The name Mercedes-Benz oozes refinement and exclusivity -- sumptuous leather interiors, solid Teutonic road manners, stately body styles. But one of the more popular Mercedes models rolling down American highways is a vehicle on the other end of the scale -- one with cloth seats, top-heavy handling and a body that resembles a giant guppy.
It's the Sprinter van -- sold in the U.S. under the Dodge nameplate -- a tall, boxy, diesel-powered van that has become popular among small businesses, delivery companies such as DHL and FedEx, shuttle services and some recreational-vehicle manufacturers.
Compared with traditional vans, the Sprinter offers superior fuel economy (from 20 to 30 miles per gallon, depending on the year and model) and much greater storage capacity (some models provide up to 7 feet of headroom).
- Sprinter vans are available locally at Town and Country Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Seattle, Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Bellevue and Larson Chrysler Dodge in Puyallup.
- The Sprinter is built in one of two factories in Germany, disassembled, and then reassembled in a factory in South Carolina -- a more cost-effective method than shipping over boatloads of finished vans.
- The vehicles have been available in Europe since 1995 and in the U.S. since 2001. More than a million have been sold worldwide.
- The Sprinter is available in three body lengths, in both cargo and passenger versions, and with three roof heights.
In Europe, the Sprinter has loads of competition from European automakers, including Fiat, Renault and Citroen. But because those manufacturers don't have dealer networks in the U.S. and no American company builds such a vehicle, there is almost no direct competition here.
Dale Clark owns Angle Lake Cyclery, a 50-year-old shop near SeaTac that specializes in unusual human-powered vehicles such as recumbent bicycles, trikes and folding models. He purchased a Sprinter van in 2007 to deliver bikes to customers and trade shows. He says that without much hassle he can load 24 bikes and trikes in the cavernous cargo area.
Clark describes himself as a "vehicular guy -- if it's got wheels on it, I'm interested." He speaks knowledgably about the Formula 1 car-racing circuit and likes to wear Ferrari-yellow Puma driving shoes. It quickly becomes clear that the vehicle he's especially fond of is his Sprinter van, which he bought sight unseen, flying to Colorado to pick it up from a dealer.
In the driver's seat, Clark goes over some of the features he enjoys, such as the firm, comfortable seats that include a hand-operated pump to adjust lumbar support. Even the plastic dashboard wins praise: "Yes, it's plastic, but it's good-quality plastic," he says.
On the open road, Clark compares the Sprinter's handling to a "Maserati with a mattress on the roof," meaning it has good side-to-side maneuverability but is top-heavy.
What really impresses him is the fuel economy. Granted, his payloads are relatively light, but he says he averages 29-30 miles per gallon in mixed city/freeway driving. That's better than his Honda Element, an SUV much smaller than the Sprinter, and almost as good as his BMW Mini Cooper.
Clark's Sprinter has a 5-cylinder diesel engine in it; the newer versions have a 6-cylinder diesel with more power and less fuel economy, in the range of 21 miles per gallon.
Clark plans to keep his Sprinter for as long as he possibly can. "I'll die with this," he says. "It's a wonderful car to drive. I say 'car,' but I guess it's really a vehicle."