The Sprinter was engineered and built by Mercedes; the sole Dodge contribution to the project was their logo. Though it is versatile and unique, it could have used an injection of Dodge common sense.
The Sprinter comes with a bewildering variety of options, including a raised roof that makes it truly unique; a diesel engine that boosts gas mileage, reportedly to a class-best of at least 20 mpg; a chassis cab version popular among upfitters; several seating arrangements when sold as a passenger van; a cargo van; and different lengths. In the second generation to be sold in the United States, a Mercedes gas engine was also added as an option, supplementing the standard diesel - as an $1,800 credit option, meaning that ordering it lowers the price. There are now three Sprinter lengths (233, 273, and 289) on two new wheelbases (144 inches and 170 inches), with three interior roof height options: 65 inches, 76 inches, and 84 inches.
Technologically, the Sprinter is a tour de force, with features like a load-sensing active suspension that keeps it on all four feet. Ergonomically, it is less impressive, and shows that Mercedes has not been especially active in the field of user testing. It's not that anything is outrageously poorly designed, but it's matter of dozens of minor issues.
When it comes to comfort, the American vans have a substantial edge over the Sprinter. The GM and Ford - and even the last of the Dodges, which are no longer made - are quieter, softer, have more comfortable seats, and have more impressive interior trim. They are also lower, so that people have to bend over more than in the raised-roof Sprinter, and wider, making them harder to park and drive. But the main reason to go for the Sprinter over the Chevy, Ford, or used Dodge is the gas mileage with the diesel. The V8 powered American vans get around 12-18 mpg; the Sprinter diesel is quoted at 20-22 mpg (the EPA does not demand gas mileage figures for vehicles in this class). Equipped with a gas engine, the Sprinter is much less attractive; we got around 13 mpg city, 16 highway, with a maximum of around 17 mpg going a roughly steady 40-50 mph, but the standard, lower axle ratio would have raised the mileage.
Inside, the driver is faced by a nice-enough instrument panel, with a big tachometer and speedometer, both with bright trim rings, and a surprisingly small gas gauge inside the tachometer. The tach is marked out in units from 10 to 70, a break from convention that can sometimes confuse the unsuspecting driver, used to having speedometers on the right and tachometers marked out with single or triple digits. An optional digital display between the two big gauges provides information such as the odometer, trip odometer, time, and either the speed or the outside temperature (switching between the two requires a trip through the vehicle preferences). The display can also be switched to the gas mileage and average speed (per trip or since reset; the per-trip option understands that sometimes you have to switch off the engine for a few minutes, and doesn't reset every time you do so). The same display is used for setting vehicle preferences, which are broken up into several categories though there really aren't that many things to set.
The 2007 Sprinter, like the 2003-2006 model, is sold with a turbodiesel engine. The current powerplant is a 3.5-liter V6, producing 154 horsepower and 280 pounds/feet of torque; coupled with a five-speed automatic, equipped with a shifter that allows floor mounted column shifting, the throttle response is quite good, with (seemingly) better acceleration than the earlier engine. The observed fuel economy, with only a driver, was 14.4 mpg at 60 mph; and it rose to 15.7 mpg at 35 mph and then rose to 16 mph at 27 mph. We feather-footed the accelerator as much as possible; but in city driving, with drivers evidencing various states of frustration with a 9-foot tall van in front of them, it was difficult. The new diesel is quiet, though, with just a trace of that clicka-clicka-clicka chattering; most passengers might never guess it's not a gasoline-powered engine. – Terry Parkhurst
Our test vehicle had a set of four switch covers to the left of the steering column, and three blank switch covers in the center stack, so there must be a number of interesting options we didn't have. The headlights are mounted on the dash, with a choice of optional front and front-and-rear fog lights - the former to see through fog, the latter to annoy people behind you (or drive through unusually thick fog). The key goes into the dashboard on the other side, above another two blank switches and next to the control for the interior lighting (and yet another blank switch). The key itself is one of those Volkswagen-style things that comes out like a switchblade; it's more gimmicky than useful, though one could argue it gives them more room for extra key-fob buttons.
One place where the Sprinter really shines is storage. There are capacious divided compartments above the instrument panel, above the dashboard on the passenger side, and, with a cover, above the center stack (the latter is an option). You can store big maps, papers, EZ-Pass units, and all sorts of other things in these. It's a great way to use all that space that normally goes to waste and is no doubt terribly useful for the target audience of these vehicles. The covered compartment above the center console swallows up CDs easily - as does the optional six-disc CD changer that supplements the single-CD stereo. In case more room for huge flat objects was needed, there are also storage spaces above the huge sun visors, and map pockets in the two front doors.
The center stack itself includes a huge stereo, on which are mounted phone controls and a standard telephone pushbutton matrix (which unfortunately can't be used to directly tune in radio stations). The stereo itself has fair-to-middling sound quality, which is probably not surprising given the huge space and acoustic qualities of the van. The controls are a bit unnecessarily hard to use, with softbuttons that change function depending on their context (one needs to read the display to see which button does what); no manual tuning; and indirect bass/treble and balance/fade controls. The phone control, incidentally, is for a Bluetooth-enabled phone that you bring in.
Beneath the stereo is the climate control, which again is fairly complex to look at but works as one would expect. The fan is rather noisy even at low speeds, and for some reason blows out the front vents when the defroster is selected. Though there were three knobs on our test car, one was for the front temperature (thermostatically controlled), one was for the optional rear unit (hot or cold), and the third was for vent selection, so fan speed was controlled by a pair of pushbuttons. The rear unit, which probably contributed to poor highway mileage through its wind drag, is controlled from up front, using an on-off button and the two fan buttons; it has a three-speed fan, while the front has four speeds. There are three electric defroster buttons in two locations, one with the climate control and two positioned between the stability-control shutoff and the driver's heated seat.
Below the climate controls is a row of buttons, for heated seats, door locking, park-alert shutoff, stability control shutoff, defrosters, and the emergency flashers. Below those buttons are the CD changer, ashtray, and, to the left, the console-mounted gearshift, which follows a trend set by Japanese minivans and the Prius. This one has an odd gated pattern, but it's not awkwardly located, and not having it on the floor allows the driver to walk into the back of the van without difficulty.
The heated seats are worth a mention, because they are available with cloth, and include both the seat and the seat-back, the latter being in some ways more useful (especially to those with back problems). The optional armrests are less than ideal, though, because of their high placement and the fact that they only adjust in terms of angle - and rather than falling into a single position, they have to be adjusted via a finicky ratchet system.
Power windows are controlled from the front doors (those are the only powered windows); power locks are controlled from a single switch on the dashboard, with a red light to indicate that the doors are locked. At first we thought the power locks did not control the front passenger door, but later we realized that lock actuator might be broken.
Above the center console, mounted on the roof, were two mysterious buttons that turned out to be related to the security system, one of which defeats the internal motion sensor - something not found on most vehicles, but then, most vehicles aren't designed to hold cargo. The other shuts the system off for towing. The other controls were map lights for the front (three of them - two for individual lights and one for both) and another which seems to activate the dome lights when the side door is opened. The sunroof control is in the center of this console, which also includes the microphone for the UConnect phone system.
Throughout our vehicle, surfaces were covered either in an inoffensive light-gray cloth or in a durable-looking, often ill-fitting, slip-resistant plastic, making cleaning look easy. No attempt was made to make the Sprinter look like a luxury vehicle or even an upscale one; utility was first and foremost.
The Sprinter was far more pleasing in terms of the view: the windows were simply enormous, providing an excellent view for all passengers and the driver. The windshield was gigantic, and sloped gently upwards (requiring equally gigantic windshield wipers), while the side windows went far down and far up. Mirrors were proportional to the vehicle's size, and there were helper mirrors below the big straight ones (the helper mirrors had to be adjusted manually while the primaries were electrically operated). For admiring the scenery, there's no beating a Sprinter, except perhaps with a convertible — and those tend to have larger blind spots. We also don't know of any convertibles that seat ten people.
Seats were moderately uncomfortable throughout the vehicle, and the ride in the middle seats were disquieting, giving us that out-of-control feeling we've encountered in few vehicles, the last being the Pontiac Aztek (from the rear seats). A "comfort seat" with adjustments is also available for all but the front row; in our case, the front row seats had manual adjustments for height, reclining, and lumbar support. A tool kit is stored under the floor on the passenger side; the battery is under the floor on the driver's side. Amusingly, the location of the gas cap is not noted anywhere in the owner's manual, nor is it marked; it's actually cleverly placed, though, behind a panel by the driver's door, which cannot be opened unless the driver's door is opened first.
Access to the interior is easy, with big front doors, an oversized sliding door, and big rear doors that open fully - and, if desired, can be unlatched to swing all the way around, and fasten to magnets on the side of the van, for the widest possible opening. Seats on our model could be folded down for more cargo room. Once inside, kids could stand straight while adults only had to bend a little; the auxiliary rear air conditioner/heater stuck out mainly from the top of the roof, so it didn't affect headroom much.
Driving the Sprinter became easy fairly quickly, thanks to its unusually small width; taking turns a little wider to avoid mounting the curb was important, but otherwise, it did not seem that special skills were needed to drive a Sprinter safely. Staying within lanes was no problem, and parking was not nearly as bad as expected, though longer spaces (or two front-to-back spaces) were usually needed, and parallel parking was only possible where an exceptionally large space was available. There were blind spots to the unwary, but careful mirror adjustment, turning of the head, and a little more caution than usual prevented any problems resulting from the Sprinter's height and length. Rear visibility was impeded by the seats and the center door support, but our vehicle fortunately came with fore-and-aft parking alert, a system that lights up indicators in front or in back (depending on which way there's an obstruction) as well as lights embedded in the outside mirrors to help us get close to the edge of parking spaces without actually touching the bumper. The system works with multiple amber and red lights coupled with an audible alert.
The Sprinter feels much more stable than a vehicle of its height should be. Acceleration and braking were both quite good, with acceleration greatly aided by the gear ratios, which made for a great deal of engine noise on the highway as well as less than ideal freeway gas mileage. The Sprinter is generally noisy, with wind, road, and engine noise all higher than usual. The gas engine is rough and roudy under any sort of acceleration. The Mercedes five-speed automatic transmission is not near as refined as the Dodge five-speed truck automatic, and liked to stick in gears and let the engine rev high for longer periods than needed. It seemed to be optimized for high performance, without regard for gas mileage or noise, and using the built in automatic override was needed for smooth, normal shifting. Unfortunately, the Mercedes system does not allow fifth gear to be manually selected.
Our particular vehicle had a 4.72:1 axle ratio in place of the standard 4.1, and revved the engine to 3,000 rpm at highway speeds. Lower gearing would make it less responsive — though still quite adequate in acceleration — but more economical and much quieter above 45 mph; the transmission was already in fifth gear by 30 mph. The gas engine, when geared as ours was, was more than a match in acceleration for the V8s in American vans, which are also much heavier; it was surprisingly responsive, with strong acceleration from a start or from highway speeds, and is reportedly quick under load as well. It also required premium gas, and is likely to be pricey when repairs are needed. The diesel provides good torque and adequate acceleration - though the first generation Sprinter was more ironically than descriptively named - and is worth its added cost.
Standard safety features on the passenger van (2007 model year) include the aforementioned stability control, the usual driver and passenger airbags, LATCH car-seat anchors on certain seats (in our vehicle's case, only the seats by the window, not the middle seats), four-wheel ABS, traction control, and a rear window defroster. Standard comfort features include power steering, power doors, locks, and windows, an electric auxiliary heater, 25-gallon fuel tank, thermostatic air conditioning, CD stereo, and a day-night mirror; ten-passenger seating is standard, with three-seat benches in the second and fourth rows, and a two-seater in the middle row. Equipped that way, the Sprinter 2500 runs a reasonable $34,350, including the thrifty diesel engine.
We were surprised by the number of people who stopped us to ask about the Sprinter; apparently its size is a big draw for the big-SUV crowd, not to mention custom-van drivers. Some, who have Dodges made long, long ago, were disappointed it was a Mercedes in Ram clothing; others, mainly SUV drivers, were impressed with the height and space. We suspect our test run will pay off in at least one Sprinter sale. The vehicle definitely attracted more attention than most vehicles we drive, including the various Lexus cars which cost considerably more than this van's $44,000 asking price. Part of that might be the black paint, which made the Sprinter look even larger than it was; the raised roof also helped by making it taller than any other vehicle in any parking lot we went to. Kids and adults alike wanted tours of the interior and generally thought it was cool.
Our test car had numerous options, some of which made more sense than others; the black paint, for example, while impressive, added $740 to the price. The heater front seats and windshield, with an auxiliary rear heater, ran $1,070. The power sunroof was the usual $850, a six-disc CD changer $350, and a reflecting triangle, $20. Options included package 24B, which consisted of a “luxury” steering wheel (presumably that refers to the trip computer controls on the wheel); insulating windshield; overhead console with reading lamps; courtesy lamps; rear lighting; driver's seat headrest; power outlet; cruise; rear door windows with wiper and washer; bucket front seats; dashboard storage; information display on the dash; and rear armrests and cupholders. This all ran $1,375. The accessory group was less sensible, running $1,705 for xenon headlamps, fog lamps, headlamp washer, and rain-sensing wipers. The security group added a first aid kit, alarm, side airbags, and puncture sealant with a portable air compressor, for $1,295. Then the rear air conditioner, with an added battery and beefed up alternator, ran $2,450. An even bigger alternator was another $360. Dropping down to 9-passenger seating saved $150 and the gas engine dropped $1,840. All told, with destination, the bill was $44,585.
The Sprinter is a flexible vehicle which, with a diesel engine and raised roof, provides economies and capabilities unmatched by other vehicles available in the United States. It's not as comfortable as an American van, nor does it carry as many people as extended-wheelbase American vans, but with a diesel engine it gets much better gas mileage, and its factory-option raised roof is hard to beat for convenience. While the Sprinter was engineered for businesses, larger families may find it far more attractive than a pricey SUV; it's less comfortable than most, but far easier to deal with on a daily basis, to clean up, and, when compared to the biggest truck-based SUVs, cheaper at the pump, as long as you get the diesel.
We suspect the Sprinter will get more popular as time goes on - though if it really takes off, GM and Ford are both waiting in the wings with their own European-style vans.
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