The Sprinter: Four years down the road

By: Jeff Jensen, Editor
Posted: Jun 14th 2005 9:37PM

sprinter_003.jpgSince its introduction to the US market in 2001, the Freightliner/Dodge Sprinter van has been the subject of a great deal of interest in the expediting community. In 2000, it was brought to North America for distribution by Freightliner LLC - the North American commercial subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler.

Dodge began offering the Sprinter in 2003 and will continue to manufacture the van after Freightliner's exit from the market that is scheduled for 2006.

This van was the first viable alternative to the traditional US-built cargo vans from GM (Chevrolet and GMC), Ford and Dodge. It was felt by many that the US-built vans were getting a little "long in the tooth".  For example, the old Dodge vans were based on the 1971 model and Ford had not significantly changed the E-series vans since 1992..

The Sprinter and Expediting
Undoubtedly, the leading feature that caught the eye of the North American expediting van owners was the size of the cargo area in the Sprinter. For the first time, cargo van drivers had access to a Big 3-type vehicle with stand-up height without the addition of a "turtle-top" and in a package under 10,000 pounds GVW. 

Commercial versions of this Class 2 van are available as cargo, cab/chassis or passenger units.  These versions all offer a choice of three wheelbases (118, 140 and 158 inches) and two GVWR's (8,550 and 9,990 pounds). 

Cargo and passenger models can be had with a standard (64.3 inches inside) or high roof (73 inches inside). The 158" wheelbase model means a overall van length of 263 inches - 32 inches longer than any Ford van and 19 inches longer than any Chevy or GMC van.

This (2005) is the first year that the cab/chassis Sprinter has been offered to the US market.  This model features dual 16" tires with a GVW of 10,200 lbs. as opposed to 9,990 GVW of the 3500 van which still uses 15" tires.

Expediters first viewed the Sprinter "in the flesh" at the 2001 Mid-America Trucking Show, the van's formal North American debut. 

The long wheelbase, tall-roof version (what has become the expediters' Sprinter model of choice - the SHC 2500) was impressive in it's interior roominess (473 cubic feet) and stand-up height. 

Other highlights included the low entry height to the cargo area along with the rear barn doors.  These open 270 degrees, and can fold flat against the van’s side, held in place by magnetic stops.

Ironically, one Sprinter feature that intially caught the eye of expediters was the dual rear wheel model (SHC 3500).  At last, the drivers thought, a cargo van with duals!  That enthusiasm was short-lived however, because it was soon discovered that a full-sized 4'x4' pallet would not fit between the wheel wells, at least on the floor level.

All Sprinters are powered by a 2.7-liter Mercedes-Benz CDI turbodiesel engine that generates 154-hp at 3,800 rpm and torque of 243 pounds-feet at 1,600 to 2,400 rpm. 

It is driven through a Mercedes-Benz 5-speed automatic transmission with electronically controlled shifting.  The automatic transmission can easily be downshifted for engine braking with a nudge of the dash-mounted gear selector. The automatic is standard in all Sprinters, as are a transmission fluid cooler, electronic stability control and traction control.

Other Sprinter features include power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, a body structure designed to channel the force of an impact to the frame, full-size driver and passenger airbags, and four-wheel disc ABS brakes.

But power windows and locks and cruise control cost extra. So does a CD player; the standard stereo plays only radio and cassettes. Rear air conditioning and heating is available.

Passenger versions of the Sprinter are assembled in Dusseldorf, Germany, by DaimlerChrysler, but cargo versions come to America from Dusseldorf in kit form and get their final assembly in a Freightliner plant in Gaffney, S.C.

The powerplant
The Mercedes-Benz engine had been an area of concern for many prospective Sprinter buyers accustomed to the V-8 powerplants of the typical American cargo van.  Because of the longer interstate distances of North American expediting, it was thought that this smaller motor would not produce the mega-miles of the homegrown 5-liter plus gas and diesel engines.

In an October 2002 Expediters Online article, we made mention of a problem that some early Sprinter owners had experienced with their engine's Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) valve.  The device would become clogged with carbon deposits and the engine would lose power.

It was recommended by mechanics and even DaimlerChrysler technical types that the engine should not be idled for any length of time - that was the reason for the carbonization. 

One fix for this problem was to raise the idle speed to 1100-1200 rpm.  Possibly, this was a stopgap measure, but with EGR valves costing the owner hundreds of dollars in replacement costs, it met with some acceptance.

DaimlerChrysler may have found a solution to the problem.  The introduction of the North American 2004 model Sprinters included an engine with redesigned top end components. These changes featured a new cylinder head, new injectors with higher injection pressures, a new EGR valve (now water-cooled) and a new EGR valve actuator. 

These changes were primarily intended to satisfy California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards and make this a true "50-state" vehicle. To finally put to rest the EGR valve question, a recall was issued in early 2005. 

Even though there were a few different generations of the EGR valve, DaimlerChrysler maintains that most of the EGR's that are currently on the road are fine, but the company is going to replace all of the valves that have older part numbers.

Now that some of the earliest expediting Sprinters have crossed over the 100,000 - 300,000  mile mark, the questions of this van's durability and longevity are being answered.

At the outset, the availability of service locations was an area of concern, with only Freightliner dealers being authorized for service work. It would appear however, that this issue has been resolved with increasing numbers of Dodge dealers being authorized to sell and service the Sprinter through the company's BusinessLink program.

Sprinter owners also report that the parts shortage that plagued the vans in it's early days in North America is a little better now, with commonly-used parts in good supply.

A fleet perspective
Larry Pickles is the Maintenance Manager for expedited carrier Express-1 of Buchanan, Michigan.  This carrier has taken to the Sprinter and it's cargo capacity in a big way, offering the Sprinter owner-operators leased to the company a higher rate for the "C"-type loads too large for a typical cargo van.

Larry has accumulated a great deal of experience with the Freightliner/Dodge product over the past few years, both with the one company van and those of the contractors.  His duties include doing road service for Sprinters and of course he gets feedback from Express-1's 25 Sprinter owner-operators.

Express-1 added its first Sprinter in 2001 and he says, "When they're running, they're fantastic!  They've been very good, but it's been the components that have given problems."

As one might suppose, Larry is talking specifically about the much-maligned EGR valve that, at least in it's first year or two after the Sprinter's US debut, gave it's new owners fits. 

"I believe that they've finally corrected the EGR problem.  The original valve has been replaced and that seemed to eliminate the build up of carbon deposts.  The company truck now has close to 300,000 miles on it."

"Fuel mileage-wise, you can't beat it!  Our Sprinter "fleet" of contractors has around a 24 mpg average."

He continues, "You would think that with the height and wheelbase of the Sprinter, it would be less stable in crosswinds, but it's not a problem.
The most popular van with our contractors is the 2500 - the long wheelbase, tall roof model."

"Sprinter drivers tell me they love the handling and the great turning ratio. They say that they would like the rear end beefed up for heavier cargo, but they tell me it can still safely haul 4,000 lbs."

"They also like the visibility and the great seats, which they tell me are very comfortable.  The change to the 16" tires make a lot of difference."  

"Since 2004, I believe that they've corrected many of the problems."

The Sprinter owners - In their own words

Bobby Richard, a courier driver from Pennsylvania, says, "I've owned the Sprinter for two months now and 3000 miles. I run freight from Ohio to Maryland, about a 750-mile round trip in one day. Usually I'm loaded up with three pallets." 

"Even with a 4,000 lb. load going 70 MPH through the mountains in Pennsylvania, I average about 24 miles per gallon. For such a tall and large van it handles surprisingly well. The interior space is impressive." 


Pat Hinnegan is a Landstar Express America contractor.  He purchased his Sprinter in 2002 and it now has over 225,000 miles on the odometer. 

Pat describes his feelings concerning the van as, "a love/hate relationship."

"I remember the old Dodge Ram vans; they felt like a coffin.  The Sprinters have plenty of room.  It's like driving a car and it has an awesome turning radius." 

"The things I like best about the Sprinter are the length and the height of the body.  I started out with a 14-foot bed and with the Bentz sleeper installed, it's down to 9 feet.  That gives me a living environment but I still have room for freight. 

The tall roof also gives me space enough to fit a tall skid that might otherwise have to go on a straight truck.  It's great to be able to stand up and put your pants on in the morning."

Pat continues, "It's the same thing with strapping down the cargo, it's very easy to throw the straps over it, there's plenty of room."

Pat uses two rows of e-track on the floor, but none on the walls of the van.  "In my opinion, the walls are not strong enough to brace the cargo."

"I think the seat is uncomfortable," says Pat, "because I have a pinched nerve in my leg.  And, why would they put an armrest on the passenger seat and not on the drivers seat?  I wish it had a telescoping steering wheel, but I've adjusted to it."

Pat has been pleased with the Sprinter's mileage (20-21 mpg), and says that the engine has enough torque to pull a good-sized load. 

"The most weight I've had in it was 3,000 pounds and it pulled it fine.  I had a load from Indy to Washington, DC and it actually pulled it pretty well up and down the hills on I-70."

Pat says that he has been a victim of the dreaded EGR valve problem:
"That part is between $400-$500 a pop and I'm on my fourth one. I've taken these apart, cleaned them and used a light assembly lube when I reassembled them.  This one has 150,000 miles on it."

"In response to advice from a Sprinter tech guy, I use a throttle stick to take the idle up to 1,200 to 1,300.  I only do that when it's real hot or real cold.  If it's only 32 degrees or so, I'll warm the van up, then shut it down and jump under the covers.  I've never idled this van."

"In winter, I do my maintenance on a more frequent basis - every 6,000 miles.  In warmer months, I perform service every 10,000 miles."
"I wish there was better parts availabilty.  I'd like to be able to stop at NAPA or Autozone and pick up an air and fuel filter instead of going to a dealer and hoping he has them in stock.  I've had the best luck in finding parts at Freightliner dealers."

Pat adds, "There's something else about this van. When running around town in winter, the engine never seems to warm up that much, so at low speeds, it's not very warm in the truck.  When you pull in and park, it's real cold. The thing is, I'm only heating or cooling the cab and sleeper. If somebody is trying to heat or cool the whole van, that's tough."


Pam Slone, an Express-1, contractor is actually a two-time Sprinter owner.  Her original van was lost in an accident in the spring of 2004, an accident that left Pam with injuries from which she is still recovering.

"On my original van, I had racked up 260,000 miles in 20 months.  I picked up this Sprinter in late July 2004 and I've got over 60,000 miles on it now."

"Pam has been a long time Sprinter fan and she says that she was very happy to get into the new truck and hit the road after her absence.

"Everything has been fine, including my arm which was severly injured in the accident.  Business wise, since Express-1's merger with Segmentz, we've been running good up until the holidays."

"Things cost more with this van, but I figure it's Mercedes-Benz, so you've got to pay for it.  My only complaint about the van is regarding the fuel filter - it's $85.00!  I have a computer hooked up that tells me when I need filters changed and when one is changed, the module has to be changed as well."

She continues, "I've had a bulkhead installed and that helps with heating and cooling.  The seats are very comfortable for a shorter woman, but I believe it might not be as good for a taller driver."

In regards to maintenance, Pam tells us, "I use a 10,000 mile interval for oil and lube. "I already replaced one EGR at 26,000 and because there is a 100,000 mile warranty on parts, I didn't take advantage of the recent EGR recall."

"I'm going to switch over to Gulf Coast filters on the van." 


"When I got into expediting, I considered a typical cargo van, but I'm glad I went this way," says Mike Brown of Battle Creek, Michigan.  Mike has been with Express-1 for 16 months and is the owner of a 2002 SHC 2500 Sprinter.

One of the big things for me is, if I'm sitting for a length of time, at least I can stand up in the back and move around."

"It drives real well and it's got great braking.  It's real easy to get around in town.  I used to work for a Dodge dealership, and I'm real familiar with how the regular vans drive.  I think a Sprinter is every bit as maneuverable in city traffic as those big vans." 

"I've got 140,000 miles and the van gets 23 mpg.  The only thing is, it's susceptible to crosswinds, especially if the roads are getting greasy." 

Mike continues, "I'm on my third EGR valve.  I think it's either '04 or '05 that they redesigned the whole top end of the engine with new cylinder head, intake, EGR, the whole deal."

"I've heard from other drivers and the place I go for maintenance that you're not supposed to idle the engines, it loads up the EGR.  I've started taking mine off and cleaning it   My mechanic tells me that it's not that big of a deal to take it off and shoot some WD-40 through it.  I've made that a regular PM job and I'll try to get a little more longevity out of the valve." 

"My last valve was replaced 110,000 miles ago.  Each EGR was replaced under warranty.  I've heard of some guys that have had 5 or 6 of them replaced, but I think that has to do with the idling issues."

Mike adds, "I pulled the interior panels off and put blue insulation board in there to try and keep the temperature liveable.  I notice the insulation more in the summer time because it doesn't get as hot as quickly." 

Mike's van has a bulkhead which he says really helps to the heat and air conditioning.  Other owners commented on the inefficiency of the climate controls when try to heat or cool the entire van.

"I'm pretty solid on doing the oil and lube changes at 10,000 miles, 20,000 for the fuel filter and 60,000 for the transmission filter/rear differential fluid."

"I've had 3,200 pounds in it, but I usually keep it under the maximum cargo weight.  With that kind of load in it, it had to work a little bit, but once it gets wound up, it does pretty well. 

As I said before, I used to work for a Dodge dealer and I did a lot of work on Cummins light diesel engines.  Those engines now have almost three times the horsepower of this Sprinter, but it rolls right down the road pretty well."

"I've only downshifted once or twice in the mountains down south and that was with loads of almost 3,000 lbs.  This little engine will pull you right up the hills."

"I think the Sprinter is a great ride.  I've put in a lot of miles behind the wheel, it's easy to sit it for 8 or 10 or 12 hours at a time and click off the miles.  I'm real happy with the factory seats, I recommend that a driver gets an armrest on the seat."

"My van doesn't have the tilt wheel, but that's not a problem.  It's got plenty of foot room and plenty of room to move around."


Deb Gardner of South Bend, Indiana has been with Express-1 for ten months.

She owns a 2003 Sprinter with over 205,000 miles that she purchased from her father, also an Express-1 contractor.

She says of it's pulling power:  "We've had loads of over 4,000 lbs.  but our loads average from 2,200 to 3,600 lbs.  The van pulls the hills very well." 

Deb runs team in the van with her son and reports that they are averaging a steady 21.6 mpg.

"The van is comfortable to drive and because my son and I are so tall, we appreciate the interior room.  The motor is very quiet.  I would have to say that it's average in respect to the wind and road noise inside the van."

"We use 10,000 mile intervals for lube and oil. Transmission work is supposed to be done at 80,000 miles, but I've had it performed twice in that time, just to be sure."


Dave Hadley of Battle Creek, Michigan operates a 2002 model Sprinter. It had the 15" tires on it before he upgraded to 16".  He says, "The larger tires made all the difference in the world.  The traction is better, and I'm getting better mileage."

"I've been with the company since April of 2002 and this was the first Sprinter with Express-1.  It now has over 260,000 miles on it."

"I've had 4,000 lbs. in it once, but I'll never do it again, that's too much weight.  Sprinters are sensitive to where the load is placed.  It's bad to sit anything in back of the axle, the load has to be placed up front.  You get light steering if you don't."

"I'll put 3500 - 3600 lbs. on it now and I can carry up to three skids. With that kind of weight and running up and down hills, you know the truck is working, but there's no problem with running out of power.  The fuel mileage is between 21-24 mpg."

"I'm on my fourth EGR valve now, but I've changed the way I do things.  I do my own service, so about every 20,000 miles, I pull the valve and clean it out with WD-40.  I change oil at 10,000 miles and all the filters at 20,000.  The Freightliner dealer I use keeps all the filters and replaceables in stock."

"I've been using Delvac synthetic oil, but the price is getting too high so I'm considering switching to Mobil 1." 

"I insulated the van with high-density foam pad in the back and it's a pretty quiet van.  I built my own fold-down bunk."

"The van is probably the most comfortable vehicle I've ever driven.  It just eats up the miles.  I talked to a Mercedes rep a couple of years ago and asked him what kind of life I could expect out of the Sprinter.  He told me in all seriousness that if I run synthetic oil, there's no reason I couldn't get a million miles out of the motor.  I've got to see that to believe it."

The Sprinter specialists
Brad Hallal is the Commercial Truck representative for Grieger Motors of Valparaiso, Indiana

He says that the buyers' impressions of the Sprinter include 'Lots of room, great on fuel and easy to drive.'

"I don't even have to tell the buyers that the Sprinter is the premier van-size vehicle for expediting."

He says, "Most of the prospective purchasers have stopped Sprinter owners in a truck stop or rest area and gotten a closer look at the van, or they have driven a friend's Sprinter."

"It seems that, in just the last few months or so, we've been seeing folks who have 2001 and 2002 Sprinters and are looking to update.  One of my customers has over 350,000 miles on his '01 and he's ready for a new van."

"We can offer a buyer many amenities in the area of driver comfort like power inverters, auxiliary batteries, an insulation package and a rear heat - a/c package.""

"We can also install an XM or Sirius satellite radio in the Sprinter as well as a GPS system. In addition, we make the truck DOT compliant with a road safety kit and fire extinguisher."

He adds, "We have a program with Express-1 in which we try to put expediters in new Sprinters and we are building similar programs with other companies. We're taking calls from all over the country."


Mike Walker is the BusinessLink Account Manager for Caldwell Dodge in Columbus, Ohio.

BusinessLink is a program put together by DaimlerChrysler to assist small businesses and commercial customers.  With the BusinessLink program, expediters get Next Available Bay Service, Next Available Technician Service, Discounts on Parts and Service and a Central Point of Contact.  Mike also provides his customer with his cell phone number so he's available 24/7.

"In addition to the expediting/delivery market, prospective Sprinter buyers include anyone from a mobile "Cajun Chicken" vending truck to HVAC contractors, plumbers, electricians and so many others in the building trades," states Mike.

"With the extra room in this van, and the useable space, it actually shaves time off their day.  They're able to carry more parts, more tools and more equipment.  I've also had a great deal of interest from the FedEx Home Delivery contractors."

"Expediters are attracted to the fuel economy, low maintenance and load volume.  One customer traded in his Ford cargo van for a Sprinter and now reports that he has doubled his bottom line because he can carry many loads that simply wouldn't fit in his old van."

Mike continues, "Our dealership is focused very heavily on Sprinters.  When these vans first came out, all of us here fell in love with them because of what they're capable of doing. We're located in Central Ohio and we still sell other Dodge commercial vehicles locally, but we've been selling Sprinters across the country."

"When a customer calls me for a Sprinter, I've usually got it in stock.  If I don't, I have a large enough inventory to allow me to trade with another dealer to find the van that customer needs."

Mike says that Sprinters are so difficult to get that he really have to keep a network open with other dealerships.  He tells us, "We've also got one of the largest parts inventories around.  If I have a customer at a dealership hundreds of miles away and they call me for a part, I'll overnight it to them to get them on their way."

This article originally appeared in a recent edition of Expedite NOW magazine in an edited form. 

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