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Dodge Sprinter offers big-box hauling capacity

February 04, 2005|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

The Dodge Sprinter stands out among current full-size cargo and passenger vans like German bratwurst at an all-American wiener roast. It brings European style and efficiency to U.S. showrooms and roads.

The decision to replace the full-size Dodge Ram van came just as Mercedes purchased Chrysler. The big Ram had a pretty decent chunk of the tour/shuttle/delivery market and Dodge wasn't willing to surrender any of it to General Motors and Ford. Post-takeover, the Ram van replacement was low on the priority list but a quick glance through the new parent company's product catalog revealed a likely contender, one that several international customers such as FedEx and UPS courier companies were familiar with: the Mercedes Sprinter.

This big box on wheels met or exceeded virtually every product goal in terms of capability and capacity. It had a proven track record and required little investment and time to bring to market.

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The Sprinter has been produced in Europe since 1995 and won European van-of-the-year honors in 1998 and a German van-of-the-year award in 2003 following a restyle. Freightliner, another Mercedes division, has been building and selling a version in the United States since 2001. It was easy to figure out that the Sprinter, wearing a Dodge emblem, could serve as a replacement for the old Ram van.

Designed, developed and refined over the years for use in crowded conditions around the world where fuel prices are commonly double what they are here, the Sprinter can carry more and maneuver in tighter quarters than a traditional van . . . and do so while using less fuel.

The Sprinter is available in a variety of configurations with three wheelbases (118, 140 and158 inches) and both standard and tall roofs, the latter providing 20 inches more interior height than the nearest competitor, allowing a 6'1" person to stand straight up. Our Sprinter test vehicle had the longest wheelbase, the tall roof and seating for 10 people in four rows. Behind all that there's a full 112 cubic feet of cargo space, more than some vans have in total with all the seats removed. Talk about space.

It's big, but it doesn't really feel like that once you're behind the wheel, thanks to the vertical sides, great mirrors and a clever front suspension and steering arrangement that results in an extremely tight turning circle - 42-feet - six fewer than the competition.

We drove the big box over our standard 215-mile loop involving a great deal of 65-plus mph divided-highway use. Normally, a decent economy car does it on about six or seven gallons. A big V-8 sport-ute takes about 16 and we've used as many as 20 gallons with a fully loaded pickup. With the Sprinter, it took eight gallons, about half that of an SUV.

The Sprinter's diesel is a modern high-pressure unit with proven million-mile durability. The five-cylinder turbocharged engine puts out a paltry-on-paper 154 horsepower, but a useful 243 lb.-ft. of torque at just 1,600 rpm. The Sprinter will never win a drag race, but it has little difficulty toting cargo.

Passing the power to the rear wheels is a five-speed automatic transmission with a "manumatic" mode. We often find these systems to be more of a novelty than anything else, but in this application it works for two good reasons: the high-compression diesel means downshifts result in significant deceleration without using the brakes; and you can get a bit more performance by holding onto gears longer.

In terms of handling, the Sprinter is a bus and, well, it drives like one. However, it's loaded with standard safety features, most remarkably electronic stability control that intervenes to correct driving errors and stop the vehicle skidding on slippery surfaces. The Sprinter also boasts four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and traction control.

Inside, you sit high above the road on a highly adjustable and comfortable seat behind a steering wheel that faces the roof in typical bus fashion. The familiar Mercedes switches, levers and controls are marked by international symbols.

Marketing this big box to commercial customers will be a lot easier than convincing mom and pop that this is what they need for those daily trips to the market.

Engineered to last hundreds of thousands of miles in commercial use and offering more capacity than any conventional full-size van while using half as much fuel, the Sprinter makes a lot of sense for North America.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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