stand inside.
"The dream would be to have one of these super-lux Sprinters painted up like a fleet vehicle for one of the bigger delivery services. With fully-reclining seats, it would literally be the ultimate "sleeper" vehicle. Who would know of your secret lair inside? But I won’t mention the probably rampant illegality in disguising a private vehicle as part of a corporate fleet."
A better alternative is to have a big mural of a wizard driving a 911 classic painted on the side.
What I'm seeing is lots of those little Ford Transit vans doing what used to be done by a compact pickup with a shell over the bed. Even saw one set up for handicapped medical transportation duty.
I think these run about half what the Mercedes/Dodge vans cost, although they are about half the size.
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