Have Van, Will Conquer
Until recently, the rest of the world got all the “good” vans while American vans wallowed in mediocrity, ours often rolling on the same basic chassis they debuted with back in the ’70s. I was reminded of this fact recently in the small Canadian skiing town of Revelstoke, British Columbia, where I happened upon not one but two four-wheel-drive, late-model Mitsubishi Delica vans. They were awesome in their lifted JDM glory, and neither would ever have been sold in the States. They also reminded me a lot of the van I was driving: the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4. The Sprinter is almost singlehandedly responsible for the van renaissance we’ve seen in the U.S. the past 15 years, and in four-by-four fashion it’s one of the coolest — and now one of the most capable — vans on the road.
Lifted four-wheel-drive vans have been on sale from the factory globally for years (and available via the aftermarket here in America), but the 2015 Sprinter 4×4 is the first four-wheel-drive van offered in the U.S. in some time. We covered most of the nitty gritty on Mercedes-Benz Vans” target=”_blank”>the Sprinter 4×4 in our First Drive at Mercedes-Benz Vans’ reassembly plant in Charleston, South Carolina, late last year, but here’s a quick refresher on the subject. It’s available only with the optional 3.0-liter, turbodiesel V-6 making a completely adequate 180 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, and Mercedes offers up two ways to get four driven wheels in the Sprinter. $6, 500 will get you what’s effectively an all-wheel-drive system with a permanent 35/65 front/rear torque split, and $6, 800 gets you a true two-speed, four-wheel-drive system with a not-all-that-low 1.42 low range ratio and a 50/50 torque split while in low range. A suspension lift — 4.3 inches up front and 3.1 inches in back — completes the package.
Despite the Sprinter 4×4’s utilitarian nature, it isn’t gonna shame a G-Wagen off the beaten path. Although four-wheel drive and a lift give the Sprinter 4×4 a lot of what it needs to go wheeling, both axles lack any sort of mechanical differentials. Mercedes instead opts for a brake-based electronic diff it calls 4ETS. Limited to just one engine option, Sprinter 4×4 buyers do get the benefit of choice when it comes to which body style or wheelbase they want. The Sprinter 4×4 is available in cargo, crew, and passenger van body styles in either 144- or 170-inch wheelbases. All are available in low and high roof configurations, and cargo van buyers also get the added choices of an extended-length long-wheelbase model and a dual rear-wheel option — the latter looks properly good with a set of knobby snow tires mounted.
Ostensibly designed for use on construction sites and in the Snow Belt, the Sprinter 4×4 is capable of so much more. Unlike our first drive of the Sprinter 4×4 where we drove the four-wheel-drive van at walking pace through a glorified South Carolinian parking lot (pictured), Mercedes took us to a muddy and snow-covered logging trail near Mica Dam in British Columbia to show us what the Sprinter 4×4 is actually capable of.
A quick aside on how these off-road situations typically work on new vehicle launches: The automaker meticulously scouts the desired route and then has the assembled journalists tail a more off-road capable vehicle — in this case a Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTec — up the trail with the vehicles in the most intense off-road mode, this time with the Sprinter 4×4’s four-wheel drive system activated and with low range on if the vans were so equipped.
Yet Mercedes didn’t account for one thing: the weather.
Mercedes’ drivers had scouted out our driving loop a week before we journalists arrived, and the conditions of the road had changed drastically. What had supposedly been a steep, damp dirt road a week before had become a muddy, rutted, and snow-patched trail thanks to the poor Canadian weather and a dipping snowline.
It was easy going as we first began climbing the steep grade in the Sprinter 4×4.The trail was steep and a bit muddy, but the Sprinter motored on up with little trouble and no noticeable slip. As we got higher, the road got rougher, steeper, and full of mud, yet the Sprinter 4×4 didn’t struggle. Truth be told, it felt as if a Subaru Forester could have easily tackled the same route. That’s until we got toward the end of the trail, where the path got even steeper, wetter, and muddier. We stopped. Our Mercedes GL pilot car was stuck in the deep mud. If the GL had gotten stuck, I had my doubts about our less capable vans. The first Sprinter 4×4, a short-wheelbase cargo van with the optional low-range transfer case, attempted to conquer the mud, but with no run-up room and peat-like mud sticking to the snow rubber, the van was stuck. The driver tried again with low range engaged but had no luck without mechanically locking differentials. The Sprinter was stuck spinning its tires away in the mud. It took about five minutes of rocking the van (and a couple shovels) to get it free.
My run through the muck was less eventful. Although my van didn’t have the optional low range, I did have the benefit of some run-up room to get the Sprinter 4×4 up to speed before hitting the mud. The run-up did me good. I hit the mud going around 15 mph, rapidly slowing down to almost a standstill. Keeping the throttle pegged to the floor and a little bit of counter-steer kept the Sprinter from getting stuck and got me through the rough stuff without the drama that some of the vans further up the line had.
Although the logging trail proved that the Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 has the off-road chops to back up its name, I doubt many of its buyers will take it as far off the beaten path as we did. Buyers who stick to the pavement will find that the Sprinter 4×4 drives just like any other Sprinter. The 250-odd pounds the extra driveshaft adds aren’t noticeable on the road, nor is its extra ride height. What is noticeable is the van’s new crosswind assist intervention feature, which uses the brakes and traction control system to keep the Sprinter from getting buffeted around passing tracks and heavy winds. The system is imperceptible to the driver but works wonders on back road highways when passing oncoming semis and logging trucks.
With the introduction of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4, I think it’s safe to say that it’s no longer foreigners who are getting the best vans in the world — we are here in the States, too. And if early sales are any indication, buyers agree, as the Sprinter 4×4 is sold out through October. I can only hope this is the kick the rest of the van makers need to fully commit to offering such tremendously capable vans for sale here in the U.S.