Through a twist of fate, I’ve driven a Mercedes Benz Sprinter van more than 6000 miles in the last two months.
Along the way, I discovered some things that surprised me, or that I probably wouldn’t have thought of before driving one. This post is not meant to sway an opinion one way or another, it’s just a collection of my observations, some of them unexpected.
First, I should state that I drove the cargo version of the Sprinter, not an RV. For that reason, I’m not going to make any observations about noise (it was no more or less noisy than other cargo vans), since an RV would have added sound insulation. However, anyone reading THIS blog is probably more likely to build their own RV and so, the cargo version would be the place they would start.
I drove the 2500 version of the Sprinter, with a 2.1-liter four-cylinder diesel. As Ted Nugent would say, ” that thing’s turbocharged! ” so if you are looking at some other powertrain, your experience may vary. This Sprinter had the high roof option, making the height of the vehicle about 110 inches (9.3 feet). Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about the experience.
It’s no surprise that the diesel Sprinter van has good fuel economy. I’m a pretty tame driver (in a van carrying a ton of equipment) and got 25-26 mpg. It didn’t seem to matter if I was in the city or on the highway, on the plains or in the mountains. With the cruise set at 72, I’d say 25 mpg is damn good for a gigantic box weighing 6000 lbs.
166-horsepower is not a lot for a 6000 lb van. However, as the old adage goes, “horsepower sells cars, but torque wins races.” The 2.1L turbodiesel makes 266 lb-ft of it. If you aren’t sure what that means, suffice it to say that the initial acceleration is similar to a small V8. For what it is, this is ample power so I don’t have any complaints here. I was actually able to break the tires loose on acceleration and you can easily match traffic in city driving…except for one thing (see Turbo Lag, below).
In the Sprinter, you can look over at the driver of an 18-wheeler and almost feel like you are on the same level. Forward visibility is awesome and the side mirrors are huge. Rearward visibility, however, is non-existent.
I won’t go as far as saying the Mercedes Sprinter handles like a minivan or even a pickup truck, but for what it is, it’s not bad. I think that this is where the “German Engineering” really shows. The big Sprinter handled better than any full-sized passenger van I’ve ever driven and never felt “floaty” or disconnected. Handling was secure up to 80 MPH, which is as fast as I want to drive something like this.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed, but the Mercedes Benz Sprinter van is a giant box. The one I was driving also had a high roof. I could stand up easily or lay down in any direction and have plenty of room. I haven’t measured it yet, but I think my Honda Odyssey might fit inside. It is freaking huge! So, if space is a priority, I can’t think of a better vehicle for a van build.
A turbocharger is a device that uses the exhaust gases to spin a compressor. The compressor crams more air into the engine than it could otherwise ingest, allowing you to burn more fuel. Under load (i.e. during acceleration) it allows the engine to make more power. When you don’t need the extra power the turbo does little, allowing for better fuel economy.
Turbo LAG is the time it takes for that exhaust to start spinning the turbocharger and get air to the engine, You experience it in the Sprinter van when you step on the “gas” pedal and nothing happens….one Mississippi…two Mississippi…three.–Boom we’re going! The experience is a lot like what turbocharged cars felt like…in 1985. It’s annoying and makes you reluctant to pull out into traffic from a complete stop. However, after you drive this van for a while, you start to anticipate it and just hit the pedal a little sooner. If you REALLY have to get out there quick, just hold the brake pedal and rev the engine a little bit to get the turbo spinning. Turbo lag is less pronounced when you are already underway and accelerate to pass. However, if you get on the accelerator after coasting, the lag is similar to a standing start. All in all, it’s not a deal breaker and an acceptable trade-off for good power with fuel economy.
Getting in and out
For me, getting in and out required a little more work than I was expecting. I’m 6′ 5″ and the seat is almost shoulder height when I’m standing on the ground. The best way I found to get in was to step up on the doorstep with one foot, while grabbing the wheel simultaneously with the opposite hand, to pull my self up. It’s similar to what the driver of an 18-wheeler does to climb in. However, that doesn’t really work getting out, so I’d pivot to the side and step down onto the doorstep, while holding the top of the door. This isn’t “hard” to do, but you’d better pay attention because it’s easy to slip on the first step, especially if you have big feet. To to be fair, I’m almost 52 years old and a bit portly. This probably won’t be an issue if you a 25-year-old model starting your YouTube channel, but it’s fair warning for the less-then-fit, or those short of stature.
This van had the 170″ wheelbase, which can make parking a challenge. Ever wonder why those big diesel pickup trucks back into a parking space? One reason is that you can’t always make the swing into the space unless you are turning in from a wide aisle. Ditto for this Mercedes van. After a 50% success rate pulling in nose-first, I abandoned the technique in favor of backing in. Which brings me to another con…
The Sprinter van has one…and it points straight down. The camera is located high above the rear doors which SHOULD make for a great field of view, but it points down and you can only see about 3 feet behind you. This makes sense for a delivery van that might be backing up to a dock, but it’s useless in the Walmart parking lot. I’d guess that this has been corrected in the newer models, but at least try backing one of these up before you buy. It’s also possible that this is a case of driver ignorance, but even after flipping through the owner’s manual I could not figure out how to change the perspective on the backup camera (like you can on newer vehicles).
Diesel Engine Fluid (a.k.a DEF) is a urea solution (you do know what urea is, right?) that is injected into the exhaust stream to reduce emissions. I won’t go into a lengthy discussion about how it works, just suffice it to say that you have an extra tank under the hood that you have to fill every few thousand miles. If you don’t refill the tank once it’s empty the van will eventually shut itself down so you don’t drive around poisoning small animals and warming the planet. Since there is no indicator to tell you how full the urea tank is (unlike my own urea tank), just an “empty” light, you will generally want to carry an extra jug in the van. It tends to come in 2.5-gallon containers, so set aside some storage space. Also, get familiar with climbing up the front of the vehicle and opening the hood to fill the tank. I can reach it from the ground, but there is a step on the bumper for shorter folks. This step is even more slippery than the doorstep. Everything will be covered with bugs in the warm weather, because you are driving a brick at 70 MPH.
Availability of Diesel
You can pretty much buy diesel at any gas station in the US and Canada, right? I mean, all those trucks have to fill up, so they must sell it everywhere. No, not really. The next time you drive down the highway, take a look at the “gas this exit” signs. At the bottom of some, you will see “diesel available” or similar. On other signs…not so much. This means that even with the very good (for a van) fuel economy, you still have to pay attention to make sure you can find diesel when you need it.
Of course, truck stops will always have diesel fuel but in some parts of the country, they are far apart. Remember, the big rigs can carry 250 gallons of diesel and your Sprinter only holds 21. Even with their poorer fuel economy, the truck drivers don’t need to worry about fuel until they stop for the night.
True Story (as my kids say): On I-75, through Kentucky, I noticed I was down to a couple bars on the fuel gauge (there was no distance-to-empty gage on this model). I made plans to refuel at the first exit I came to. First exit; two stations, no diesel. Second exit; one station, no diesel. Third exit; closed for construction. Fourth exit; a promise of a truck stop…it was there, but I drove by it twice because I thought it was actually an abandoned mine. Ken-Tucky looks different than what I’m used to. When I filled up, it took 20.7 gallons on a 21 gallon tank. Oh, and about those big rig fuel tanks. Try to avoid filling up at truck stops because it can take 30 min for them to top off and you don’t want to be waiting behind one. I’m pretty sure the driver in front of me went in and showered while he was filling up.
The Price of Diesel
If you do the math, the added cost of diesel is offset by the improved fuel economy and the lifespan of the diesel. So, it’s not really the higher cost of diesel that’s the problem. It’s more that diesel prices vary wildly. Here’s an example. In the Michigan town I left from, diesel is $3.40 down the street, a mile from I-75. At the station right off the highway, it’s $3.90, a $.50 difference. For comparison, there was only a 25 cent per gallon difference in 87 octane unleaded. Five miles up the highway, diesel was selling for $4.09. So, plan accordingly.
I have this complaint about every vehicle, but it’s especially relevant here. Most vehicle manufacturers plan the fuel tank size to allow the vehicle a range between 350-450 miles. So, if the vehicle gets 20 mpg, the tank is 20 gallons. So far, so good. Now let’s say we build a Hybrid or Diesel version of the same vehicle that gets 40 MPG. That gives us an 800 mile range, right? Nope. They make the tank 10 gallons because hey, you don’t NEED as much gas, it’s a Hybrid! Nobody ever thinks how awesome it would be to leave the tank the same size or even better, make it bigger. I mean, they have the SPACE. On the Sprinter the tank is 21 gallons, which I’m sure the engineer reasoned was adequate for standard vehicle range. But there is a LOT of room under this van. It would have been cool to have 42 gallons and a 1000 mile range, especially in what is supposed to be a commercial delivery vehicle. I guess most people won’t care, but they missed the opportunity to add a feature that would make this van stand out.
When I returned from the last trip I needed to change the oil in the Sprinter. I couldn’t get in at the Mercedes dealership (company vehicle, so “done right” is more important than “cheap”) so I went to Belle Tire, a chain of shops that generally has the special filter that this van uses. The bill was $171…for an oil change. They didn’t even vacuum the cab or wash it, they just changed the oil and filter.
For comparison, my 2013 Honda Odyssey specifies 0W-20 synthetic oil and it costs about $40 to have the dealer change it or $25 to do it myself. The maintenance minder generally gets to 5% oil life around 9,000 miles if I let it go, but I actually change it about every 6,000 miles. So, $40 vs $172. Let’s dig a little deeper because there are extenuating circumstances here.
If you look at the receipt, the Sprinter carries more than twice the oil of the Odyssey (12 quarts, vs 5) which gives it a longer interval between oil changes. It also requires a special formulation to deal with the byproducts of diesel combustion. The recommended oil change interval for the Sprinter is 10,000 miles under heavy use but the maintenance reminder usually goes off around 18,000 miles of mixed highway and city driving. By the way, in both vehicles, the maintenance minder estimates remaining oil life based upon driving style and conditions. I’ve talked to a few owners that want their Sprinter to last and they do it every 10,000 (similar to how I change my own oil before the maintenance minder tells me to). But to make this a fair comparison, let’s go with what the maintenance minder says, with the same guy driving both vehicles in a similar percentage of highway/city driving:
My Honda Odyssey: 9,000 miles
The Diesel Sprinter: 18,000 miles
So if I pay the dealer $40 to change my oil, it will cost me $80 every 18,000 miles. The Sprinter costs $172. Over 150,000 miles you will pay $766 more for oil changes in the Sprinter van ($1433 vs $667). More if you also bring the van to the dealer. What’s more, although you can mitigate the cost by doing the maintenance yourself, the filter for the Sprinter costs more than the whole oil change on the Odyssey. If you’ve ever changed the oil on a diesel, you know that it is a filthy job, so there’s that to consider as well. Oh, and you’ll have 12 quarts of oil to get rid of.
Of course, comparing a passenger vehicle with a truck is like comparing apples to dachshunds, but I did it to demonstrate the added maintenance costs of something like the Sprinter. The situation gets worse if you need unscheduled maintenance at the dealer because you are going to pay the Mercedes luxury tax on parts and labor. The extra capabilities of something like a Sprinter van do not come without cost.
Have you ever watch a sci-fi movie where the hero pilot is guiding his damaged spaceship through the atmosphere. Everything is shaking, he can barely hold on to the controls and it’s looking doubtful that they are going to make it. That’s what it’s like if you get within 100 feet of the tractor-trailer truck in front of you. Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but it is at the least…disconcerting. Any driver can feel that there is turbulence behind a truck, especially if you cross their slipstream. However, I’ve never felt it as strongly as I did in the Sprinter. It really does rock you around. I’m not saying you are going to start shedding heat-shield material, but it’s rough.
Being a giant flat sail also means you feel every crosswind, but I won’t count that against the sprinter because it’s true of every RV. Even the Odyssey is susceptible to this. Speaking of Odysseys, I got to visit the Honda factory in Lincoln Alabama on this trip, where my own Odysseys were born.
So it looks like my Cons list is bigger than my Pros list, but that doesn’t mean they should be weighed equally. Everyone’s situation is different and things like my rant about the tank size won’t matter to most people. There are also some things that aren’t good or bad in my opinion, they are just different when compared to say…My Odyssey!
In 1975, a vehicle with power windows, locks, and air conditioning would have been considered fairly luxurious. So in 1975 terms, the Sprinter compares favorably. That’s probably no surprise, since Mercedes Benz has a reputation for luxury, at least in North America. But Mercedes Benz also makes spartan, utilitarian trucks and that’s what we are talking about here. The cab is full of cheap plastics, the seats seem to be made from the same material as my cat’s bed, and the ergonomics suck (you shouldn’t need to lean out of your seat to adjust the radio). Although, the seats WERE heated and they didn’t have those in 1975.
The ride in the Sprinter Van is actually fairly plush for a truck. The high sidewall tires help absorb sharp impacts and the long wheelbase erases road undulations. If I have one big area of praise for the Sprinter, it’s the ride.
Bigger vehicles are generally safer when involved in collisions with smaller vehicles. That’s because the smaller vehicle will decelerate more rapidly and forcefully. So, score one for this 6000 lbs truck. It also has driver and passenger airbags (but nothing for rollovers). However, in the Sprinter Van there is not a lot of crush space in front of you. If you use this vehicle as an RV, you will also have 1000s of pounds of cabinets and such that will likely break loose in a serious accident. Without testing, it’s hard to say how this vehicle would fare in a serious accident, but probably better than the average Class B or C RV. It’s also more likely you will be able to avoid the accident in the better handling, narrower Sprinter. That said, I needed to stop quickly on the highway and had to drive around the car in front to avoid an accident. My Odyssey could have done that, but it also could have stopped in time. I guess I’d say that when planning a good rollover, I’d rather be in the Odyssey with its side curtain airbags. But when hitting a deer, I’d rather be high up in the Sprinter. Everything is a trade-off.
My observations are just that and I am not saying a Sprinter van is good or bad. I just want to pass along my experiences, because they may help you out if you are looking to turn one into an RV (as many have). 6000 + miles of experience is more than you are likely to find at the dealership or even with many owners. I didn’t HATE my time in the Sprinter, but I didn’t love it either. It does certain things REALLY well, but I don’t imagine I’d ever trade my Odyssey for one. I’m not sure what I’d do with all that room 😉
Oh, and in case you were wondering…there was a hammock strung up in the back.