JUST IN CASE | Sprinter 4×4 Review

Mercedes-Benz adds all-wheel drive for the 2020 Sprinter – Words by Warren Caves, Images by Torque it Up. 

Mention the name of Mercedes-Benz in the same sentence as 4WD and it’s easy to switch in a vision of the venerable Unimog; the smaller, yet capable G-Wagon; or the X-Class ute. With the release of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4X4 is there room in that mental picture for another Mercedes-Benz credible off-road cousin?

Clearly badged on the rear of the Sprinter 519 tray back evaluated by Delivery Magazine was the 4X4 insignia. This classification should probably be viewed with some caution, as the 4X4 Sprinter in this configuration should realistically be viewed more as an all-surface vehicle, rather than a true off-roader.

The Sprinter 519 boasts bucket loads of intelligent technology and safety that’s migrated from the Mercedes passenger car range to lift the Mercedes-Benz commercial workspace to somewhere near parity of its sportier classmates.

In this all-wheel drive format the Sprinter 519 as tested was fitted with the, OM642, V6 turbo-diesel engine derived from the E-Class and also also fitted to the X-Class dual cab ute, albeit in a different state of tune.

For its Sprinter application the V6 engine is tuned to produce 140 kW of power at 3800 rpm and 440 Nm of torque over a broad 1400-2400 rpm range.  Now upgraded to a seven-speed transmission from the previous five-speed, the 7G-Tronic automatic transmission is familiar to the X-Class among other MB vehicles and joins the Sprinter cab-chassis linked to a two-speed transfer case. The push-button 4X4 drive system apportions the drivetrain in a percentage ratio of 65/35 rear-front axle power delivery.

The front suspension is via a transverse semi-elliptical leaf spring, single wishbone, strut and damper arrangement. The rear features a multi-leaf spring design to carry the burden of any necessary load.

Immediately noticeable in the cabin is the Mercedes passenger car influence. The leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, the 10.25-inch MBUX infotainment (Mercedes-Benz user experience) system, featuring 3D satellite navigation, live traffic updates and voice control can all accessed via the steering wheel buttons. Digital radio, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and climate-controlled air conditioning all add to the appeal.

Entering the cab becomes a little more of a hop compared to the 2WD Sprinter version because of the increased ride height and the awkwardly positioned grab handle which swings away with the door as it is opened. For the driver, the comfortable cloth-covered seat offered manual adjustment for slide and height but lacked any lumbar provision. The steering wheel offered both tilt and reach adjustments.

Storage options within the cab are quite good with overhead shelves, dash-top vestibules (with charging sockets), four lower cup holders and another four on the top of the dash. The passenger and centre seat also lift up to offer additional storage to place items out of sight.

Selecting drive, park neutral or reverse is achieved via the selector lever on the right side of the steering column. Positioned where one might usually expect to find an indicator stalk, neutral can be selected unintentionally by a driver unfamiliar with the controls when making a left turn (right turns are unaffected), resulting in a free-revving engine as the driver expects to power out of a turn without drive engaged.

The ride comfort was reasonably good, improving dramatically once a load was in place. Cabin noise levels I believe were adversely impacted by the bare steel-skinned rear cabin wall, transmitting a degree of driveline whine and tyre noise into the cabin.

As expected, the V6 diesel engine performed well in conjunction with the seven-speed transmission, smoothly delivering enough power and torque to keep the 2378 kg tare weight vehicle moving easily, without fuss.

The OM 624 scores Euro6 emission status for the Sprinter via SCR (Ad-Blue) and DPF technology. The 22-litre Ad-Blue tank is replenished via a filler under the bonnet, well away from the fuel tank filler, avoiding any mix up with re-fuelling. The Ad-Blue tank level can be viewed via the service menu in the Multi Information Display (MID) screen, along with engine oil level check and the DPF capture status.

Gear shifts from the 7G-Tronic were barely noticeable unless you were to monitor the snap of the tacho needle upon changes, with the staccato-like tacho reaction seemingly in stark contrast to the smoothness experienced with the actual ratio swaps.

Passive and active safety features are no stranger to Mercedes-Benz products and the Sprinter doesn’t miss out.

Active brake assist and active distance control maintain a safe distance between the Sprinter and other vehicles. Whether in an emergency situation or when driving with cruise control engaged, a pre-determined or pre-set distance is maintained via radar detection that is constantly monitoring the changing pace of the traffic flow.

Active lane-keeping assist emits an audible warning if the driver deviates from the current lane without indicating, and traffic-sign assist displays the legal maximum speed limit in the MID, which then flashes if that limit is exceeded. I found this a valuable tool, particularly when driving in unfamiliar territory, with seemingly never-ending speed limit changes.

Interestingly, the omission of blind-spot monitoring and a reverse camera seemed a little illogical given the dimensions of this particular vehicle.

The body design of the Sprinter 519 is of monocoque construction from the front bumper to the back of the cabin, where it then transforms into a ladder frame design beneath the tray, for the remainder of the vehicle length to the rear bumper.

The steel-framed, aluminium-sided tray offers up to 9. 2 cu.m of cargo floor space, enough to accommodate a generous load. The aluminium sides are easily raised and lowed courtesy of very user-friendly latches (no more scraped knuckles). Ten solid, recessed tie downs line the tray, although they do not line up with the centre of a pallet, starting from the front. This requires a pallet loaded against the headboard to be cross strapped.

The Sprinter’s 4490 kg GVM allows operation on a car licence while still providing a generous payload of 2112 kg.

To test the work ethic of the Sprinter was loaded  with a little over 2000 litres of water, which took it up to the maximum GVM in order to carry out four return trips, each  of around 35 km (which was quite handy as my house water tank was in need of a top-up).  At this weight the Sprinter’s V6 engine performed admirably with no real strain evident. In fact, the only real noticeable difference over the vehicle’s unladen performance was the tacho rising to between 2500-3500 rpm to maintain speed, which was accompanies by a noticeable improvement in ride comfort. The electric-assisted power steering did feel a little heavier, but not bicep-wrenchingly so.

Braking performance from the four-wheel disc brakes provided reassuring retardation on steep downhill grades, aided by the option of using the manual gear shift paddles on the steering wheel to downshift for increased engine braking.

So, how does the Sprinter 4X4 perform off road? Well it does have its limitations, which are not just confined to the vehicle’s dimensions.

The Sprinter was taken on some fire trails and gravel roads close to my home with reasonable results. Moderate, 50-60 km/h speeds on formed but poorly surfaced gravel roads were handled quite well, and without any sign of the rear end tending to step out of line as I’d expected. The rear suspension seemed supple enough to absorb surface imperfections without any unruly behaviour.

Where the off-road performance was let down was on ruts and off-set mogul type humps. Axle articulation was not sufficiently pliable to maintain full contact with the track surface, resulting in the traction control side of the ABS system taking over to try and maintain drive by limiting wheelspin.

The activation of the 4X4 system is a push button affair, with 4X4 high engaged by one button and low range by a separate button. Don’t expect shift on the fly though as the engagement and disengagement of both systems only occurs at speeds of 10km/h or less. Neither does the system like to disengage high 4X4 on over-run, as this requires the vehicle to be virtually stationary to shift out of either high or low-range 4X4.

A quick look underneath the Sprinter confirmed that all-wheel drive in this application with the Sprinter is to ensure safer driving on loose or slippery road surfaces or during the snow season. It’s certainly not aimed at rivalling the true off-roaders. In that application ground clearance and component protection would also need attention as the engine’s oil pan or sump, forward of the front axle, is exposed to risk of damage, as is the transfer case which is devoid of any bash plate protection. For those applications where greater underbody protection or higher ground clearance is required there are independent aftermarket suspension specialists with a range of options that are easy to find on the web.

In summary, the Sprinter 4X4 tray back is a good proposition for those wanting a little more versatility from their work truck. Delivery of materials to sloppy building sites or fencing and rural supplies to farms would be ideal working environments for the Sprinter 4X4, just don’t expect to take it across the Simpson Desert. I suspect that Mercedes-Benz engineers didn’t have that intended use in mind.

At the end of our week long test, the Sprinter recorded a fuel consumption figure, 14.3 litres/100km, in a mix of laden/empty, freeway and back road driving.

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