Product Evaluation: Dodge/Freightliner Sprinter

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While the Sprinter van made its North American debut last year, it may not have gotten the attention it deserves, partly because it was only available at Freightliner dealerships, and not at automotive outlets where light trucks are often purchased and serviced. Unfortunately for DaimlerChrysler, Freightliner’s parent company, Sprinters observed on the road are still rarer than Hummer sightings.

That should definitely change, with the recent announcement that the Sprinter will also be offered under the Dodge nameplate at qualifying Dodge dealers throughout the United States and Canada. And if you ask our evaluators, that’s a good thing, as they were favorably impressed with Sprinter’s qualities, including application versatility, comfort, driveability and fuel economy.

The lowdown
To back up a little, the 9,990-pound (max) GVW Sprinter has travailled the streets and highways of Europe, wearing sister company’s Mercedes-Benz badging, since 1995. It’s new only to us.

The Sprinter is offered here in cargo and passenger van layouts, for applications such as urban delivery, shuttle services for airports and municipalities, and light construction and services like utilities and landscaping. Likely competitors would be, say Chevy’s Express, Ford’s E Series and, ironically, Dodge’s own Ram vans.

Sprinter also will be available early next year as a chassis-cab, which will accommodate a variety of light-duty work bodies.

Sprinter wheelbases include 118-, 140-, and 158-inch lengths, and van roof heights are 64 inches (93 exterior) and 73 inches (102 exterior). These dimensions can allow walk-around room for folks up to six feet tall, up to 473 cubic feet of cargo space, and a payload of up to 5,170 pounds, depending on configuration.

Go-power comes from a Mercedes-Benz, 5-cylinder, 2.7-liter turbo diesel, rated at 156 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque, mated to a 5-speed Mercedes automatic. Four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS and traction control pull in the reins.

The once-over
During a group overview, a few Sprinter features gained immediate approval. The large, two-way foldable side mirrors are a must for tight, city quarters, noted an evaluator, who wished the mirrors were even larger. Also popular were the rear, barn-type doors that open 270 degrees, and can fold flat against the van’s side, held in place by magnetic stops.

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Fluid check/fill points are easily accessible, agreed evaluators, noting that the simpler routine checks are, the more likely they are to be performed.

Passenger-car-like interior features quality materials, abundant storage room, and very good ergonomics and visibility.

The interior was judged to be well finished and comfortable, with amenities more commonly found in passenger cars than in commercial vehicles. Evaluators were less than pleased to learn that a tilt steering wheel isn’t offered,1 but they appreciated the column-mounted ignition-switch, which has a lockout to prevent the starter from re-engaging once the engine is running.

In the what-in-thee-hell department, a switch that adjusts vertical headlight aim puzzled evaluators. Apparently, this carries over from Europe, where such adjustment is mandated on commercial vehicles to compensate for varying load weights. It’s a feature that DaimlerChrysler thinks will come in handy on this side of the pond as well.

Other well received interior items include: an abundance of storage compartments and pockets, with one under the passenger floorboard housing a comprehensive tool set; standard automatic climate control; and a standard radio/cassette (optional CD) sound system.

About the only creature-comfort criticism was that the cupholders were obviously not designed for great, gulping, American soft-drink cups and bottles. Then again, “We’re down to picking at cupholders, for Chrissake,” concluded one evaluator. “You know they didn’t miss much.”

The maintenance shop
While the engine bay looked a little crowded at first, evaluators were relieved to note that the front-compartment surround is easily removed, greatly improving access, with the wiper motor and HVAC blower out in the open for quick R&R.

While the single, self-tensioning, serpentine accessory drive belt was heralded as a “giant step forward,” two evaluators didn’t care for the top-mounted oil filter and semi-hidden fuel filter, saying that both would be messy to replace.2

DaimlerChrysler Sprinter service rep Mike Mallett explained the operation of the high-pressure, common-rail diesel injection system, which generates up to 20,000 psi of injection pressure independently of engine speed or crank/camshaft positions. The system, he said, helps account for the vehicle’s quiet operation and fuel-economy rating of 22 mpg.

The Sprinter’s 10,000-mile oil-change interval and 80,000-mile transmission service (new fluid and filter) were found to be reasonable, and evaluators liked the idea of an optional maintenance package. It includes a dash-mounted oil-change light, whose activation is calculated by a computer based on run time and operating parameters.

Less well received was the news that the engine electronic control unit – along with the other eight ECUs on board – need DaimlerChrysler’s proprietary, Diagnostic Assistance Systems software for service. “No plugging in your ProLink 9000 here,” said one.3

Service-wise, complaints were few, with evaluators noting sensible hose and wire routing, easy-access fuse panels on the side of the driver’s seat pedestal and under the steering column, and an easily disassembled instrument panel – once one knows where a few hidden clips and Torx fasteners are.

One evaluator lamented the lack of suspension grease fittings, however, eschewing the notion of “lubed-for-life” components. Too often, he said, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – i.e., a component is lubed for the life of the component, which may be shortened by lack of a grease fitting.4

The road
“I can see where the re-start lockout feature could be helpful,” said one evaluator as he took the wheel. Yes, the engine is that quiet, and audibly almost unrecognizable as a diesel.

The Sprinter shown brightly during test drives, eliciting favorable comments about its quick acceleration, smooth ride and flat (for a truck) handling. “That’s a difficult balance to achieve,” noted one evaluator. “Usually, a nice ride means a lot of roll in the corners, while good handling means a less compliant suspension. They’ve got this about right.”

Maneuverability was judged to be outstanding. “This thing practically turns around in its own length,” said a surprised evaluator. “If you’re making deliveries in Manhattan, you need this.”

Ergonomics and visibility were judged to be very good, but since the hood drops off so sharply from view, one evaluator found it difficult to know how close the front of the truck was to other vehicles during tight maneuvering. “It’ll just take some getting used to,” he reasoned. Also, another evaluator suggested that some of the switches and buttons could benefit from clearer function identification.5

The wrap
Over lunch, evaluators asked questions about warranty coverage and parts availability and pricing. The basic warranty, explained Paul DiLisio, manager, product positioning, is 3 years/36,000 miles, but it will soon be upgraded. The engine warranty is 5/60,000, but that also will be beefed up.

Regarding parts availability – always a concern with imported vehicles needing captive parts – Craig Fisher, vice president, marketing, assured evaluators that anything not in dealer stock could be shipped from the company’s warehouse in Memphis, Tenn., anywhere in the United States within 24 hours. Keys, which are electronically encoded, are shipped from a dedicated facility in Baltimore in the same time frame.

Parts pricing, admits Fisher, was unusually high when the Sprinter was first introduced here, “but we’ve since brought them into line with domestic equivalents,” he said.
With all questions answered, evaluators walked away feeling that, with seven years under its belt, doing business on cobblestone alleyways and autobahns, the Mercedes-born Sprinter is ready to wear its new, North American badges with confidence.

The Sprinter Product Evaluation Team (left to right): Frank Cummins, fleet procurement foreman, PECO Energy, Philadelphia; Dave Pilaro, regional maintenance manager & Doug White, director, fleet maintenance, Dunbar Armored Co., Hunt Valley, Md.; Carl Young, shop manager Old Dominion Freight Line, Camp Hill, Pa.

CCJ thanks representatives from DaimlerChrysler, including those mentioned in the article, and: Randy Jones, manager, public relations; Jerry McKinney, manager, field service. Thanks also to Dan Boyce, fleet manager, Jeff D’Ambrosio’s Auto Group, Downingtown, Pa., for hosting the evaluation.

The fleet operator’s opinion
CCJ Product Evaluations are not performed by CCJ editors. Rather, they are conducted by a team of fleet equipment managers, chosen for their experience with the type of product being evaluated. Editors report evaluators’ opinions, not their own.

An evaluation is based on a driving test and design assessment (which sometimes involves some disassembly of the vehicle), followed by a discussion among the evaluators and manufacturer’s representative(s).

The manufacturer’s responses to specific, footnoted items are included in a box at the end of this article.

As always, CCJ welcomes your comments and suggestions.

Sprinter standard specs
GVW: 8,550-8,990 lb.
Wheelbases: 118, 140, 158 in.
Engine: MBE 600, 5-cyl, 2.7L, turbo diesel, 154 hp @ 3800 rpm, 243 lb-ft torque @ 2400 rpm
Transmission: MB 5-speed automatic
Front axle: MB
Rear axle: MB
Brakes: Bosch, 4-wheel disc
Antilock: Bosch, 4-channel
Fuel tank: Square, 25-gal
Tires: 15- or 16-in., dep. on GVWR, Continental,Goodyear or Michelin
Wheels: Stamped steel, 5-lug

The manufacturer responds

  1. A tilt steering wheel will be available, most likely, standard on the next iteration of the Sprinter in 2006.
  2. If Sprinter service procedures are followed, oil and fuel filters can be changed quickly, and without spillage.
  3. Compatibility with non-proprietary diagnostic devices and software is under consideration.
  4. Field experience hasn’t shown any reduced service life for maintenance-free components.
  5. Because the Sprinter is sold worldwide, standard, international symbols are used.