Dodge Sprinter grows bigger, better

Friday, May 25, 2007
The 2007 Dodge Sprinter has enough room in the back that most basketball players can stand up. (Dodge)

It sounds like a joke to say the Dodge Sprinter could be the next big thing.

After all, the 2007 Sprinter -- a full-size, commercial van engineered by the parent company of Mercedes-Benz -- stretches at least 19 feet long from bumper to bumper, or about the length of one and a half Chevy Aveo hatchbacks parked end to end.

With a new, taller "mega" roof than on any other full-size van, the Sprinter gives most basketball players enough room so they can stand upright in the back.

And there are two new Sprinter engines, including a fuel-thrifty turbo-diesel V-6, as well as more safety features than available anywhere else in the segment.

But the 2007 Sprinter is no mere commercial delivery van for the likes of FedEx and UPS, which use Sprinters in their fleets.

Ordinary Americans increasingly are looking at the potential for Sprinters to be standout work vans for use by self-employed floral arrangers, electricians, caterers and the like. They're ordering Sprinters as custom recreational vehicles that don't have the bulk, weight and fuel-guzzling traits of larger, traditional RVs. Some are even looking to convert the spacious vans into offices on wheels, according to company officials.

The possibilities seem endless in the 2007 Sprinter, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $33,130 for a 2500 cargo model with 154-horsepower, turbo-diesel V-6.

This base price for a bare-bones Sprinter is less than some upper-trim-level but smaller vans like the $37,335 2007 Chrysler Town & Country Limited minivan and the $33,290 2007 Honda Odyssey EX with leather seats and DVD player.

And the Sprinter has options that no minivan in America offers.

The tester -- a 3500 cargo van -- had fun, air suspension front seats that let me and my passenger bob up and down gently when the van was on rough pavement. It's an experience unlike anything in a minivan or a car, though drivers of semi-haulers have these kinds of seats, too, to ease their cross-country trips.

Visibility is exceptional.

The Sprinter has steps cut into the front door openings to help driver and passenger get up and inside the front cabin. These steps are similar to what were in Volkswagen Eurovans, except the climb up into the Sprinter is higher.

The resulting high perch gave me a half-mile view, at times, over traffic ahead. I gazed over fences to see what was going on in my neighbors' yards, and I discovered I was at eye level with the driver of a cement truck in the next lane.

I just couldn't park this more than 8-foot-tall van in my garage -- the doorway wasn't tall enough. And the Sprinter was a handful to drive on a blustery day.

I also had to get accustomed to making wide right turns, because during the first couple turns, I put the rear wheels over the right-side road curbing.

Turning around required planning, too. Instead of a carlike turning circle in the mid to upper 30-foot range, the Sprinter's turning circle is at least 47.6 feet.

But with practice and the help of optional front and rear parking sensors that helped me distinguish how close I was to other vehicles in parking lots, I found the Sprinter surprisingly easy to drive.

Steering responds well

On twisty mountain roads, motions of the test Sprinter were more controlled than expected, and, showing its European origins, this van didn't flail around or wander.

It responded well to steering directions and wasn't difficult to keep in its lane, although there was considerable body sway and a tippy feeling at times in curves.

Thank goodness the Sprinter comes standard with Adaptive Electronic Stability Program -- a first in the full-size van segment. This ESP is adaptive, or advanced, because it takes into account the changing payload this van can carry -- and where this weight is positioned inside -- to adjust how it reacts to potential skids and loss of control.

Given the propensity for full-size vans to roll over in crashes, another important safety item -- optional -- is Roll-Over Mitigation, which monitors the van's motions and, if necessary, reduces engine torque and adds braking to try to avert rollovers.

The test Sprinter's brakes took more time to stop the vehicle than what you'd get in a car, because of all the mass of this van. But they still provided decent stopping power and include antilock braking.

Electronic Brake Distribution, which properly proportions braking force among front and rear wheels for stable braking, is another noteworthy optional safety feature.

Frontal air bags are standard, and front-seat side air bags and curtain air bags are among the more than 25 optional safety features.

I didn't anticipate much from the Sprinter's V-6s -- Ford and General Motors full-size vans offer larger, gasoline V-8s.

But I found the power from the Sprinter's standard, turbo-diesel, 3-liter V-6 -- particularly the 280 foot-pounds of torque starting as low as 1,200 rpm -- satisfying. The tester got going with more oomph than expected, and while it didn't zoom past other vehicles in passing maneuvers, it traveled competently.

I got a commendable 15.5 miles a gallon in highway travel that averaged 59 mph, and the Sprinter earned a low-emission rating because it's the first in its weight class with a standard particulate filter.

I noticed shift points at times with the five-speed automatic transmission, however, and I heard the diesel engine racket nearly all the time. Sometimes it forced me to crank up the radio.

Happily, the diesel requires oil changes only every 10,000 miles and comes with a limited powertrain warranty of five years/100,000 miles, which is more generous than the three years/36,000 miles on the Sprinter's 254-horsepower, 3.5-liter gasoline V-6.

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