Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 515 CDi LWB 4x4

words - Steve Kealy
Giving the Sprinter four-wheel-drive has broadened its appeal, but at what cost to value for money?

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 515 CDi LWB 4x4
Road Test

Price Guide: $82,990 (recommended price before statutory and delivery charges)
Price as tested: $90,540 (Silver paint $2550; crewcab option $3500;  Comfort seats $700; Passenger airbag $800)
Crash rating: ENCAP 4 star
Fuel: diesel
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): n/a
CO2 emissions (g/km): n/a
Also consider:  Regular Sprinter, Fiat Ducato, Ford Transit, Renault Master

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 3.5/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 2.0/5.0
Safety: 3.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.5/5.0
X-factor: 3.0/5.0

About our ratings

Mercedes-Benz has augmented its existing Sprinter range of vans with an all-wheel-drive option. The company suggest that the new variant will find favour with builders of vehicles for emergency service organisations, motorhome manufacturers and mining companies.

This long-wheelbase van-bodied vehicle comes with the 2.2-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder engine rated at 110kW/330Nm mated to a six-speed manual gearbox. A five-speed auto is an option.

The 515 tested has a GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) of 4495 kg and a maximum payload of 1885kg inside its 16 cubic metre volume. It is also rated to tow 2000kg. It's no shrinking violet...

The all-wheel drive function is electronically selectable and includes a low-range option, but the feature adds a not-inconsiderable $22,000 to the basic van's $60,990 price. This hefty sticker price effectively puts it out of the reach of some of those tradies who might need to get tools and/or a small mobile workshop onto construction sites and areas without good access roads. That's a shame, for the Sprinter would suit this use down to a tee.

It must be said that the four-wheel-drive system does broaden significantly where the Sprinter will go. Unladen, the big van sometimes struggled for grip in both dry and wet conditions in rear-wheel drive, but clicking into all-wheel drive improved traction, aided by MB's excellent traction and skid control systems.

The 35/65 rear-biased system requires that the vehicle is stationary and in neutral to engage either all-wheel drive or low range. "On-the-fly" shifting is not possible.

There is a significant whine from the transmission if the vehicle is left in all-wheel-drive on the asphalt -- and it's markedly worse in low range.

This noise is actually a good thing as the control placement for the buttons to engage all four wheels are in the worst position imaginable. With the vast panorama of the large dashboard in which to place minor controls, Mercedes has chosen to put these two buttons in perhaps the only place the driver cannot see them without physical contortion -- in front of the left knee and utterly obscured by the spokes of the reach-and-rake adjustable car-style steering wheel.

A red light on the 4x4 switch itself is the only visible warning the system's engaged and it is also entirely hidden from view. There is no indication in the small miserly instrument binnacle. At least engaging low range does offer a warning lamp in the instrument cluster.

This isn't the only instance of poor ergonomics in the Sprinter.
 
Mercedes will be the first to admit that its basketball-court-sized van is no offroad King of the Mountain. The low-range optional gearing isn't really super-low -- in sixth gear in low range, 60km/h comes up at 2000rpm, whereas the same speed is achieved in high (or normal) range at 1400rpm.

The manual gearbox is almost sedan-slick, controlled by a stubby dash-mounted lever; the clutch action was light enough, but engaged with a pretty sudden and distinct jolt at the contact point. We put this down to the test vehicle being brand-new -- and an uneducated left foot.

The van's body is very much a blank canvass to which users can add their preferred equipment. Double rear 'barn' doors are complemented by a single, 1300mm-wide left-side manual sliding door which requires a good shove to close if the vehicle is in anything except a nose-down attitude. An electric-assist function is available if you tick the box and pay the extra money -- as is a right-side slider.

The evaluation vehicle came with a number of extra-cost options, such as the Crew-cab Pack which includes a generously large and comfortable three-passenger bench seat, floor-mounted air-vent, load-bed floor and roof covering.

The body's floor is flat and offers a number of tie-down points. Although the wheel-arches do intrude, they will accept a standard pallet if the forkie is careful. The van's sides are half-lined and the ribs are exposed for easier attachments of racking systems. The roof, which permits standing access by people at least 1.8 metres tall is lined and sports a row of four dome lamps.

Filling the empty Sprinter on a daily basis would take a while, but we can see that as an ambulance or fitted out as a motorhome, it would offer clever designers lots of options.

Driven empty, the body can become a bit of a drum, but lashing down anything that flattened the springs, took up some space and absorbed some sound actually improved the Sprinter, making an already agreeably good-to-drive commercial vehicle even better.

To publicise the new all-wheel-drive option, Mercedes Australia plastered the test vehicle with fake mud splatter in the form of vast stickers down one side and across the rear of the vehicle. This effectively rendered both the over-the-shoulder right-side window and the glass in the double rear doors almost entirely opaque.
 
Interestingly, there was a hint of a cleaner patch, as if wiped by dual rear window wipers in the sticker on the glass of the rear barn doors -- sadly, there are actually no rear wipers but there certainly ought to be. The glass is heated and there's a central interior mirror, so the glass is intended to be seen through, but the rear of the van picks up dust in the dry and road grunge in the wet yet there's no fitted method of cleaning the glass.

Those floor-to-ceiling, body-width rear doors are less than ideal too. Normally, they open 90 degrees, so, sticking straight back from the body. Depressing a sprung tether allows them to open 180 degrees -- but then they are unrestrained and prone to swinging back and forth if the vehicle is parked on a slope or if the wind gets up.

Stuck backwards at 90 degrees of opening, they add to the length of the already-long vehicle and don't permit the driver to get close to an elevated loading dock, and opened fully, they add to the width of an already-wide vehicle. Neither scenario is ideal when loading in crowded conditions and will make the operator few friends among other drivers.

A better solution would be the clever hinges Mercedes already employs on its smaller Vito range, which permit the doors to open 270 degrees, flush with the sides of the vehicle and retained by a magnet. This is available, but as an extra-cost option. In our opinion, the Sprinter's standard rear door system simply isn't good enough.

There is a usefully wide rear step, one which will invariably be the first point of contact in over-exuberant reverse-parking. Reversing sensors and even a reverse warning system aren't standard and again should be. Both are available at extra cost.

Still on the subject of access, clambering up into the cab is harder than it ought to be too. Certainly there's a useful, wide interior (so it stays clean and dry) step; but with the 4x4's higher suspension, even that's a good knee-bend from the floor. To make matters worse, there are no effective grab handles -- just one on the door's A-pillar side. So-located it's not fixed in relation to the cab and likely to swing the door. The door head grabrail is too high for anyone short than Jordan and there is no B-pillar grab-handle.

Given that the nature of the vehicle permits it to venture onto uneven ground makes the scratchy subject of cabin access even more relevant -- especially in applications where the cabin may be entered and exited many times in a working shift.

Once in the cab, it's a comfortable place to be. The elevated seating position gives excellent visibility and the optional extra-cost Comfort front seats offer good support for backs and under the thighs.

There's a drop-down left (for the driver, right for the passenger) armrest and both front seats have adjustable lumbar support. However, the head-restraint is a hard rubber block of a thing, and a long way behind the head.

While the steering wheel does offer both reach and rake adjustment, its range of movement is small in both directions. But given the car-like design of the cabin, this isn't much of an issue. What is an issue is the generally poor switch layout... Audio  power and volume switch on the radio is a victim of a poorly-executed conversion from left to right hand drive -- putting the most commonly-used control an arm's reach away from the driver.

The instrument design is also not what you'd expect in a $80K vehicle; the small speedo and tacho are easy enough to read, but they flank a small LCD digital display which supposedly does the rest.

Given the size of the rest of the vehicle, this tiny panel smacks of parts-bin convenience and cost-effective expediency, rather than a desire to impart meaningful information. Just a single example is the fact that this panel contains the vehicle's only clock -- so even this bit of information is denied to all the other occupants.

And while the Sprinter is fitted with a cruise-control function, there's no indication when the system's enabled other than a digital speed, buried in myriad other digits, in the LCD panel. At least for the maximum speed-restriction function, there is a warning light on the stalk to indicate that the system is engaged.

Hardwearing cloth upholstery covers the seats and in some markets, the plain steering wheel marks the Sprinter down as the working class model. On models with buttons on the wheel, many more functions and features are standard fare -- and the instrument display is different too. The multi-function steering wheel would add another $550 to the price.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a lot of storage space, from the trays above the windscreen to the dash-top shelves and cupholders, central bin and lower-door-mounted cabinets and bottle-holders. If you've lost your sunnies, they're probably in the drop-down tray up in the roof

The driver does have an impressive spread of ais to help him pilot the Sprinter: there's a hill-holder system, antilock brakes that interface with load sensitive traction, stability and anti-skid control systems that are even 'smart' enough to compensate for a load that shifts midst emergency manoeuvre. Roll Over Mitigation, Roll Movement Intervention and Understeer Control are also standard.

With all this safety-boosting software aboard we wonder therefore why a passenger-side airbag is an $800 extra-cost option. While it is conceivable that in its daily working life a Sprinter may be a one-man-show, it's more likely that a helper, labourer or co-driver will fill the left seat.

Concerns by one-man owner-operators that a small bingle might trigger both bags, thereby increasing repair costs, are easily addressed by a load-sensor in the passenger seat that stops the passenger-side bag from deploying.

Actually driving the Sprinter is very easy -- responses to the controls feel very car-like and while it's not really possible to forget how big it is, it's not a particularly intimidating vehicle to drive. Mind you, it can be intimidating for other drivers -- given the reactions we saw on some narrow dirt roads.

The engine's broad spread of power, well-space ratios and commanding driving position make it a forgiving partner. Even empty, it handled pretty well and its performance was more than up to dealing with -- and despatching -- befuddled Sunday-shopping suburbanites in downtown Caulfield.

Although its stability and traction control systems could be invoked on wet asphalt or on dirt roads, despite our best efforts, the Sprinter's clever systems always kept it upright and facing forwards.

The all-wheel-drive Sprinter has certainly broadened the already popular vehicle's appeal, but we wonder if the cost of entry has now placed the vehicle beyond the reach of most private -- or even private-sector -- operators. It would be a shame this turned it into a government or corporate fleet vehicle only.

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Published : Wednesday, 10 June 2009
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