The heavy-duty Dodge Sprinter van is a little too much truck for most family needs, but it might be the best trade Mercedes-Benz has given DaimlerChrysler.
Sprinter is a commercial-grade Mercedes-Benz chassis that has been routed to Dodge to take the place of the discontinued big Ram van. Many under-the-skin parts are applied to DaimlerChrysler vehicles from Mercedes, but Sprinter is the first transplant.As a working-class Mercedes, there is nothing cushy about the van, but it is not unrefined and represents a substantial technological advancement from the old van it replaces.
Built on a heavy-duty chassis and offered only with a five-cylinder diesel engine, this 19-foot-long rig gets 25 miles to the gallon - Dodge says - in combined city and highway driving.
The base price of $33,991 provides a spartan experience, but the well-optioned test truck - $42,000 - costs much less than some full-size SUVs.
But don't expect any price breaks. The 2007 models will have engine modifications to accommodate new emissions regulations that will boost the price significantly. If you were considering one of these, this might be the year to buy one.
Hard to believe, but this ungainly looking vehicle handles, accelerates and brakes better than its lower-profile large-van competitors. And it can carry almost twice the payload of a pickup truck. The interior is hose-it-out, rubber mat utility grade.
The chassis can be configured in three lengths up to 22 feet as a cargo van, chassis cab (such as for a motor home or plumber's truck) or a 10-passenger van, which a hotel or large family might value.
My kids nicknamed the test truck the "space shuttle," because of its size and shape. This one had the option for the "super high roof," which allows 6 feet of standing room. Head room will be reduced a couple of inches by the optional air conditioning ducts.
And the extra AC, part of a $2,668 option group, would be necessary for people-hauling. To expect the dashboard air conditioning to cool more than 300 cubic feet of space would be illogical.
The test truck even came with an auxiliary heater.
It might seem limited as a people-hauler when compared with the available 15-passenger rigs offered by Ford and GM, but the individual bucket-like seats in Sprinter have adult width. They're firm - hard firm for a long drive - but better than being squeezed onto the spongy bench seats offered by the competition.
There's also substantial motion if you have riders who are sensitive to carsickness. The side windows don't slide or lower.
The tester also came with additional sound insulation, but the first thing I'd do as an owner would be to treat the underside of the interior and headliner to a layer of Dynamat soundproofing. That would blunt the "airport van" ambience and help muffle the din of squeaks and rattles that were incessant in the test truck.
Not even the four-speaker audio system - an upgrade from a two-speaker - couldn't outdo the racket. Dodge says the squeaks and rattles are not typical and is having the test truck checked out.
The van lives up to its name in acceleration. The 2.7 liter inline five-cylinder diesel might seem modest in dimensions, but the turbocharged torque gets it out front fast from the light. The five-speed automatic transmission - with manual shift mode - has fuzzy logic to hold gears on downhills and to prevent gear-seeking on long freeway uphills.
Braking force has the German "more is better" engineering. Four-wheel discs are integrated with electronic brake force distribution, acceleration skid control and electronic stability.
The 42-foot turning circle is another marvel of German engineering that allows the words "Sprinter" and "nimble" to be used together. Many passenger cars require more room to make a U-turn. The driver sits with the big bus position behind the steering wheel and the optional parabolic mirrors are a big help to monitor traffic along the sides.
Sprinter is bought overwhelmingly by business customers, but with this van's good fuel economy, enlightened engineering and easy drivability, retail customers might begin to rethink their need for a full-size SUV. Just don't try to park the Sprinter in the garage.
2006 Dodge Sprinter
Body style: Full-size passenger or commercial cargo van and chassis cab
Engine: Inline 2.7-liter 5-cylinder turbo diesel with intercooler, common rail injection
Horsepower: 154 at 3,800 rpm
Torque: 243 at 1,600-2,400 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic with auxiliary cooler
Fuel economy estimate: 25 mpg combined city-highway
Fuel capacity: 26.4 gallons
Cargo space: Space shuttle capacity, or 321 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Payload: 3,154 pounds
Length: 225 inches
Height: 103.6 inches (9 1/2 feet with optional roof air conditioner)
Wheelbase: 140 inches
Curb weight: 5,085 pounds
Standard equipment: Air conditioning, 2-speaker AM-FM-cassette (optionalsingle CD), passenger seat storage, rubber floor covering, tool kit and hydraulic jack
Safety equipment: Front air bags, traction control, acceleration skid control, anti-lock brakes
Brakes: 4-wheel discs with electronic brake force distribution and ABS
Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion servo steering; turning circle, 42 feet
Suspension: Independent front with stabilizer bar; rigid axle rear
Tires and wheels: 225/75R16-inch and steel wheels
Base: $33,991, including $880 freight charge; price as tested, $41,898
Options on test vehicle: Silver metallic paint, $895; cloth bucket seats, $382; preferred package 22B, $271, includes front luxury bucket seats with comfort head rests, driver seat lumbar adjustment, rear seat head rests; Accessory group, $58, front passenger assist grip and reading lights front and rear; Maintenance group, $167, low washer fluid warning light, maintenance monitoring system and air filter restriction indicator; Power Convenience package, $668, keyless entry, power windows and locks; Auxiliary front heating group, $776, adds auxiliary front heater, timer and sender fuel for heater; Cooling group, $2,668, adds 150-amp alternator and rear heavy-duty air conditioning; sunscreen glass, $432; 2 additional keys, $75; front and rear insulation, $192; parabolic side mirrors, $57; daytime running headlamps, $50; fog lights, $146; front fascia chrome trim, $151; cruise control, $241; 4 speakers, $85; 16-inch aluminum wheels, $593
The competition: Ford E-Series, GM Express/G van
Where assembled: Dusseldorf, Germany (South Carolina for the chassis cabs and cargo vans)
PLUSES: Efficient, economical, maneuverable and not a struggle to drive, for something as big as a barn.
MINUSES: A din of squeaks and rattles.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at [email protected]