2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter first drive: Delivering updates all around
There are only two passengers riding with me aboard the 2018 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter I’m driving, but we could easily fit six more people. With three rows of seating behind me – that’s four rows in total – the Sprinter is a big, roomy vehicle. Yet behind the wheel, things are relaxed and easy. Navigation directions appear in a crisp colour display ahead of me, wind and road noise is low for a van, the power steering is fingertip-light and extremely accurate, and power delivery from the 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 is strong. As driving full-size vans goes, the new Sprinter makes life pretty good.
Visual changes on the outside are minor, which is probably fine given that many Sprinters will end up slathered in company graphics and decals anyway. Inside, though, and under the sheet metal, there are countless changes that improve the Sprinter in every way, whether you elect a passenger van, cargo van, or even the chassis cab option.
The most important upgrade to the 2019 Sprinter is the new MBUX infotainment system – officials emphasise that it’s pronounced M-B-U-X, as in “User Experience,” not “embux.” It debuts in the Sprinter and will also feature in the new A-Class, and will eventually roll out to other new Mercedes models in due time. Notably, it has a touchscreen and does away with the rotary knobs/touchpads that have until now been the chief method of operating older Mercedes infotainment systems. The on-screen graphics are crisp, clear, and simple to understand. The home screen consists of a carousel of icons, which you tap to enter, say, the media or phone menus. Neat graphics include a 3D rotating image of your van; simply tap the appropriate part of the vehicle to adjust settings.
In addition to touching the screen, though – you can pinch, swipe, and all the other motions you’re used to from your smartphone – MBUX has two other interface modes. A little touchpad on the right-hand side of the steering wheel allows for swiping through and “clicking” menu items, just like the existing function in cars like the S- and E-Class. An identical touchpad on the left-hand side of the steering wheel is for manipulating the colour trip computer that sits between a pair of analogue gauges.
The other method for using the infotainment system is by voice control, activated by the hot-word, “Hey Mercedes.” Similar to how you might summon Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant, the idea is that you can simply start talking and have MBUX respond. In practice, it needs a bit more tweaking: the system activated pretty much any time we mentioned “Mercedes” while behind the wheel, and the natural-language commands (e.g. “Hey Mercedes, I’m hungry” to find a restaurant, or “Hey Mercedes, call my boss”) didn’t work in my test vehicles. Hopefully these kinks will get ironed out by the time the Sprinter goes on sale.
The 2018 Sprinter also benefits from a huge number of new active-safety technologies that, while now commonplace on other Mercedes models, are new to the van world, including 360-degree parking camera, blind-spot assist, full LED headlights and adaptive cruise control with automatic braking.
Fleet managers will enjoy using the Mercedes Pro Connect software. It allows a fleet operator to log into a web interface and locate all the vehicles on a map, as well as showing historical data about fuel efficiency, distance driven, and maintenance needs for the vans. The manager can set up geo-fences to get alerts if drivers go off-course, and can instantly send navigation destinations to drivers remotely. And because vans equipped with Pro Connect already have a modem, the Sprinter will offer a Wi-Fi hotspot.
For the driver, neat storage compartments abound. I find lockable bins above my head, cutouts below the infotainment screen that perfectly hold my smartphone, and various cubbies between driver and passenger. In cargo vans with three-abreast bench seating, the cupholders move to the top of the dashboard so there’s more knee-room for passengers. Also up on the top of the dash is optional wireless phone charging in yet another cubby space.
Passengers, too, enjoy more storage: every single seat can now store a drink, thanks to pop-up cupholders beneath each row of seats. And special cradles mounted to the van’s sides can hold a phone, with a cut-outs at the bottom from which to snake a charging cable to the adjacent USB port.
How does it drive?
The passenger version of the Sprinter I drive first in the day has the range-topping 187bhp V6 diesel engine (which is only available with rear-wheel drive, but front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive is also offered with the more popular four-cylinder diesel options) delivers strong acceleration with broad, easy punch through the rev range courtesy of the 325lb ft of torque. Of course, that’s strong acceleration by van standards, so at no point does the van feel too slow to keep pace with traffic.
Despite its length, weight, and height, the Sprinter truly does feel easy to drive, as if the van wraps around you. Its turning radius is nimble, aided by lots of steering angle up front. Forward visibility is incredible, perched as the driver is above the sloping nose, while massive mirrors with convex spotter mirrors almost obviate the need for the blind-spot warning system. Handling is reasonably composed and mostly free of any untoward wallowing or bobbing.
The 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel is offered with 111bhp or 138bhp, and with a nine-speed automatic gearbox where the V6 gets a seven-speed auto as an option. Fuel economy figures are not available yet, but the new Sprinter should be about five percent more efficient than current models.
Some time behind the wheel of a four-cylinder diesel with the six-speed manual and have a great time, but if I were actually delivering packages all around European all day long, I’d elect for the super-smooth shifts and ease-of-use of the automatic.
Front-wheel-drive versions of the Sprinter get a 3.1-inch lower load floor and a 50kg payload rating compared to equivalent rear-wheel-drive vans. Four-wheel drive will also be offered later this year.
Should I buy one?
The biggest takeaway from driving the new Mercedes Sprinter is that it makes van tasks simpler. For passengers, there are more amenities to make journeys more pleasant. For drivers, improved telematics and a better-than-ever driving experience – plus lots of safety tech – should ease the strain of long days behind the wheel. In other words, if you need to move a lot of people or a lot of stuff, the Sprinter will help lighten the metaphorical load.