The interior is comfortable and very well equipped, even before you add options. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The interior is comfortable and very well equipped, even before you add options. Picture: MARK SMYTH

The van has not always had much to brag about. Cars are all about comfort, performance and tech. Trucks are about big torque figures, big payloads and big presence.

The van sits in the middle, going about its business of delivering goods and being the vital means of transport for small businesses. It is also a vehicle of immense versatility with the ability to be transformed into anything from a luxury minibus to a fully equipped ambulance. Some vans have even become icons, like the Ford Transit or the Volkswagen Transporter.

For some the van has been the best of all worlds, particularly to the entrepreneur who has needed something bigger than a bakkie. They all but live in the van, spending hours in it every day, whether it be for their own business or as a driver for a local or multinational company.

The van is becoming far less modest than it once was. Actually it’s difficult to really be modest when the van in question measures in at a whopping 6.96m long and more than 2.6m high. In fact, when the latest generation Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 316 L3 H2 RWD was delivered, it dwarfed my house and part of the next door neighbour’s house too. So not modest at all and actually quite menacing in Obsidian Black Metallic, an optional colour.

The new Sprinter will launch in SA late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2019, but we got our hands on the latest generation in the UK recently. Mercedes says it sets new standards. Normally we would pass this off as marketing hype and smile and nod. But it does.

Before I get into some of those new standards, some essential figures because for some it will not be about the fact that the new Sprinter can be fitted with the same Mercedes-Me connected infotainment system as the new A-Class.

At nearly 7m long the Sprinter was not too out of place in the truck stop parking. Picture: MARK SMYTH
At nearly 7m long the Sprinter was not too out of place in the truck stop parking. Picture: MARK SMYTH

The range will start with the L1 at 5,297mm long. All models by the way are 2,345mm wide, including the massive dual wing mirrors, which incidentally can be electrically folded in, very useful when squeezing through narrow country lanes or packed city streets. The longest is the L4 at 7,367mm. Vehicle heights range from the H1 at 2,365mm to the H3 at 2,831mm.

Then there are the load areas. All are 1,787mm wide with a 1,555mm wide door width. The L1 has a cargo length of 2,607mm with the longest, the L4, featuring a huge 4,707mm. Our L3 on test has 4,307mm.

Gross combination weights range from 5,000kg to 7,000kg depending on the derivative.

Under the bonnet is either a 2,1433cc or a 2,987cc turbodiesel engine with power ranging from 83kW to 142kW and torque between 300 and 440Nm. In Europe all engines are Euro 6b, currently the cleanest of the clean diesels until RDE comes along but SA will get Euro 5 and Euro 6 engines. In the case of the 316, this one is Euro 6b but the one in SA will be Euro 5. Only the top spec 319 CDI will be Euro 6.

Price? We have no idea yet because Mercedes-Benz SA says it has not yet decided its final pricing for the range and given the volatility of the exchange rate, they will probably leave it until the last minute to announce it. What we can tell you is that in the UK the range starts from R455,000 excluding VAT but that also does not factor in SA import duties and other taxes. The Sprinter we tested has a base price of R636,554 but then there are options.

These options are where things get more car-like because the model we tested had quite a few. They included navigation, Tempmatic air-conditioning, reversing camera, blind spot assist, active lane keeping assist, Eco stop/start and that Obsidian Black metallic paint.

The doors have been designed to provide optimal access. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The doors have been designed to provide optimal access. Picture: MARK SMYTH

The MBUX or Mercedes-Me system was standard and it provided a wide range of downloadable apps, accessible through a seven-inch touchscreen, as well as the option for connecting to your smartphone and streaming media from various sources. It also includes the ability to utilise productivity apps from Daimler or other providers. But as the saying goes, there’s more because you can control it all using your voice or using the superb buttons on the steering wheel, buttons which are similar to those you will find on an S-Class luxury limo.

This brings me to the ride comfort. I’ve talked before about how comfortable vans are becoming but the Sprinter takes things to another level. Whether on bumpy back roads or smooth motorways, the engine provided excellent response which just a hint of lag from the seven-speed automatic transmission. We even used the paddle shifts on occasion — yes, really, the new Sprinter has paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

The suspension and electronic systems kept things nice and level at all times too. I’ve driven cars with more body roll than the Sprinter, which is good because obviously the arrival of a nearly seven metre 7m long van had me sent off to collect furniture. Even the loose furniture components lying around that cavernous space did not roll around as I drove. It’s all rather clever but there are numerous tie down points and a load rail system for the professionals.

Loading is easy courtesy of the rear doors which open almost flat to the side of the van and a vast side-opening door too. Even the loading sill is at a good height.

It’s also an easy van to drive in spite of its large dimensions. The driving position is excellent as is the visibility. On that subject, the two reversing cameras at different heights make reversing to park or turn around easy too.

Safety tech is also superb. It has active lane keeping to keep you from veering out of your lane, blind spot detection to ensure you do not pull out when you shouldn’t and something I had never experienced before — crosswind detection. It was a bit odd because as I passed a truck suddenly I felt the wind hit the side and the electronics controlled one of the wheels to ensure everything stayed straight. Very clever.

The new Sprinter is definitely much more than just a van.

Over the years there have been a few that I have described as car-like in their ride but the new Merc takes it a step further to be car-like in ride, comfort and equipment.

For some it will be a hard choice whether to buy a small truck or a large Sprinter and much will depend on the price when it arrives. If Mercedes SA gets it right then the Sprinter will be a hard one to bet against.