"There's the check point!" shouted my co-driver pointing to the red flag waving in the breeze, beyond a sea of Sahara Desert dunes. There was no time to waste, so I turned the wheels of the Mercedes-Benz 4WD Sprinter toward the small, triangular patch of red, pushing the throttle to slice across the undulating sand hills. Would a roll-caged, rally-prepped version of a FedEx van get me to the flag?
I was in the midst of the "2015 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles," an off-road rally in Morocco called the toughest all-woman?s sporting event in the world. This year's 25th anniversary event attracted teams from 33 countries, including the U.S.
I was asked by Mercedes-Benz to drive their 4x4 Sprinter van. I was paired with Shennen Marschner, a Sprinter sales rep for Mercedes-Benz, to take on the challenge as a two-person team. The goal was to achieve the shortest distance between checkpoints, which are designated as either latitude/longitude or an exact point of distance and heading. The rally measures precise navigation and driving skills, as well as vehicle competence, with no outside assistance or support during the competition. No GPS is allowed -- only a compass, plotter, and ruler, and black and white maps that date from the 1940s to the 1960s -- to find the checkpoints each day that typically range from 14 to 21 hours of non-stop driving and navigating.
"Entering the new 4WD Sprinter van in the Gazelle Rally was 'out-of-the-box' for Mercedes-Benz USA, because it's not how it will be used by drivers in the U.S. However, because the 4WD model is new to the U.S. for 2015, and it's the only van in its class with four-wheel-drive, Mercedes had the confidence to enter it in the Crossover Class to show its capability," says Marschner.
While I test-drive all vehicle types, I've chosen to specialize in trucks and SUVs, and in 4WD vehicles, in particular, and have evaluated hundreds of models in more than 70 countries. As a result, I know off-road and tough conditions, having participated in all of the world's longest and most difficult 4WD races and rallies.
The 3-ton Sprinter van was a pleasure to drive, with competence beyond my wildest imaginings, plus, it has ample room for cargo-carrying and even sleeping, when needed.
Our test drive was approximately 3,000 miles, beginning in Stuttgart, Germany, traveling on through France to a boat portage across the Mediterranean Sea; we then traveled across Morocco to the Rally's start, ascending and descending the Atlas Mountains in a snow storm.
Motoring the van on paved roads, it feels more like driving a minivan, rather than a full-sized transporter. This comes as a result of Mercedes' engineering that has coordinated the drive and handling dynamics -- steering, braking, suspension, and acceleration -- to bring an integrated package that moves and stops the van with precision.
Bundled in are highly responsive stability control systems that provide flawless traction and keep it from feeling top-heavy. During the approximately 1,500 miles of driving the Sprinter off-road over a wide variety of conditions that included 4WD track and hard scrabble with loose rocks, desert sand and dunes, and rocks and ravines, we were impressed by its capability as an off-roader. There was always power and torque on tap to move it and excellent traction capability to travel over small dune fields.
The 2015 Sprinter comes in five models with three GVWRs, body lengths, and roof heights for a total of 50 different configurations. For 2015, a 4WD model is added to the lineup and the van receives standard crosswind assist that operates at speeds over 50 mph.
A high-trim 4WD model is also available with a low range set of gears; it is the only 4WD offering in its class. The 4x2 Sprinter comes with a choice of two turbo-diesel engines: a 161-horsepower four-cylinder or a 188-hp V-6. The 4x4 gets only the V-6, as well as an extra 4.3 inches of lift in the front and 3.1 in the rear. It has cargo volume up to 547 cu.-ft., payload up to 5,415 pounds, cargo area height of up to 6 feet 6 inches, loading length up to 185 inches, towing capacity up to 7,500 pounds, a tongue weight of up to 750 pounds, and boasts fuel economy of 26.7 mpg combined.
Pricing for the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter starts at $34,790.
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