Cargo vans haven’t been the sexiest segment of the automotive market since, well, ever. But the segment has never been so diverse as it is now, with a mix of old and new vans for sale in the United States. Some offer traditional body-on-frame construction with eight cylinders pushing the rear wheels. And then Mercedes-Benz has the Sprinter. It’s been sold here for a while, first as a Freightliner and then (in the DaimlerChrysler days), a Dodge. In any case, the unibody-ish Sprinter was substantially updated last year. Mercedes-Benz sent us a 2020 Sprinter 2500 Crew with the standard four-cylinder powerplant to see what we thought.
What Is It?
This is a 2020 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500, equipped as a “Crew” van with seating for five and a generous space for cargo behind the second-row bench seat. Our Sprinter rode on the shorter 144″ wheelbase (170″ is optional) and had the higher of two roof options, which provided about 6’3″ of clearance inside the van. Standard on Sprinter 2500 is a turbocharged, four-cylinder gasoline engine paired to a nine-speed automatic (“9G-Tronic,” in Mercedes-speak) and rear-wheel drive. Our Sprinter 2500 was painted Calcite Yellow, which reminded me a bit of a DHL van, but grew on me throughout the week.
Mercedes-Benz offers a whirlwind of configurations for the Sprinter, from seating (minimum of two, maximum of 15), wheelbase (144″ or 170″), drive wheels (rear wheel or all-wheel), engine (inline four gas or V6 diesel), roof height (low or high), and even number of wheels (a “dually” rear axle is optional on 3500 and 4500). Most Sprinters are rated to tow 5,000 pounds, though the Sprinter 3500 and 4500 can be equipped to pull 7,500.
The options list is also plentiful, and the Sprinter can be built as a pretty stripped-out work van or hotted-up into something reasonably nice – for a cargo van. Ours was built with plenty of options, including a smattering of driver-assistance technology, black leatherette seats with heat, three memory settings, and 10-way power adjustment, a full-featured leather-wrapped steering wheel, LED headlights, and the company’s latest “MBUX” infotainment system displayed on a 10.25″ touchscreen.
Moving to the back of the Sprinter 2500, we found an optional wood floor with D-rings placed throughout, and PVC side wall panels for a more finished appearance.
MSRP for our 2020 Sprinter 2500 Crew with a total of 26 option boxes checked (everything is an option, including the interior rear-view mirror) was $56,398. That’s substantial, for a van with no real interior past the second row.
Driving the 2020 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500
I was skeptical before the Sprinter was dropped off. The standard turbocharged four-cylinder makes a whole 188 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. How in the world could it keep up with traffic unloaded, let alone with 5,000 pounds stuck to the back of the van? Even if my van had the optional turbodiesel V6, horsepower would remain the same though torque increases to 324 lb-ft.
In any case, my skepticism turned to acceptance as I drove the Sprinter 2500 unloaded. All four-cylinder Sprinters are paired to a 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic, and the lower gears are very short, which means the van can get moving with ease. Having nine gears on tap allows the engine to stay in the power band without much hassle, though the quick-shifting gearbox does swap cogs often to allow it.
Beyond the drivetrain, I found the Sprinter 2500 to be very maneuverable in the city. Visibility is good, though I wished the side mirrors were a bit wider. The convex portion of the side mirrors helped avoid curbs and when parking in tight spaces. Steering was quick and responsive, and brakes had solid feel and plenty of bite.
Mercedes-Benz focused on driver comfort with the 2020 Sprinter, and it shows. The seating position is great, and unlike other cargo vans I’ve driven, I had plenty of room in the foot well. Seats were comfortable, with extendable thigh bolsters, ratcheting armrests, power adjustment, and three-stage heat. I really enjoyed the steering wheel, which was leather-wrapped and of a perfect thickness. Airbags abound, including a standard thorax airbag for extra safety.
As mentioned, my Sprinter 2500 had the new MBUX infotainment system on a 10.25″ center screen. A smaller 7″ screen that also runs MBUX is optional and costs less. This was my first time using MBUX, as it debuted in the 2020 Sprinter and A-Class, and it was impressive. Processing speed was snappy, and advanced voice commands with a simple “Hey Mercedes” or “Hey Sprinter” prompt worked well. The navigation seemed to warn me of upcoming turns a bit too late for my taste. Otherwise, the system was easy to use and very configurable.
The cabin of the Sprinter 2500 offers enough storage, between door and dashboard pockets. My van also had some USB ports scattered throughout the front cabin for MBUX connectivity and device charging – though they were all USB-C. While USB-C is an upcoming “new standard” for mobile devices, some – namely iPhones – aren’t there yet.
Towing and Hauling With the 2020 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500
The whole purpose of having a “crew” van with tons of cargo space is to allow room for toolboxes, shelving, and so on. And indeed, the Sprinter 2500 offered plenty of space. It would be easy to build out one of these vans to support a race weekend, whether you race a car or motorcycle. Motorcycle owners could easily roll the bike right into the back of the van for easy transport without a trailer.
Of course, should a track/race car be involved, you’ll be pulling a trailer. Disappointingly, the Sprinter 2500 is not rated to pull more than 5,000 pounds, even if you option the turbodiesel six-cylinder over my test van’s inline four. The only way to pull 7,500 pounds, according to Mercedes-Benz, is to choose a short-wheelbase six-cylinder Sprinter 3500 or 4500 “Crew,” with five seats. More basic models of Sprinter 3500/4500 can also pull that weight, but you will not pull 7,500 pounds using a Passenger-spec van, according to M-B.
So, with my enclosed trailer out of the picture due to loaded weight, I borrowed my friend’s open trailer and loaded up my racecar. My 1997 BMW M3 has been at a friend’s race shop since January for some off-season repair and upgrades. Although our race season has yet to start, due to COVID-19, the car was ready and needed to be retrieved to make way for new work still coming in.
Fully loaded weight of the open trailer and BMW was, roughly, 4,600 pounds. Mercedes-Benz does not offer a trailer brake controller as an option on any Sprinter, but I was able to use my Tekonsha Prodigy RF as with the Toyota Sequoia I reviewed last year. The Prodigy RF plugs in-line, between the trailer and tow vehicle, and is controlled with a wireless remote from the cabin.
The Sprinter 2500, even with its small four-cylinder, accelerated onto the highway with ease. Proper gearing is, apparently, your friend. At highway speed, however, things were unpleasant. The high roof, a marvel for us tall folks who want to walk around in the van, makes the van susceptible to wind. Even though Mercedes-Benz includes a “crosswind management” stability program, I had to feed some counter-steer inputs to the van to keep us moving straight. We moved along at 60 or 65 mph easily enough and there was power available for passing if needed – though not much.
Noise was the other contributing factor to my unpleasant tow. The Sprinter, on the highway, is loud. This isn’t really a dig at the Sprinter, but rather any “crew van.” With no insulation, paneling, or carpeting beyond the second row, the Sprinter 2500 Crew was a boomy box that allowed every noise to be amplified. The van’s unibody(ish, there’s a frame welded directly to the unibody) structure meant noise from the tow hitch and receiver was also amplified substantially.
Configuring This Different Van… Differently
Though I came away impressed with the 2020 Sprinter 2500’s general demeanor unloaded, the particular configuration I received isn’t one I’d recommend to others looking to tow a car and build out as a support vehicle.
My towing complaints could be solved by choosing the low roof for greater stability, and either using a Passenger van base or adding insulation to the rear half of a Crew van as part of the build to reduce interior noise. I’d also choose the turbodiesel V6 for that extra bump in torque. And that van can be built for a similar price to the model I received.
Cost-wise, the Sprinter is more expensive than competitors, but it also offers more. Driver comfort, technology, and driver-assistance features are all class-leading, and the only model that can come close is Ford’s Transit. Everyone’s idea of “worth it” is different, but equipped properly, the 2020 Sprinter is a strong option for those looking to live the #VanLife.