Thursday, January 26, 2006

What’s bigger than a breadbox, and kind of looks like one? OK, it’s really more attractive than a breadbox (does anybody really use one anymore?) and it’s considerably more functional. What we’re talking about here is the Sprinter van from the Dodge boys and girls (with some help from the Daimler arm of DaimlerChrysler).

The Sprinter first came on the scene in 2003 and it has continued to gain favor both commercially and in the private sector ever since because of its chameleonlike changeability.

The Dodge Sprinter is available in a myriad of configurations, and is powered by a 2.7-liter, inline five-cylinder CDI turbocharged diesel from the folks at Mercedes-Benz. There are essentially two types of Sprinters — those for passengers, and those intended for hauling inanimate cargo, though it’s entirely permissible to carry a combination of the two.

There are three wheelbase lengths based on two structural platforms, and two available roof heights. There’s now even a chassis/cab version for custom construction purposes. The economical diesel-fueled engine mates to an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick, offering clutchless shifting capability. Power delivery is to the rear wheels.

The Sprinter leads the market in fuel economy for its class, delivering an average of 25 miles per gallon, with a driving range of 660 miles. The cargo version also boasts best-in-class payload capacity (4,824 pounds). Cargo vans may be had with or without cabin/cargo bulkhead separation, and with or without an extended roof height.

Passenger models come with windows and may be ordered with a variety of seating setups, which in most instances are removable. The rear doors feature disconnecting door limiters and lock alongside the body, completely out of the way at 270 degrees.

Platforms consist of a 2500 version and a 3500 version, both with or without a high roof, while wheelbase lengths offered are: 2500 — 118 inches or 140 inches, regular roof; 118 inches, 140 inches and 158 inches 2500 high roof; 140 inches 3500 regular roof; and 140 inches and 158 inches 3500 high roof. The high-roof versions allow for up to 73 inches of standup room.

The Sprinter features a buslike driving position with an elevated view of the road, as well as several safety features such as:

• Four-wheel ABS.

• Electronic brake distribution.

• Brake assist system.

• Accelerator skid control.

• Electronic stability program.

Steering is power-assisted rack and pinion.

The test Sprinter was a 10-passenger version, based on the 2500 chassis with the exterior finished in Brilliant Silver metallic. The seats were patterned cloth, with the rear units being removable. The base price was set at $33,111 while extra features and equipment moved the total up to $41,898. The list of standard equipment was impressive enough in its own right, but the added goodies (too many to itemize here) made my Sprinter a pretty special people mover, complete with rear heavy-duty air.

Driving the Sprinter requires climbing up into the cab, which again, is akin to a bus scenario. The view of the road ahead is indeed a commanding one, with the side and rear windows offering a good 360-degree view of one’s surroundings. The 2.7-liter turbo diesel isn’t as quiet as larger V-6 diesel engines from Mercedes, but its not overbearing either. Acceleration is surprisingly responsive considering the vehicle’s overall mass. Actually piloting the Sprinter isn’t difficult at all, once you establish its parameters. It turns remarkably well in a relatively short radius.

The ride quality is comfortable, but there are some noise issues because of the Spartan interior and lack of interior insulation. Parking would be made easier with the addition of a rear parking sensor or backup camera.

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