Mica Creek, B.C. – I’ve taken more than my fair share of unusual drives over the years, but a twelve-passenger van on a muddy British Columbia logging road is a new one on me.
New for 2015, Mercedes-Benz has added an optional four-wheeler version to its Sprinter van lineup. The Sprinter 4×4 isn’t going to take hard-core off-roaders out of their Jeep Wranglers, of course, but the company thinks there’s a market for it with such industries as construction, wind farms, oil patches and mining, where having that extra traction to get work crews and tradespeople into sites where two driving wheels just aren’t enough—or in some cases, simply aren’t allowed onto the job.
(Disclosure: Travel, accommodation, meals, and a pre-set route were provided to the author by the automaker.)
As odd as it looked to see a high-roof van on the trail, the system is actually surprisingly capable. It’s completely electronic and works through the van’s electronic stability control program. That adds less curb weight than a mechanical system would, and the van only loses about 126 kilograms of payload.
Right now it comes only with the 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine, and can’t be added to vans equipped with the 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel. That’s due to marketing, not to capability, and the company says it could potentially add it to the smaller engine in the future.
The 4×4 system is available on most of the 2500 and 3500 cargo and passenger van models, where it adds about $6,000 to the cost above a regular V6-equipped van. That means a starting price of $49,900 for a cargo van and $57,300 for a passenger van. The system isn’t available on the cab chassis configuration (although that could also happen down the road), nor can it be ordered with the optional super-high roof, where the 10 cm it adds to the overall height would just make it far too tall.
I started my day in Kelowna, where I piloted a cargo van to Revelstoke. The first thing you notice about the Sprinter is how much it feels like you’re just driving a big car. That ease of handling was one of the reasons why it quickly became so popular when it was introduced to Canada under the Dodge nameplate, which Mercedes-Benz owned at the time. It also offered the ability for workers and passengers to stand up inside, another benefit that got a few other automakers into the business of offering these tall, European-style vans.
Unlike with some mechanical four-wheel systems, you can drive the Sprinter in 4×4 on dry roads without damaging the components. There was no need to do that on the paved roads I piloted, but it’s a handy feature if you’re on asphalt with partial snow cover.
My second day’s drive took me to Mica Creek, on the Columbia River, where logging companies build narrow, unpaved roads into the mountains for their trucks to haul out the felled trees. Mild weather had turned them to a quagmire in some spots and it was time to see what the Sprinter could do.
Once you push a button on the dash, the van shifts to a fixed 35:65 torque split. If any of the wheels start to slip, the electronic stability program applies the brakes, increasing power to the wheels with the most traction.
The 4×4 system can be further enhanced with an optional low-gear system, which increases traction by about 40 per cent. Once that’s added, you can then additionally add downhill speed control, which automatically limits the vehicle’s speed without the driver using the brake. I thought it a bit odd that they aren’t bundled together, but a Mercedes-Benz rep says that many drivers aren’t using the van for hilly, heavier-duty off-road use and probably won’t need it. If the take rate on this option proves otherwise, it’s possible they could be combined as a single feature in future.
There are some minor differences between the two-wheel and four-wheel models, including a slightly smaller fuel tank, stiffer front and rear stabilizers, a spoiler under the front bumper, and standard door-mounted assist handles that are optional on two-wheel Sprinters. Even with those handles, the extra height means a considerable crawl up into the cabin. I’m a little surprised the handles weren’t put on the A-pillars instead, and I’m wondering if there might be issues with a driver constantly putting extra weight on the upper door hinge when he pulls himself up.
The climate control dials retain their small and difficult-to-decipher climate control icons, which become even tougher to fine-tune if you’re wearing work gloves.
Mercedes-Benz knows it has to overcome perception issues about service and repair, and to that end, all dealers are now equipped to handle Sprinter. All models now have service intervals of up to 30,000 km, with an on-board oil quality sensor that warns if attention is needed prior. Earlier Sprinter models have also proven prone to rust, and the company says it has identified over 200 susceptible parts and seams that now receive a double layer of zinc coating to prevent it.
In the meantime, I was just concerned about getting up an extremely steep incline that the logging trucks had rutted and turned to goop near the top. Hint to the guys behind me who had to take two or three runs to make it: keep your wheels straight, your traction control off, and your foot to the floor.
The type of job site where 4×4 is needed is primarily serviced now by pickup trucks with caps, and Mercedes-Benz expects more than a few companies to swap out those models for a 4×4 Sprinter, which is currently the only four-wheel-drive cargo or passenger van in the Canadian market. And this, of course, is where it’ll be right at home.