In the full-size van market, a somnambulant world where entire decades can roll by without a single redesign, the arrival of the Freightliner Sprinter (built by Mercedes truck division but badged a Dodge and sold by Dodge dealers) was as newsworthy as a meteorite landing. With its unit-body construction, turbo-diesel power, low step-in, and stand-up interior height, the Sprinter easily outclassed its old-school competitors from GM and Ford.
For 2008 (only five years after its debut!) the Sprinter has been treated to some major updates, including a 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel in place of the old five-cylinder, plus a 3.5-liter gasoline V-6 option. The most obvious change, though, is the addition of new, still-larger variants, topping out with the 170-inch wheelbase, extra-long, extra-tall, 3500-series cargo van, to the delight of delivery drivers and those of us moving a whole household's worth of crap.
Being in the latter camp, I must admit to being intimidated before I was delighted. After all, the max-everything Sprinter is a shade over 24 feet long and, with its optional Mega Roof ($1720), is a full 10 feet high. I climbed up into the seat and keyed the rumbling diesel to life. The rear barn doors have windows, but backing up still requires faith in the excellent, two-piece side mirrors. (The park sensors in this example only raised the stress level because of their penchant for sudden, hysterical false alarms.)
After backing the van into place, I swung open the rear doors and gazed at the vast, partitioned-off cargo area, which is roughly 16 feet long by 6 feet wide. I expected an all-metal space, but the floor was covered in some vinyl-like material, as were the walls (part of the $550 cargo group option).
In the cab, the seats are far apart-there's easily space for a third seat in the middle-and with a flat floor and no center console, there's room for a full-size duffle bag and a small cooler to ride up front. It's also interesting how oversize the stowage cubbies are. There are three huge compartments atop the dash, plus extra-deep slots above both sun visors. Optional "comfort" seats provide full manual adjustments, and the steering column tilts and telescopes. I was glad to see a CD stereo and power windows, but the floor is covered in a delivery-spec vinyl mat; you can hear the fuel sloshing around underneath.
The optional partition ($230), with window, that walls off the cargo hold probably quiets the ride, but the Sprinter is still loud. The diesel clatters and the whistling from its turbo is omnipresent. The diesel's considerable upside, though, is its fuel economy. I saw an indicated 17.3 mpg in one day of highway driving (at 70-75 mph), and 16.9 mpg in a second (at 75-80 mph). In a third day of mostly suburban driving, the Sprinter returned 20.1 mpg. Clearly, the Sprinter's short gearing (3000 rpm at 80 mph) really punishes higher speeds. But that's pretty incredible mileage for such a huge machine.
In fact, the mega-Sprinter is so huge that one is left wondering whether it's a large van or a small truck. When stopping at a rest area, do you park it with the cars or with the trucks/trailers? A trip to Ikea in Paramus, New Jersey was thwarted by the parking garage's 9'9" max headroom and the pointed sign "No trucks." And it's impossible to anticipate toll charges, as the Sprinter's fare seems to be subject to the whims of the toll collector. New York's Mid-Hudson Bridge: car toll $1.00, Sprinter $4.50. The Delaware Water Gap: car toll, $.75, Sprinter, $5. The Tappan Zee Bridge: car toll, $4.50, Sprinter, $13.50. As one toll collector commented: "Big truck, big bucks."