BUYERS GUIDE - HEAVY DUTY
Mercedes-Benz Australia hasn’t realised the potential in the Sprinter 4×4 range. The original 4×4 system from Oberaigner is due for replacement by Magna components in late 2021.
Euro 4×2 chassis have become the standard for camper van and motorhome conversion in Australia, but until fairly recently there was no semi-bonnetted 4WD working van and cab/chassis available Down Under.
Sure, the OKA was around for a few years (Allan Whiting came up with the name ‘Okker’ for the Perth-based designers, incidentally) and several modifiers have tried to improve the poor ride quality of Fuso Canter 4×4, Isuzu NPS and Hino 817 light truck cab/chassis.
Now we have the M-B Sprinter 4×4, Iveco Daily 4×4 and VW Crafter 4Motion.
Iveco is pushing the Daily 4×4 quite hard and it’s selling at more than twice the numbers of Sprinter 4x4s. Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, doesn’t promote the Sprinter 4×4 very much and VW doesn’t yet seem to realise how good the 2019 Crafter 4Motion is.
Mercedes-Benz has a history of producing off-road capable light and heavy vehicles and has been the main supplier of medium 4WD and 6WD trucks to the Australian Army for years. It’s also the successful tenderer to replace the aged Land Rover fleet in the ADF with 4×4 and 6×6 G-Wagons, but the Sprinter 4WD has much more potential than ‘Benz seems to realise.
Off-road Sprinter variants were available in Europe from the model’s introduction in 2006, but took four years to make it Down Under in 2010.
Sprinter 4×4 mechanicals
The Sprinter 4×4 is based on the 4×2 version, with off-road specific components engineered by Austrian company Oberaigner. This company is a ‘qualified partner and system supplier’ to Mercedes-Benz; much like AMG before it was absorbed into the Daimler empire.
Although Oberaigner makes a full-time 4WD version, with deep reduction transfer case and rear axle differential locks, the only version being imported by Mercedes-Benz Australia has a selectable-4WD driveline, without centre or rear-axle diff locks.
It also has only a 1.4:1 ‘low’ range: the same reduction as in some Subarus.
In late 2012 the Sprinter 4×4 picked up hill descent control and additional upgrades in 2013 and 2015, but there was still no sign of the 2.8:1 transfer case ratio, centre diff lock or across-axle diff locks that are available from Oberaigner.
On the plus side, the Sprinter 4×4 has a modified edition of the 4×2 Sprinter’s Adaptive ESP system, with ABS and ASR, electronic brake force distribution (EBD), hydraulic brake assist (BAS) and, optionally, Start-off Assist.
Adaptive ESP/4ETS also includes the control functions for the all-wheel-drive system and sensors continuously supply the central controller with information about the driver’s inputs and about operating and driving conditions. The most important parameters are steering angle, accelerator position, engine speed, wheel speeds, rotational movement about the vertical axis of the vehicle (yaw) and lateral acceleration.
Mercedes-Benz Australia sold the pre-2019 Sprinter 4×4 in van, cab/chassis and crew-cab/chassis versions with a choice of mid (3665mm) and long (4325mm) wheelbases. The Australian 4×4 line-up consisted of all ‘3’ series models, apart from 310, 313 and EXL variants. No ‘4’ Series models came as 4x4s, but all ‘5’ Series cab/chassis did.
The ‘3’ in the model number denoted 3.55 tonnes GVM and the ‘5’ denotes 5.0 tonnes GVM, bit it could be optionally re-plated at 4.49 tonnes GVM, for car-licence drivers.
The ‘16’ denoted 163hp (120kW), from a sequentially twin-turbocharged, four cylinder, 2.1-litre diesel that had peak torque of 360Nm from 1400rpm to 2400rpm; and the ‘18’ denoted 180hp (134kW), from the same 440Nm, three-litre V6 aluminium diesel that powered the ML and GL wagons.
Transmission choices were a six-speed manual or five-speed tiptronic-style automatic, making the Sprinter the only light 4×4 truck with an auto box. The transfer case had very modest low range gearing of 1.42:1 and split torque 33 percent front: 67 percent rear.
There was a seven-speed auto available in 4×2 Sprinters, but it couldn’t be fitted to pre-2019 4x4s, because it was longer overall than the five-ratio box. The seven-speed finally made it into the Sprinter 4×4 range, behind the V6, in 2019.
The final drive ratios in 4x4s with four-cylinder power were different from 4x2s. The ‘3’ Series 4×2 had a 3.923:1 diff, but the 4×4 version had 4.182:1 front and rear diffs. The ‘5’ Series 4×2 had a 4.364:1 rear diff, but the 4×4 had 4.727:1 ratios. Sprinters with V6 power had 3.923:1 final drive ratios in both 4×2 and 4×4 versions.
What these diff ratio changes meant was that the four-cylinder 4×4 models had good low-speed charteristics, but revved too high at highway speeds. The V6 models were good at both ends of the speed spectrum.
The Sprinter van was semi-monocoque in design, with an inverted hat-section frame welded to the floor pan full length. Cab/chassis models had the same sub-frame, but with a similar hat-section bolted on top, forming a box-section chassis from the cab rear wall aft.
Up front the drive axle components and suspension were mounted on a massive sub-frame. The transfer case bolted directly to the rear of the main transmission, leaving the belly area clear of obstructions.
Suspension up front was by struts and lower wishbones with an anti-sway bar, and, at the rear of the van, by long mono-leaf springs with dampers and anti-sway bar. Cab/chassis variants had two-leaf springs at the rear, with an additional ‘helper’ leaf.
Standard tyres on the ‘3’ series van were 235/65R16 Continental van rubber, on 6.5J steel rims, but the ‘5’ van models had skinny 205R16s up front and ‘super single’ 285/65R16 rears, on 8.5J rims. Cab/chassis had the skinny 205s, with duals on the rear axle. Neither standard tyre/wheel package was suitable for serious off-roading.
The post-2014 Mercedes-Benz’ Sprinter 4×4 models enjoyed the safety initiatives that 4×2 models received in 2013. Five new systems included three world premieres for this category of vehicle: Crosswind Assist, Collision Prevention Assist and Blind Spot Assist. The systems are designed to prevent accidents from happening, rather than mitigating the consequences afterwards.
Crosswind Assist keeps a van safely on course when the wind is gusting strongly. Collision Prevention Assist alerts the driver if the vehicle gets too close to other moving vehicles on the road ahead or to the end of a queue of traffic, while Blind Spot Assist warns a driver that vehicles in the next lane are dangerously close. Also new were Lane Keeping Assist and Highbeam Assist.
Sprinter 4×4 van and cab/chassis models sat between traditional 4WD utes and 4WD light trucks. Even with its open centre and rear diffs the Sprinter could almost match 4WD utes for off-road ability (except in soft sand), while greatly exceeding them in cargo and passenger capacity.
When compared with 4WD light trucks the Sprinter had car-like dynamic safety features, traction control, ergonomics, comfort and vastly better ride and road manners.
In 2014 the Sprinter 4×4 was a $22,000 ask above the 4×2 models, so that gave a 316 manual 4×4 mid-wheelbase cab/chassis a RRP of $66,490. A Sprinter 316 manual van model had a RRP of $73,990, compared with the Troop Carrier’s $65,440, but the Sprinter came with a huge sliding side door and full headroom as standard.
Payload capacity for the Sprinters ranged from around 1.4 tonnes to 2.3 tonnes, but the weak link in the Sprinter 4×4 spec’ was its open centre and axle diffs, when there were a lot more goodies in the Oberaigner tin.
In February 2018 Mercedes-Benz released a new Sprinter range that marked a major design change in the ‘3’ series models. For the first time, front wheel drive was standard or optional on 311 and 314 van models and 4WD was not available on these FWD variants.
In contrast, the VW Crafter FWD models were available with VW’s 4Motion system, so those who want a single-tyred 4WD panel van need to look to the VW Crafter range.
All post-2019 Sprinter rear wheel drive vans, cab/chassis, dual cab/chassis and minibuses could be ordered with the 4WD option.
Top-shelf 519 models, powered by the three-litre V6 turbo-diesel came with a 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission.
This new range arrived Down Under in the fourth quarter 2018, but the 4WD versions were delayed for some reason that Mercedes-Benz won’t disclose. Rumours suggested some engine issues.
We finally scored a test vehicle in early 2020. Read below for our test findings.
MBA cut the ridiculously high price of the 4WD option by a cool seven grand, but it was still nearly $14,000 more than a 4×2. VW did the 4Motion addition to the Crafter for only $4500 more than a 4×2, so we’re still curious about M-B pricing.
In some defence of the M-B 4×4 package pricing it does include slightly raised front and rear suspension – up 16mm from 176mm ground clearance – and with a larger-capacity fuel tank – 93 litres instead of 71 litres.
Sprinter 2021 models
The Sprinter is due for significant changes from September 2021, including new engines, transmissions and all wheel drive system, according to a bulletin being circulated among Mercedes-Benz dealerships in late 2020.
The existing four-cylinder OM651 and six-cylinder OM642 engines will be replaced by a single four-cylinder, two-litre OM654 engine, that complies with Euro VI emissions standards. This new engine has aluminium block and head, plus Nanoslide, iron-carbon cylinder wall coating.
The OM654 comes in several stages of tune, for front wheel drive (FWD), rear wheel drive (RWD) and all wheel drive (AWD) variants.
AWD models come only with the top-shelf 140kW/450Nm engine, with twin turbochargers, coupled to a new 9G-Tronic nine-speed auto.
The new automatic box will replace the current seven-speed 7G-Tronic transmission. Like its predecessor, it is a torque converter type, but it has a much deeper first ratio of 5.354:1, compared with the outgoing box’s 4.377:1. It has three overdrive ratios: 0.865:1, 0.717:1 and 0.601:1, compared with the outgoing transmission’s top overdrive ratio of 0.728:1. Reverse ratio is also deeper, at 4.900:1, compared with 3.416:1.
Final drive ratios for Australian-market Sprinters weren’t stated, but expect deeper-reduction offerings that should further improve gradeability.
All wheel drive changes
Sprinter AWD models will get a 4Matic driveline from September 2021. As is currently the case the AWD range is based on the RWD models, but the AWD option will be fitted only to 3.5-5.0-tonnes GVM models.
Where the current Sprinter 4×4 uses components fitted by Oberaigner in Austria, a former Mercedes-Benz partner company, the 2021 Sprinter’s transfer case and front differential are from Magna Steyr, who developed the 4Matic system for Mercedes-Benz car models.
Mercedes-Benz must be confident that the car-origin 4Matic is strong enough for use in a five-tonnes-GVM van or light truck.
The 4Matic system employs a hydraulically-actuated wet clutch pack to distribute fore-aft drive at up to 50-percent to the front axle. Under normal traction conditions all drive is directed to the rear axle. An electronic control unit monitors front-rear wheel speeds and if detects any incipient front-end wheelspin it directs drive to the front axle, within milliseconds.
The 4Matic system is integrated with ESP and 4ETS traction control to aid driving dynamics.
Mercedes-Benz stated that the ride height of the 2021 Sprinter AWD models is increased over the clearance with the current 4×4 system.
We’ll have more detailed information on the 2021 Sprinter models nearer to the launch date.
On and off-road in 2014 models
Our first 4×4 Sprinter test vehicle was a 318 medium wheelbase van model that Mercedes-Benz had stickered somewhat gaudily and, we thought, optimistically.
Fake mud splatters up one side suggested this ungainly looking vehicle would go anywhere off-road, but we were sceptical.
We loaded the back with a half-tonne of railway sleepers, stowed four people and a heap of gear inside and ran the vehicle for two days over different road conditions.
In rear wheel drive mode, on highway, the Sprinter was undetectable from a two wheel drive model: it rode, handled and steered well.
Car-like ergonomics, cruise control, climate control, stubby transmission lever and excellent forward vision made driving it on bitumen surfaces a breeze and it was the same story on gravel.
The selectable full-time 4WD driveline engaged all wheel drive with the vehicle running in neutral and the speed below 10km/h. A push on the dashboard button and all was done. In this mode the steering loaded up slightly, but because the Sprinter is fitted with a centre differential it could be driven on firm surfaces and at all speeds in 4WD mode. Disconnecting 4WD mode was done in the reverse manner, by slowing to under 10km/h and slipping the
auto lever into ‘N’ before hitting the button once again.
In 4WD mode the Sprinter had much more grip than its tall stance suggested and we embarrassed a couple of 4WD utes on loose gravel. The Sprinter sat flat through twisty bits and it took a great deal of provocation in tight corners to activate the dynamic stability control system.
On rough, corrugated and potholed surfaces the combination of coil struts up front and long mono-leaves at the rear gave an excellent, pitch-free ride. We could maintain high cruising speeds without effort.
Anyone who’s driven a Japanese 4WD Mitsubishi Canter or Isuzu N-Series light truck will be amazed by the contrast with the Sprinter 4×4. The Japanese vehicles have poor ride quality on good surfaces and are quite uncomfortable on rough surfaces.
The Sprinter rides as well on rough surfaces as most 4WD wagons and better than 4WD utes.
Our test van was fitted with the excellent Mercedes-Benz W5A380 tiptronic-style auto five-speed main box, which has a quicker shift action than many 4WD wagon boxes. Shifts were seamless and easily manually overridden by a sideways flicking action of the lever.
The three-litre aluminium block-and-heads V6 diesel comes from the M-Class and has ample grunt to propel the loaded Sprinter 318 to illegal speeds very smartly.
Noise levels inside the unlined van body were louder than ute levels, but we know from experience that an interior fitout quietens van noise markedly.
Vision from the high-set driving perch over the sloping bonnet was excellent and checking the rear was made easy by powered, folding truck-sized mirrors, supplemented by wide-view spotters.
We’ve done tests overseas in vehicles like this and have found them to be ‘traction trucks’ that have enhanced tractive effort on loose and slippery surfaces, but no real off-road ability. The Sprinter 4×4 van proved to be quite different.
Low range selection was done at rest, with the transmission in ‘N’ or ‘P’ and to enhance grip we dropped tyre pressures in the relatively skinny 235/65R16s to a recommended bottom setting of 40psi.
We didn’t expect too much from this open-diff machine on steep, loose sandstone climbs, but we were soon amazed by the agility of this big box on our off-road course. It went everywhere LSD-equipped 4WD utes could go and then some.
The traction control system proved to be very powerful and enduring, controlling spin constantly as the street-pattern, van tyres lost grip. Fatter, lower-pressure rubber would have made a huge difference.
Given that the part-loaded van had non-bush tyres we didn’t tempt fate by dropping pressures to 16psi and running it on soft beach sand. Beach-goers would need after-market wider rims and tyres.
Despite its volume the Sprinter van doesn’t weigh any more than a LandCruiser 200 Series or a Land Rover Discovery.
Our second test vehicle was a 516 crew-cab/chassis, powered by the twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel, driving through a five-speed auto to lower-speed final drive ratios.
A third test machine – a 516 short-cab – had the 2015 upgrades, but still retained the old five-speed auto box.
Slow diffs meant that the four-cylinder diesel had to rev over 3000rpm at highway speeds and fuel consumption suffered drastically, from an 80km/h average speed consumption of 14L/100km to more than 20L/100km at 110km/h.
The positive side of its lower-speed diffs was great creeping ability on sites.
Cab equipment was similar to that in the test van, but behind the twin front bucket seats in the crew cab was a four-seat bench, with all positions having lap-sash seat belts.
The crew-cab had space galore, with ample rear seat legroom and easy walk-through to the front seats. The space between the front seats could easily accommodate a 40-litre fridge.
Our 516 short-cab had a two-seat passenger bench, but a single passenger seat is optional.
Off road, the tray-back 516 models were far less capable than the 318 van, because their 205-section tryres were way too skinny to get much grip on loose surfaces. They also had a propensity to sink into soft ground, even with pressures dropped to 25psi. The 516 tray-backs were definitely traction-trucks, not nimble off-road performers.
Oberaginer makes a wide-wheel option, but Mercedes-Benz Australia doesn’t list it.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 is doing some business as a ute replacement, a camper van, a bush fire fighting vehicle, or an off-road tour bus, but its potential is greater, we feel.
We’d like to see all the available Oberaigner kit – including the deep-reduction transfer case at left – incorporated in the Mercedes-Benz Australian model lineup, but the range even as it stands has appeal to buyers
The 2020 Sprinter
Our most recent Sprinter 4WD test vehicle was a 519 cab/tray that had been given the full-option treatment. As such, with leather steering wheel rim, digital radio, MBUX multimedia system with 255mm touchscreen, Active Distance Assist, climate control aircon, traffic sign camera, active lane-keeping, reverse warning, jet-black paint and a factory-fitted steel tray with aluminium dropsides and compressed-wood floor, it had a RRP of $87,879.
The 4WD kit and the tray body reduced bare cab/chassis payload by 500kg, compared with that of a 2WD model.
The 519 model’s dynamics were similar to our previous ‘5’ series test vehicles, but the latest version of the aluminium three-litre V6 was even quieter and drove through the seven-speed auto. Shifts were absolutely imperceptible, other than for a change in the tacho needle position and could be overruled by use of steering-column paddle shifts.
We drove it unladen and found ride quality excellent. With a 1.6-tonnes load that took its gross mass right up to the 4490kg limit the ride quality was even better, marred only by too-soft front dampers that didn’t fully control ups and downs over Aussie ruts and corrugations.
We took it onto bush construction sites and it had adequate ground clearance, traction control and gearing for that type of work. But a bush-basher it ain’t!
Our top-shelf test vehicle was a tad over the top for fleet purchase, we reckon and not just because of ‘frills’, such as climate-control air conditioning and the flash display screen. The biggest issue for fleet use, we felt, was the control wand for the seven-speed auto box.
The ratio selector looked exactly like the right-hand direction-indicator wand fitted to most Australian-market vehicles. As such it was very easy to forget its real purpose and flick the wand when signalling turns, sending the transmission into neutral. We didn’t like it one bit.
According to a ‘Benz driver trainer the wand design and position was chosen because of arm injuries in frontal accidents, caused by drivers leaving their hands on left-side-mounted gear knobs. How about a knurled dashboard dial instead of the steering column wand?
Also, as we found with previous test vehicles, the 4WD engagement and low-range selection switches were sometimes slow in action.
Those issues apart, the 2020 Sprinter 4WD 519 model did its ‘traction truck’ job perfectly. Ride quality and handling were as we’ve recorded for its predecessors and performance was outstanding. Using the paddle shifts for downshifting produced reasonable engine braking at full GVM.
Depending on road and traffic conditions fuel consumption averaged 12-14L/100km when unladen and 16-17L/100km at GVM.
We can see a successful ‘tradie’ having one of these, with short or crew cabin, using a body-swap system: one module for work and the other, a slide-on camper for recreation. Of course, with a less potent four-cylinder diesel and six-speed manual box, Sprinter 4WD pricing starts around 60 grand, which is ute money.
In summary, the new Sprinter 4WD range is stronger at 4.5-5.0 tonnes GVM van and cab/chassis end of the light-4WD-truck market, now that VW’s Crafter 4Motion represents much better value for money in the 3.5-4.0 tonnes GVM segment.