There are only so many vehicles that seem like they might be fun to get on two wheels. Anything from the Bond series, if someone else is paying. A LeMons racer, if I’m paying. Near the top of the list of vehicles I don’t want to see doing their “Imma Motorcycle!” impression would be a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. Despite this notion, it was precisely this vehicle I was staring at in the middle of an Anaheim parking lot while I tried to figure out the best place to get photos, and not to die by way of a Michael Bay-loving action van.
I needn’t worry though, because this was a safety demonstration… apparently.
Mercedes-Benz is currently undergoing their third year of a traveling demonstration event that highlights some of the aspects that make the Sprinter a standout vehicle in its class. This includes great fuel economy from the 3.0-liter turodiesel engine and top-notch safety features as standard kit. Waiting for me in the Angel Stadium parking lot were a gathering of 2013 Sprinter vans, each with a different focus module to attend.
First up was fuel economy… now, I’m not going to go into great detail here because I understand this topic is very boring. Still, on my first lap of the pre-designed circuit, which included both city and highway driving, I eked out a not-so-stellar 11 miles per gallon. The second time around, I was required to adhere to a bit of coaching from an instructor. This meant a lighter throttle foot, easier braking application, and a constant eyes-up mentality to scan for traffic situations far down the road (e.g. a red light that would be green soon, so I could coast up to it and then on through).
The result this time? I bumped all the way up to 18 miles per gallon. Keep in mind, the Sprinter I drove had just 100 miles on it, which means the engine and chassis weren’t even close to being broken in. In fact, the Sprinter is rated at nearly 25 miles per gallon on the highway. Pretty impressive from the 188-horsepower, 325 pound-feet of torque-producing six-cylinder mill.
The next module was involved a slalom run and then an emergency braking stop zone. Mercedes supplied two Sprinter vans for this demonstration. One was your average 12-passenger 2500 standard roof Sprinter, while the other was a commercial box van. Additionally, there was a Ford Econoline to compare against the Benz vehicles.
Heading through the slalom, it’s easy to see why folks prefer the Sprinter over other vehicles in the segment. The steering is light and easy yet still as communicative as possible. On top of that, the emergency braking zone revealed just how quickly (and safely) you can bring a Sprinter’s speed to zero. Slam the brakes to the floor, initiate ABS, and there’s no jawing from the wheel just a quick stop. Hopping into the Econoline, I … well, it wasn’t so great. The steering feel felt rubbery and required far more wheel input to get the vehicle to move. During the stopping portion, I traveled further into the braking zone and the front wheels wandered back and forth a bit.
Finally, it was on to the last module, and this was the one I was most excited to experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do so from behind the main seat. The Sprinter for this demonstration was modified with outriggers for reasons that became apparent once the cargo doors were opened. Three very heavy water jugs were held in place near the roof to simulate a very poorly loaded Sprinter. The driver then took off down the road towards a set of cones where, upon reaching the cones he would perform an emergency lane change. This would be done at 20, 30, and then 40 miles per hour. The first two runs were done with ESP turned off. This system comes standard on every Mercedes-Benz product built, and turning it off on the Sprinter requires hacking into the OBD II port. The last run would be with the system back on.
So what happened? Well, that lead photo shows what happens at 30 miles per hour. The vehicle would be right on its side if not for the outriggers. Once ESP was back on and the 40 mile per hour run occurred, it was clear to see just how much work the computer is doing. The wheels never left the ground, and the Sprinter kept on trucking while presumably giving the middle finger to whatever obstacle the cones represented.
It was an impressive display to see in person.
I have some experience with the Sprinter van of my own though, thanks to turning one into home base during our first LeMons race. Driving it from Los Angeles out to Buttonwillow was an easy affair, and I quickly picked my way through downtown traffic before opening the rig up on the highway north of the city. It cruises effortlessly down the road, doesn’t drink as much fuel as you’d expect, and turns out to be a great place to sleep once the track goes dark.
It’s clear that Mercedes-Benz takes safety seriously, and that runs from the upcoming CLA all the way through the rather large Sprinter 3500 high roof dually. It will be interesting to see where the Sprinter goes as new (Nissan NV, Ford Transit) or due-to-be-revised (Chevrolet Express) competitors do their best to compete for market share. Still, despite being more expensive than the others, it’s clear that if you’re looking to haul people and/or things comfortably and safely, the best choice wears the three-pointed star up front.
Images copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker