For those who need more payload than a ute can provide

Mercedes-Benz Australia hasn’t realised the potential in the Sprinter 4x4 range. Our testing showed this vehicle has good bush credentials and is worthy of consideration by anyone wanting payload capacity and cargo volume in an off-road machine.

m-b sprinter 4x4 Euro 4x2 chassis have become the standard for camper van and motorhome conversion in Australia, but until fairly recently there was no semi-bonnetted 4WD working van and cab/chassis available Down Under.

Sure, the OKA was around for a few years (Allan Whiting came up with the name ‘Okker’ for the Perth-based designers, incidentally) and several modifiers have tried to improve the poor ride quality of Fuso Canter 4x4 and Isuzu NPS light truck cab/chassis.

Now we have the M-B Sprinter 4x4 and Iveco Daily 4x4.

Iveco is pushing the Daily 4x4 quite hard and it's selling at more than twice the numbers of Sprinter 4x4s. Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, doesn't promote the Sprinter 4x4. 

Mercedes-Benz has a history of producing off-road capable light and heavy vehicles and has been the main supplier of medium 4WD and 6WD trucks to the Australian Army for years. It’s also the successful tenderer to replace the aged Land Rover fleet in the ADF with 4x4 and 6x6 G-Wagons, but for some reason the company hasn’t pursued the civilian market for its excellent 4WD products.

Off-road Sprinter variants were available in Europe from the model’s introduction in 2006, but only made it Down Under in 2010.


Sprinter 4x4 mechanicals

The Sprinter 4x4 is based on the 4x2 version, with off-road specific components engineered by Austrian company Oberaigner. This company is a ‘qualified partner and system supplier’ to Mercedes-Benz; much like AMG before it was absorbed into the Daimler empire.

Although Oberaigner makes a full-time 4WD version, with deep reduction transfer case and rear axle differential locks, the only version being imported by Mercedes-Benz Australia has a selectable-4WD driveline, without centre or rear-axle diff locks.

In late 2012 the Sprinter 4x4 picked up hill descent control and additional upgrades in 2013 and 2015, but there was still no sign of the 2.8:1 transfer case ratio, centre diff lock or across-axle diff locks that are available from Oberaigner.

On the plus side, the Sprinter 4x4 has a modified edition of the 4x2 Sprinter’s Adaptive ESP system, with ABS and ASR, electronic brake force distribution (EBD), hydraulic brake assist (BAS) and, optionally, Start-off Assist.

Adaptive ESP/4ETS also includes the control functions for the all-wheel-drive system and sensors continuously supply the central controller with information about the driver's inputs and about operating and driving conditions. The most important parameters are steering angle, accelerator position, engine speed, wheel speeds, rotational movement about the vertical axis of the vehicle (yaw) and lateral acceleration.

Mercedes-Benz Australia sells the Sprinter 4x4 in van, cab/chassis and crew-cab/chassis versions with a choice of mid (3665mm) and long (4325mm) wheelbases. m-b sprinter 4x4The Australian line-up consists of all '3' series models, apart from 310, 313 and EXL variants. No '4' Series models come as 4x4s, but all '5' Series cab/chassis do.

The ‘3’ in the model number denotes 3.55 tonnes GVM and the ‘5’ denotes 5.0 tonnes GVM, bit it can be optionally re-plated at 4.49 tonnes GVM, for car-licence drivers.

The ‘16’ denotes 163hp (120kW), from a sequentially twin-turbocharged, four cylinder, 2.1-litre diesel that has peak torque of 360Nm from 1400rpm to 2400rpm; and the ‘18’ denotes 180hp (134kW), from the same 440Nm, three-litre V6 aluminium diesel that powers the ML and GL wagons.

Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or five-speed tiptronic-style automatic, making the Sprinter the only light 4x4 truck with an auto box. The transfer case has very modest low range gearing of 1.42:1 and splits torque 33 percent front: 67 percent rear.

There's a seven-speed auto available in 4x2 Sprinters, but it can't be fitted to 4x4s, because it's longer overall than the five-ratio box.

The final drive ratios in 4x4s with four-cylinder power are different from 4x2s. The '3' Series 4x2 has a 3.923:1 diff, but the 4x4 version has 4.182:1 front and rear diffs. The '5' Series 4x2 has a 4.364:1 rear diff, but the 4x4 has 4.727:1 ratios. Sprinters with V6 power have 3.923:1 final drive ratios in both 4x2 and 4x4 versions.

What these diff ratio changes mean is that the four-cylinder 4x4 models have good low-speed charteristics, but rev too high at highway speeds. The V6 models are good at both ends of the speed spectrum.

m-b sprinter 4x4The Sprinter van is semi-monocoque in design, with an inverted hat-section frame welded to the floor pan full length. Cab/chassis models have the same sub-frame, but have a similar hat-section bolted on top, forming a box-section chassis from the cab rear wall aft.

Up front the drive axle components and suspension are mounted on a massive sub-frame. The transfer case bolts directly to the rear of the main transmission, leaving the belly area clear of obstructions.

Suspension up front is by struts and lower wishbones with an anti-sway bar, and, at the rear of the van, by long mono-leaf springs with dampers and anti-sway bar. Cab/chassis variants have two-leaf springs at the rear, with an additional 'helper' leaf.

Standard tyres on the ‘3’ series van are 235/65R16 Continental van rubber, on 6.5J steel rims, but the ‘5’ van models have skinny 205R16s up front and ‘super single’ 285/65R16 rears, on 8.5J rims. Cab/chassis have the skinny 205s, with duals on the rear axle. Neither standard tyre/wheel package is suitable for serious off-roading.

The latest Mercedes-Benz' Sprinter 4x4 models enjoy the safety initiatives that 4x2 models received in 2013. Five new systems include three world premieres for this category of vehicle: Crosswind Assist, Collision Prevention Assist and Blind Spot Assist. The systems are designed to prevent accidents from happening, rather than mitigating the consequences afterwards.

Crosswind Assist keeps a van safely on course when the wind is gusting strongly.  Collision Prevention Assist alerts the driver if the vehicle gets too close to other moving vehicles on the road ahead or to the end of a queue of traffic, while Blind Spot Assist warns a driver that vehicles in the next lane are dangerously close.  Also new are Lane Keeping Assist and Highbeam Assist.

m-b sprinter 4x4Sprinter 4x4 van and cab/chassis models sit between traditional 4WD utes and 4WD light trucks. Even with its open centre and rear diffs the Sprinter can almost match 4WD utes for off-road ability (except in soft sand), while greatly exceeding them in cargo and passenger capacity.

When compared with 4WD light trucks the Sprinter has car-like dynamic safety features, traction control, ergonomics, comfort and vastly better ride and road manners.

In 2014 the Sprinter 4x4 was a $22,000 ask above the 4x2 models, so that gave a 316 manual 4x4 mid-wheelbase cab/chassis a RRP of $66,490. Priced a LandCruiser ute cab/chassis lately? A Sprinter 316 manual van model had a RRP of $73,990, compared with the Troop Carrier’s $65,440, but the Sprinter came with a huge sliding side door and full headroom as standard. 

Payload capacity for the Sprinters ranges from around 1.4 tonnes to 2.3 tonnes, but the weak link in the Sprinter 4x4 spec’ is its open centre and axle diffs, when there are a lot more goodies in the Oberaigner tin.

In February 2018 Mercedes-Benz released a new Sprinter, with a seven-speed automatic transmission option. This new range arrived Down Under in the fourth quarter 2018.


On and off-road

m-b sprinter 4x4Our first 4x4 Sprinter test vehicle was a 318 medium wheelbase van model that Mercedes-Benz had stickered somewhat gaudily and, we thought, optimistically. Fake mud splatters up one side suggested this ungainly looking vehicle would go anywhere off-road, but we were sceptical.

We loaded the back with a half-tonne of railway sleepers, stowed four people and a heap of gear inside and ran the vehicle for two days over different road conditions.

In rear wheel drive mode, on highway, the Sprinter was undetectable from a two wheel drive model: it rode, handled and steered well.

Car-like ergonomics, cruise control, climate control, stubby transmission lever and excellent forward vision made driving it on bitumen surfaces a breeze and it was the same story on gravel.

The selectable full-time 4WD driveline engaged all wheel drive with the vehicle running in neutral and the speed below 10km/h. A push on the dashboard button and all was done. In this mode the steering loaded up slightly, but because the Sprinter is fitted with a centre differential it could be driven on firm surfaces and at all speeds in 4WD mode. Disconnecting 4WD mode was done in the reverse manner, by slowing to under 10km/h and slipping the auto lever into ‘N’ before hitting the button once again.

In 4WD mode the Sprinter had much more grip than its tall stance suggested and we embarrassed a couple of 4WD utes on loose gravel. The Sprinter sat flat through twisty bits and it took a great deal of provocation in tight corners to activate the dynamic stability control system.

On rough, corrugated and potholed surfaces the combination of coil struts up front and long mono-leaves at the rear gave an excellent, pitch-free ride. We could maintain high cruising speeds without effort.

Anyone who’s driven a Japanese 4WD Mitsubishi Canter or Isuzu N-Series light truck will be amazed by the contrast with the Sprinter 4x4. The Japanese vehicles have poor ride quality on good surfaces and are quite uncomfortable on rough surfaces.

The Sprinter rides as well on rough surfaces as most 4WD wagons and better than 4WD utes.

Our test van was fitted with the excellent Mercedes-Benz W5A380 tiptronic-style auto five-speed main box, which has a quicker shift action than many 4WD wagon boxes. Shifts were seamless and easily manually overridden by a sideways flicking action of the lever.

The three-litre aluminium block-and-heads V6 diesel comes from the M-Class and has ample grunt to propel the loaded Sprinter 318 to illegal speeds very smartly.

Noise levels inside the unlined van body were louder than ute levels, but we know from experience that an interior fitout quietens van noise markedly.

Vision from the high-set driving perch over the sloping bonnet was excellent and checking the rear was made easy by powered, folding truck-sized mirrors, supplemented by wide-view spotters.

m-b sprinter 4x4We’ve done tests overseas in vehicles like this and have found them to be  ‘traction trucks’ that have enhanced tractive effort on loose and slippery surfaces, but no real off-road ability. The Sprinter 4x4 van proved to be quite different.

Low range selection was done at rest, with the transmission in ‘N’ or ‘P’ and to enhance grip we dropped tyre pressures in the relatively skinny 235/65R16s to a recommended bottom setting of 40psi.

We didn’t expect too much from this open-diff machine on steep, loose sandstone climbs, but we were soon amazed by the agility of this big box on our off-road course. It went everywhere LSD-equipped 4WD utes could go and then some.

The traction control system proved to be very powerful and enduring, controlling spin constantly as the street-pattern, van tyres lost grip. Fatter, lower-pressure rubber would have made a huge difference.

Given that the part-loaded van had non-bush tyres we didn’t tempt fate by dropping pressures to 16psi and running it on soft beach sand. Beach-goers would need after-market wider rims and tyres.

Despite its volume the Sprinter van doesn’t weigh any more than a LandCruiser 200 Series or a Land Rover Discovery.

m-b sprinter 4x4

Our second test vehicle was a 516 crew-cab/chassis, powered by the twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel, driving through a five-speed auto to lower-speed final drive ratios.

A third test machine - a 516 short-cab - had the 2015 upgrades, but still retained the old five-speed auto box.

Slow diffs meant that the four-cylinder diesel had to rev over 3000rpm at highway speeds and fuel consumption suffered drastically, from an 80km/h average speed consumption of 14L/100km to more than 20L/100km at 110km/h.

The positive side of its lower-speed diffs was great creeping ability on sites.

Cab equipment was similar to that in the test van, but behind the twin front bucket seats in the crew cab was a four-seat bench, with all positions having lap-sash seat belts.

The crew-cab had space galore, with ample rear seat legroom and easy walk-through to the front seats. The space between the fornt seats could eaisly accommodate a 40-litre fridge.

Our 516 short-cab had a two-seat passenger bench, but a single passenger seat is optional.

sprinter 4x4 oberaignerOff road, the tray-back 516 models were far less capable than the 318 van, because their 205-section tryres were way too skinny to get much grip on loose surfaces. They also had a propensity to sink into soft ground, even with pressures dropped to 25psi. The 516 tray-backs were definitely traction-trucks, not nimble off-road performers.

Oberaginer makes a wide-wheel option for the vans and the 516, but Mercedes-Benz Australia doesn't list it.

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 should do great business as a ute replacement, a camper van, a bush fire fighting vehicle, or an off-road tour bus.

We’d like to see all the available Oberaigner kit - including the deep-reduction transer case at left - incorporated in the Mercedes-Benz Australian model lineup, but the range even as it stands should have appeal to buyers.

Unfortunately, Mercedes-Benz Australia doesn't seem very interested in marketing it.

Following is our initial test video, in which you'll see that Allan Whiting has more enthusiasm for the Sprinter 4x4 than the world's largest truck maker apparently does:

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