Whether pressed into service as an ambulance or luxury coach, tow truck or cargo van, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is a venerable Swiss Army Knife in the commercial vehicle space. And with its myriad drivetrain options, roof heights, wheelbase lengths and seating arrangements, the brand-new 2019 Sprinter will be available in no less than 1,700 different configurations around the globe. It's van-tastic.
But beyond its inherent versatility, the 2019 Sprinter gets a host of upgrades that make it much easier to use day-to-day. Premium accoutrements add comfort and convenience, while a new front wheel-drive option offers better driveline packaging. But the biggest improvement comes on the technology front: the Sprinter will be one of the first vehicles to launch with Mercedes' next-generation MBUX infotainment system. And with commercial vehicle-specific functions and a high-res touchscreen, MBUX ensures the 2019 Sprinter will outsmart just about anything else in its class.
Just as "Hey Siri" and "OK Google" are setting the pace for natural-speech recognition in smart devices, Mercedes is looking to achieve a similar level of simplicity with its MBUX interface. Rather than working through traditional voice commands, MBUX allows you to simply say "Hey Mercedes" or "Hi Mercedes," and then tell the virtual assistant what you want, or how you feel, and have it respond accordingly. Say "I'm cold," and it'll turn up the heat. Tell the system "I'm hungry," and it'll pull up a list of nearby restaurants. Ask "do I need an umbrella tomorrow?" and you'll get a weather report.
In theory, anyway. Driving a 2019 Sprinter through The Netherlands, MBUX is only recognizing about half of my commands. It responds to requests for nearby points of interest without issue, and has no trouble inputting a specific destination. But when I tell the car I'm cold, it asks me to try again. When I ask it to open the web browser, nothing happens. On top of that, the system seems hypersensitive to uses of the word "Mercedes," interrupting to ask how it can help when I'm simply telling my passenger about the awesome Mercedes-AMG E63 S Wagon I recently drove. MBUX doesn't do it all the time, but if you frequently have conversations with your friend Mercedes about how you left your Hey Mercedes CD in her Mercedes-Maybach S650, you'll probably get its attention.
Of course, these kinds of trip-ups are to be expected with natural-speech commands that don't require the push of a button (if I had a dollar for every time I accidentally activated Siri on my iPhone...). Mercedes is still making minor tweaks to MBUX's voice recognition software, and hopes to have these issues sorted before the system officially goes on sale in the United States. MBUX will initially launch with the new A-Class sedan, followed by the Sprinter, sometime before you hang the 2019 calendar on your wall.
But don't forget, these simplified voice commands are only one part of the MBUX package. Unlike the company's outgoing COMAND system, which uses rotary knobs and touchpads for interaction, MBUX lets you get up close and personal, finally bringing touchscreen capability into Mercedes' vehicles. Yes, get ready to touch, pinch and swipe your way through the various MBUX screens in the Sprinter's 10.25-inch display, with super-quick response times, bright colors, crisp fonts and intuitive interaction. The Sprinter doesn't get the full-width, double-screen layout that'll be offered in Mercedes' passenger cars, but it's still leaps and bounds better than anything else currently available across all commercial vehicles.
What's more, the Sprinter adds Mercedes' Pro Connect software, which ought to be a real treat for fleets. Using the van's onboard internet connection, Mercedes Pro gives fleet managers real-time access to their vehicles. Managers can send messages, check real-time driving habits, manage navigation inputs and even remotely operate vehicle functions like the door locks and power windows. In non-Sprinter applications, this vehicle-to-X capability will allow owners to receive updates about weather and traffic, as well as check local gas prices and even get over-the-air software updates.
You can option a Sprinter in stripped-out work spec, with manual windows, no air conditioning and a cubby in the dash where the radio would normally be. But make your way to the other end of the spectrum and you'll find a commercial van that's damn nice inside, right down to the detail stitching on the leather-wrapped steering wheel and gloss black finish of the stylized air vents.
The driver's seat is plenty comfortable, perched high to offer a commanding view of the road ahead. Power seat adjustment controls are found on the door, like other Mercedes vehicles. Climate control functions are arranged in a simple strip underneath the multimedia system (which has an annoying toggle for volume, by the way). And while the cup holders appear to point out at an angle, they have fully horizontal bottoms -- if you spill your coffee, it won't be the Sprinter's fault.
A number of cubbies in the dashboard and doors provide lots of space for notebooks, clipboards, water bottles and smartphones. There's a large cubby atop the dash that houses USB ports, including a USB-C connection, and a wireless charging pad. The Sprinter offers as little as two seats in cargo and chassis cab models, or as much as 20(!) seats in full-on Sprinter Bus configuration.
Poking around a nine-passenger version during my time in Amsterdam, I'm pleasantly surprised by the width and comfort of the rear seats. The seat backs adjust, the aisle seats have nice armrests and cup holders slide out from underneath the benches. Even the carpeted floor mats between the rows look and feel top notch. Combine all this with a refreshed, modern exterior design, as well as optional full-LED headlamps and stylish alloy wheels, and your local airport shuttle is about to get a whole lot nicer.
Don't let its size intimidate you; anyone can drive a Sprinter. Yes, it's tall. Yes, it's long. But it's relatively narrow, and with speed-sensitive electric power steering and a bunch of driving aids, it's really easy to drive in both congested city settings and wide-open highways.
Three different engines will be available under the hood of US-spec Sprinters -- the 2.1-liter I4 and 3.0-liter diesel engines we already know and love, as well as a new, undisclosed four-cylinder gasoline engine. Other global markets only get the two diesel engines, with six different power outputs depending on spec. Other markets also get the aforementioned front wheel-drive setup, which allows for better packaging around the rear axle, resulting in a lower load-in height and improved cargo space. That said, in the US, we only get rear- and all-wheel drive options, like the current van. And yes, you read that right: The Sprinter can be had with front-, rear- or all-wheel drive. Can you think of any other single vehicle that offers all three configurations?
In the US, all our Sprinters will come with automatic transmissions, with either seven or nine gears, depending on the engine. But considering my first test takes place along the tulip-and-windmill-lined roads between Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, I'd be remiss not to sample a six-speed manual Sprinter that we'll never, ever see on US soil. The stick-shift is appropriately easy to operate, with light clutch pedal weight and not-too-long gearbox throws. First gear is basically useless, only to get you up and going, or for very slow climbs up steep grades. By the time you hit 10 or 15 miles per hour, you'll change to second gear, greeted by a buttery wave of torque that's similarly strong in the remaining forward gears.
In cargo van or chassis cab configurations with no weight over the rear wheels, the Sprinter's suspension will hop around slightly over pavement imperfections. But in passenger spec -- or really, in any spec with some real weight over the wheels -- the ride quality is really solid. There's a distinct lack of feedback through the steering wheel, and turn-in isn't exactly crisp, but it's easy to drive the Sprinter smoothly. Nothing happens immediately here, and given the Sprinter's intended mission of carrying precious cargo, that's just fine.
A number of driver assistance systems keep things copacetic out on the open road, including the all-important (and standard) Crosswind Assist, which greatly improves stability, especially at higher speeds. Mercedes' Distronic adaptive cruise control is available, and just as in the company's passenger cars, it can bring the Sprinter to a complete stop and start up again. Lane Keep Assist and Attention Assist will be helpful for long-haul delivery drivers, and all Sprinter operators will appreciate the available 360-degree and rear-view parking cameras. It doesn't take much time behind the wheel to realize that driving a Sprinter is a cinch.
Mercedes is making a huge commitment to its van portfolio. A brand-new Sprinter production facility will soon come online in South Carolina, and the company has already announced plans to electrify its van lineup in the future. European customers will be able to purchase the all-electric eSprinter later this year, which will offer up to 93 miles of EV range. Mercedes isn't planning to offer this one in the States right now, saying the range would need to increase to 150-200 miles to really be a viable option for US customers, but future electrification is definitely in the cards. Mercedes is also working with partner companies on revolutionizing last-mile delivery needs, as evidenced by the far-out Vision Van concept from 2017.
All of this requires a strong foundation on which to build. And with its endless configurations, different drivetrains and huge helping of onboard tech, the 2019 Sprinter is poised to be exactly that.
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