Take a deep dive into the history and roots of this classic and popular Mercedes conversion camper van
Mercedes-Benz currently ranks as about the 13th largest automobile manufacturer in the world, and No. 1 for truck manufacturing. That high place on the pedestal of vehicle manufacturing has allowed for truck technical “know-how” to filter down through the automaker’s lineup and into the very DNA of the popular Sprinter conversion van.
Throughout the storied history of that 3-pointed symbol on the front of Mercedes vehicles, the German automaker has had its share of ups and downs. But making quality vehicles has always been a staple.
Mercedes van history and evolution
The Sprinter replaced Mercedes’ T1N van in 1995, which had been built since 1977. The TN’s, or “Transporters” as they were often referred to, were easily distinguishable with their stubby front noses and boxy bodies. They were built in Germany, the Philippines, Cambodia and India during their nearly 20-year run, and nearly 1 million were built.
The world’s first Sprinter design in 1995 was awarded Van of the Year, and critics and owners alike have raved about this quality-built van ever since.
The first year the Sprinter was available for purchase in North America was 2001, and it was originally called the Freightliner. Then, in 2003, many Sprinters received Dodge branding to go along with the Freightliner name.
Mercedes Sprinter van features and specs
While the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter wasn’t the Stuttgart-based company’s first foray into the van arena, it has been one of its biggest successes. Designed to efficiently carry people, goods and equipment, the Sprinter is available in 3 different varieties, each with their own length: cargo, crew or passenger.
The Sprinter passenger version can fit up to 15 people with 4 or 5 rows of seats. The crew has 2 rows of seats that can accommodate 6 people and a large cargo area, while the cargo version just has 2 or 3 seats in the front with the rest of the van open for carrying anything and everything you can squeeze into it.
The Sprinter’s tow capacity is between 5,000 and 7,500 pounds, depending on configuration. (In comparison, the Ford Transit’s tow capacity is between 3,300 and 5,900 depending on config.)
Outside of North America, Sprinters are sold with an optional 6-speed transmission, but Americans are generally only offered the 7-speed G-Tronic automatic transmission with the choice of 3 engines:
- 2L turbo diesel (161 hp, 266 lb-ft)
- 3L turbo diesel (190 hp, 324 lb-ft)
- 2L turbo gasoline engine (190hp, 258 lb-ft)
Note: Both diesel models are rated to tow up to the van’s max 7,500 lbs when properly equipped.
Sprinters have been the favorite of DIY camper van creators as well as RV companies. The diesel motor coupled with 4-wheel-drive makes it an attractive choice to add a minifridge, sink and a few burners. Throw in a few folding bed platforms (or even an air mattress) and you’re good to go. Non-4×4 versions with the diesel have been known to get low-to-mid-20 miles per gallon.
For most of its American lifespan, the Sprinter was offered with a diesel engine. Only recently was a gasoline option offered. Generally, the diesel van will outlast a gasoline-powered model (including the Ford Transit’s gasoline motor) by about double the miles. Many gas-powered vans make it to 200,000 miles, maybe even 300,000 miles. But diesel-powered versions can last 400,000+ miles.
Another important note is that some 2007-2014 Sprinters have diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) system issues, which can be costly to fix. In addition, all diesel Sprinters require ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) for fuel, which can be tricky to find at your average mom ‘n pop gas station.
Mercedes Sprinter vs. Ford Transit
Many people struggle to tell the difference between the Mercedes Sprinter and the Ford Transit. Besides having a rather similar frontend snout, other specs are quite similar between the 2 vehicles. They both offer gas and diesel engines, a variety of roof heights, sliding doors on both sides and their interior and exterior dimensions share a lot in common.
Need help deciding which vehicle is best for you?
Check out our handy comparison guide:
- Mobility. Many reviewers and drivers speak highly of the Mercedes Sprinter steering system, which is often compared to what’s found in Mercedes’ sedans. This system makes for a comfortable and easy drive.
- Comfort. The Sprinter also receives much praise for its comfortable driver’s seat and increased headroom and legroom over the Transit.
- Availability. While Ford can trace the Transit’s existence (in Europe) back several decades, the Mercedes Sprinter has been imported to America for nearly twice as long as the Transit (2001 vs. 2013), which means there’s a good supply of used Sprinters for sale.
- Ruggedness. While the Transit offers AWD for 2020 and newer vans, it does not offer 4×4 and a diesel engine like Mercedes does (and has for many years).
- Towing. It may not seem like much, but the Sprinter is capable of hauling 350 lbs more than the Transit (3,500 lbs vs. 3,150 lbs). That extra payload could make a difference depending on what’s being hauled around!
- Affordability. Long-running operating cost analysis have concluded that it’s cheaper to drive the Ford Transit. The main reasons behind the Transit’s lower operation costs include less expensive oil changes and more affordable (and slightly more readily available) replacement parts compared to the Sprinter.
- Drivability. Car and Driver rates the Transit as a smoother ride compared to the Sprinter, due to its unique suspension setup.
- Popularity. Ford says the Transit is one of the best-selling vans in America, and its sales represent a significant chunk of Ford’s 50+ share of the full-size van market.
- Space. The Transit offers a taller interior height—up to 4 inches more than the Sprinter (6’8” vs. 6’4”), but the Sprinter offers a few more cubic feet of cargo room compared to the Transit.
Is the Mercedes Sprinter right for you?
If you think a Mercedes Sprinter is in your future, contact Classic Vans to schedule an appointment to check out our new and used Mercedes vans for sale. We also carry new and used Sprinter-based camper vans and RVs, including the Airstream Interstate, Roadtrek Adventurous and Winnebago Era.
With decades of specialized van sales and knowledge, let Classic Vans be your first and last stop when it comes to purchasing a conversion van.
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