You know how something becomes virtually invisible after you see it often enough? That’s the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in a nutshell. Take some time to look around, and you’ll notice an army of Sprinters crawling your local roadways, whether they’re delivering packages or carrying roofing materials to a job site. These workhorses are ubiquitous for a reason: They’re really, really good at what they do. And with a new generation now in the wild, the Sprinter makes an even better case for itself.
- Versatile and capable
- Abundant standard safety
- Excellent infotainment
- Mercedes-Benz pricing
- MBUX lacks a couple key upgrades
New look, same capabilities
Mercedes-Benz’s vans don’t stray too far from the rest of the family in terms of style. Most of that is apparent in the front end, which picks up slimmer headlights that more closely resemble the peepers on other Mercs. My tester’s unpainted lower body panels actually look pretty boss against glossy black paint — and besides, it’s a work vehicle, why paint the bumpers if they’re just going to get dinged up? The black steel wheels are pretty badass, too.
If you feel like a good laugh, allow me to point out that this van’s Jet Black paint job actually adds $1,015 to the Sprinter’s bottom line. That’s the Mercedes-Benz we all know and love. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO or the guy driving the van — the automaker will nickel and dime you without respect for socioeconomic strata. Then again, this is no paupermobile: My 144-inch 3500XD Crew 4×4 model starts at $51,885, but after options, it’s pushing $72,000.
Step up into the Sprinter — I’m a tall guy, yet I definitely emitted Dad Groans climbing into and out of this thing — and you’re met with a surprising mix of luxury-car bits and proper work-ready trimmings. The floor looks easy to hose down, and the entire dashboard is made of plastic that even GM might think twice about using in its passenger cars, but that’s because these things need to withstand long days of abuse. Yet, the leatherette seats have the same feel as those on lower-end Mercs, and both the steering wheel and infotainment screen are plucked straight from the passenger car segment, adding a dose of fancy to an otherwise utilitarian getup. This specific steering wheel, by the way, is part of a $1,210 Driver Convenience Package that also adds heated electric mirrors and blind-spot monitoring.
Since this is the Crew model, my tester comes with a second row of seats, but those can be unbolted to make room for more… well, whatever. Not like there isn’t room to spare behind that second row, though: Hauling a half-dozen trees and topiaries back from the garden center leaves gobs of room to spare. Those who will really put this van to work will appreciate the number of tie-down spots on the walls and floor, but the upfitting community will be more than happy to step in and add shelving or whatever else workers may need. Front-row storage is the tops, too, thanks to overhead pockets, cubbies atop the dashboard panel and twice as many cup holders as there are seats.
Drives like a van, rocks tech like a Mercedes
My purpose for my time with the Sprinter is straightforward: Hauling plants that are too tall or unwieldy for a crossover. Bear in mind this is small potatoes on the work-vehicle spectrum, but it accomplishes my task with ease.
The Sprinter is never fully laden during my time with it, because I don’t have 5,000 pounds of materials just chillin’ in my backyard to max out the payload rating, but even when empty, the van isn’t a bad drive. Yes, it’s loud, but that’s because there aren’t any interior panels behind the front row. Yes, it’s bouncy, but that’s because my tester rocks the optional 4×4 setup with more ground clearance and capability. Yes, it’s slow, but that’s because its 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6, which is good for 188 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, is more concerned about hauling literal tons of stuff. The steering is light and the brakes are confident.
Visibility is excellent, as the Crew variant has glass on its sliding doors and mirrors so you can see just about everything. And for what you can’t see, the Sprinter packs a roof-mounted backup camera with impressive resolution, making precision parking (or parking in general, if you’re not used to vans) a breeze. Blind-spot monitoring, part of the aforementioned Convenience Package, is a savior if you’re not used to judging vehicle distance in a van, but having both straight and curved mirrors on each side is a big help, too.
There are some other impressive passenger-car baubles on the Sprinter, too. The Premium Package ($1,240) adds automatic emergency braking, active lane-keep assist, the MBUX infotainment system and wiper blades that incorporate fluid nozzles for more effective cleaning. Adding to that, the $2,530 Premium Plus Package enlarges the MBUX screen while adding embedded navigation and wireless device charging, in addition to improving the instrument cluster and installing parking sensors.
Speaking of tech, it all works flawlessly. MBUX is one of the better luxury-car telematics getups in the industry, and its responsiveness and natural-language voice recognition fit right in here, even if you have to pay a pretty penny for it. The 10.25-inch screen fills the dashboard nicely, and if you don’t opt for wireless charging, there’s a USB-C port for juicing purposes. Weirdly, though,and are both absent from this iteration of MBUX, and the same goes for the Wi-Fi hotspot.
Last year, I was lucky enough to test all of the Sprinter’s new safety tricks in a closed environment at a Mercedes-Benz Vans facility in Europe. A year later, I’m happy to say that these systems work just as well in the real world. Adaptive cruise control is nice and smooth, while the brake-based lane-keeping assist isn’t as harsh to engage as I remember. Crosswind assist isn’t as heavy-handed as it was in my head, either, which actually got a little white-knuckle-y when my tester got blasted with some heavy gusts.
Since the Sprinter 3500XD Crew is a heavy-duty vehicle, the EPA doesn’t require fuel-economy estimates. Going off the van’s internal computer, though, I see highway fuel economy between 13 and 18 miles per gallon, with that figure lowering in the city. Throw a ton of tools in the back, though, and those numbers won’t stay that high for long.
Down to brass tacks
Looking at the competition, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has earned the three-pointed star on its grille. Its payload ratings are among the highest in the segment (3,700 to 6,200 pounds, depending on trim), and it’s the only van to offer four-wheel drive with a low-range transfer case, although the Ford Transit does make a less robust AWD system available. The Sprinter’s only weak spot is towing, where its 5,000-lb maximum lags behind body-on-frame rivals like the Nissan NV, which nearly doubles that figure. And then there are the comfort and tech upgrades, which… well, I think it’s obvious how Fords, Nissans and Chevrolets fare there. Yes, Chevrolet still builds the Express, and yes, it barely looks different than it did at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration.
If you’re shopping these vans, it’s hard to deny the allure of the Sprinter. It’s expensive, but that money is converted into one of the hardest-working mules on terra firma, with the optional capability to serve those well off the beaten path.