I step out of the small airport in Kelowna, British Columbia, 242 miles northeast of Vancouver. Amid a sea of rental minivans and shuttle buses, I scan the lot for a 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
The search doesn’t take long. With a high roof, suspension lift (4.3 inches in the front, 3.1 inches in the rear), and huge “4X4” decals on its sides, my Sprinter finds a way to stand out. Since 2001, the Sprinter has paved the way for the Euro-style van in the U.S. market. But with limited ground clearance and rear-wheel drive, the Sprinter has always stayed close to the pavement.
Now looking to expand the Sprinter’s territory, Mercedes-Benz is offering 2015 models with a four-wheel-drive system, a $6,500 option on Sprinters equipped with the $985 turbodiesel V-6. Mercedes wants to sell Sprinters to companies in northern regions and in harsher climates. Places like our destination, Mica Creek, 211 miles north of Kelowna. It’s home to backcountry skiing, logging roads, and not much else.
I slide open the side door to the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Cargo Van, toss my two pieces of luggage into the 319.1-cubic-foot cargo compartment, and climb into the driver’s seat. And I do mean climb. I strap myself into the suspension seat and set off north. The part-time four-wheel-drive system only adds 265 pounds to the Sprinter’s curb weight, so dry-pavement performance doesn’t suffer much. The 3.0-liter turbo diesel V-6, putting down 188 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque, feels up to the task and responds smartly to throttle inputs.
Even though I’m almost at eye level with truck drivers, the Sprinter handles remarkably well and doesn’t roll nearly as much as I’d expected. Steering feels light and direct. I do drive with caution at speed, keeping in mind that the lift has affected the van’s center of gravity, but the chassis feels sound as I wind up two-lane roads.
The road to Mica Creek is a long, winding strip of blacktop that casually passes over and around vastly beautiful bodies of water. Past the teal lakes that look like glass loom mountains with peaks that stretch just beyond the reach of clouds. The view through the Sprinter’s massive windshield is like a ticket to an IMAX experience. I turn away from the pavement and onto logging roads, giving me my first chance to drop the Sprinter into four-wheel drive.
The Sprinter has part-time four-wheel drive. When it’s not active, full power is sent to the rear wheels. When activated, the transfer case diverts 35 percent of the torque to the front wheels. The system can be engaged from a stop or at speeds up to 6 mph with the push of a button to the right of the steering wheel. Following a guide driving a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, we bumble along a winding muddy road. The van is equipped with snow tires, which do a good enough job picking through the mud, and the added clearance ensures the occasional rut doesn’t bottom out the suspension.
Four-wheel drive is helping pull us up the more challenging hills but, honestly, I’m not doing anything a rear-wheel-drive 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter couldn’t. Well, until I get stuck. My guide is able to wiggle his way out of the slop at the top of a hill, but I can’t get my giant Sprinter going in the goop.
The guide instructs me to back up to try to gain momentum. After a few minutes spent forwarding, reversing, and watching the guide shovel a path for me, I bury the throttle. With turbo spooling and open diffs letting the untamed tires spin wildly, the electronic aids do their best to cope with the revs and wheel spin. The snow tires claw their way through the slick mud and grab hold of solid dirt. As I bounce through the ruts, the interior of the empty cargo van echoes with the sound of the suspension hitting full compression.
Finally, I make my way to hard-packed dirt and find the splendor hidden deep in the woods of British Columbia. Well outside the confines of cellphone reception and Starbucks, my Sprinter and I have made it to a part of the world that is truly remote. We take it all in as we wind our way down through a valley of melting snow and a dense forest of pine. We cap off our day’s journey with a quick dip through a flooded section of road.
Four-wheel drive makes the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter more capable without undermining its everyday drivability. Locking differentials would make it more capable, still. Of course, hard-core off-roading is really beside the point. At most, the four-wheel-drive system will help a rural FedEx driver make deliveries during a snowstorm. We, however, are happy to be among the relatively few people to have visited this part of the world. Fewer still, we might add, have made it here in a 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 Cargo Van (Standard Roof) Specifications
- Base Price: $44,596
- Engine: 3.0-liter DOHC turbo diesel V6/188 hp @ 3,800 rpm, 325 lb-ft @ 1,400-2,400 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed automatic
- Layout: 2-passenger, front-engine, 4WD cargo van
- EPA Mileage: N/A
- L x W x H: 232.5 x 79.7 x 96.3 in
- Wheelbase: 144.3 in
- Weight: 5,124 lb
- Towing: 5,000 lb