Is a Sprinter For You?: An Introduction to Mercedes Benz Sprinter Vans

A Sprinter is a great vehicle for a certain type of individual. For others, it may not be the cost effective choice. In this post we’ll take a look at the Sprinter’s strengths and whether they’ll work for you.

Morgan Creek Road

T1N vs NCV3:

The Mercedes Benz Sprinter was introduced to the North American market in 2002 and has existed in two body styles: the T1N, produced from 2002-2006, and the NCV3, 2007-present. Sprinters have come badged as Freightliner, Dodge, or Mercedes Benz but regardless of badging they are all 100% Mercedes Benz.

Improvements from the T1N to the latter NCV3 include tilt steering, a quieter and smoother ride, and an “updated” look (whatever that means). Despite these improvements however, the NCV3 is heavier, has lower fuel economy, and many dependability issues. These problems are enough to recommend not buying a NCV3 for the budget minded individual. (Unless of course you really, really want a brand new van with warranty. In that case, head right on down to your dealer, drop $45K.) You can also go pick up a New Roadtrek RV conversion starting at $110K. Because of the NCV3 issues, and their expensive price tag we will discuss only ‘02-‘06 (T1Ns) in this article.

Drive Train: The drive train is the same in all T1N configurations.

The engine is a 2.7L 5-cylinder turbo diesel that puts out 154HP and 243 ft-lb torque in stock form. All transmissions are a NAG1 5-speed automatic.

The 2002 and 2003 models had the OM612 engine while the 2004-2006 models had the OM647 engine. There isn’t much difference between the two engines however the OM647 has an in-tank transfer fuel pump, an O2 sensor and a slightly better EGR valve (except for an easily fixable issue with the turbo resonator). While the OM612 is preferred by some owners/mechanics because it is slightly simpler, it doesn’t really matter.

In brief:

  • -Generates plenty of power for the vehicle size, it is quite “zippy.”
  • -Engine can be expected to last about 500K miles with regular maintenance.
  • -5-speed automatic transmission lasts about 250K miles on average.
  • -Will not tow or put up to the abuse like a 1-ton domestic van will.

Sprinter in the desert

Fuel Mileage:

T1N fuel mileage is excellent! Carrying a standard (~1200 lb) load with the tires well inflated, driving at 55-65mph will net 26-28mpg. As with any vehicle, stop-and-go traffic, heavy cargo, driving with a lead foot, or low tire pressure will decrease fuel mileage.

My personal extremes range from a low at 12,500lb gross (loaded van, towing jeep) with conservative driving netting 19mpg to a high being completely unloaded, no headwind, 215/85R-16 tires at 70psi getting 30mpg. However you slice it, compared to domestic vans the mileage is very good.

The T1N does not require ultra low sulfur diesel (so go to Mexico or beyond!) One can even use the red stuff in a pinch. If your grandma owns a bakery, this Sprinter can also be converted to WVO (waste veggie oil).

Passenger vs. Cargo:

T1Ns came in two configurations: passenger and cargo vans. The cargos are by far the most common, will be useful for working out of, or for a clean slate to start your conversion. They have minimal windows although they are easy to install and will run about $100 each.

A passenger version is ideal for hauling a large number of people. They will have all the factory windows and are completely “trimmed out.” The walls have some insulation although it is not sufficient for RV use. Little of the factory interior is useful in a conversion.

Configurations:

The T1N Sprinter comes in three different lengths: a 118”, 140”, and 158”. The long 158” was available in a 1-ton version (denoted by duel rear wheels) with the only differences being that it has a larger full floater rear end and heavier rear springs. Each length also came in two roof heights: a high roof with 6’ interior height and a regular roof with 5’2”ish interior height.

Sprinter as Adventure Van:

For a vehicle of its size, the Sprinter has very good ground clearance (9” of clearance under the front suspension, and 13” under the belly). 4-wheel drive has never been available in North America however they get into the boonies rather well, especially with aggressive tires.

In Mexico, the Sprinter is a fairly common vehicle making parts and service available throughout that country.

Sprinter on Baby Lion's Back

Maintenance and Parts:

The Sprinter is known for running a half-million miles (and beyond in some cases) but it doesn’t hold up to neglect the same way a Ford or Chevy would. Fixing small problems when they’re small will save frustration and money down the road.

Although the Sprinter has a small engine, it holds about 10 quarts of 0w-40 synthetic oil lasting 10-12K between changes.

Parts can be ordered at most Mercedes, Dodge, and Freightliner dealerships. Some parts are rather expensive; others are shockingly reasonable. RockAuto.com also stocks a lot of consumable parts (as do other online retailers) and are far cheaper than the dealerships—for example Mercedes dealership sells the 150 amp Bosch alternator for $858 while the same unit can be purchased on Amazon for $160.

Since most T1N’s have 200-300K on them by now all the common problems have been brought to light with most issues having step-by-step instructions with pictures. The online Sprinter community is a GREAT bunch of people.

Some Sprinter owners have had dealerships (out of greed) and honest independent mechanics (out of ignorance) replace high dollar items when there has been a failure with a simple item. Independent mechanics may lack familiarity with the Sprinter and most do not have the appropriate diagnostic tools to read the internal Mercedes codes. Even the generic codes are barely readable via OBD-II.

So who should buy a Sprinter?

How much do you drive? If it’s a lot then it may be an excellent choice in fuel savings alone. But if you drive less then 10K miles a year a domestic van maybe a better financial choice. (If in a year you toured 50K miles around N. America making for a difference of $4000ish in fuel savings over a gas powered comparable van!)

Are you very mechanically inclined? Do you have a trust worthy, knowledgeable mechanic? Go for it! If you can change your own oil, pack bearings, disassemble door parts, clean EGR’s, swap steering components and do simple problem-solving the Sprinter is probably a great choice. Just be willing to do a lot of research as most problems before 250K miles are often simple fixes in which your most valuable tool is research via sites like sprinter-source.com and other web resources. For example, I recently fixed a known issue with the window regulars for $5 instead of $300 each for a new window regulator unit from Mercedes. By far the most important tool is research!

Buying a T1N:

Sprinters commonly had paint and corrosion problems. Plan on traveling south for a rust free body (but it’s also a way of getting a cheap van when pointed out to the sellers).

  • Your best bang for your buck will come in the 150K mile range where you should expect to pay $9-12K.
  • Vehicles in the 250K mile range are up into the mileage range and generally sell for $7-8K. But maybe you only need this for a one time epic road trip? Budget for a repair that maybe over your skill level. ($$)
  • Low mileage units exist but are difficult to find and may fetch as much as $15-18K (and maybe worth it to you in the long run).

Panther Creek Road

 

Sprinter Van Resources:

Doctor A

Sprinter-Source.com forum

Links for Sprinter builds:

19 thoughts on “Is a Sprinter For You?: An Introduction to Mercedes Benz Sprinter Vans”

  1. While I’m not sure getting a Sprinter is in our future (we’re pick up truck people), this is such an awesome resource! Thanks for sharing all you learned 🙂

  2. My wife and I are in the market for an ‘ultimate’ travel and adventure vehicle. We are considering a T1N as our Tacoma and Forester are both too small for extended road trips with our dog. Are you guys still driving yours? Any updated comments you could share?
    Thanks!

    1. We’re not still driving ours, sadly. We sold it in early 2013 so to free up some more funds for adventure (Sprinters are expensive!) and trying new ways of adventure travel. However, we would concur that in many ways the Sprinter *is* the “ultimate” adventure rig with the great fuel mileage, head room, great ground clearance for a van, etc. etc.

      If you’re going Sprinter, a T1N is the way to go! Best wishes on your adventuring!

      1. Hi Beth,

        You wrote “(Sprinters are expensive!). Were you talking about your maintenance costs? If so, could you tell us a little about your experience. We’re trying to decide on doing a T1N conversion, but I’m a little concerned about the yearly maintenance costs. We only drive about 10K to 12K miles per year. Thank you in advance!

    2. Retired two years ago and did a cross country trip covering 16,000 miles. 2003 Sprinter with 45,000 miles performed flawlessly, and 9,000 foot elevations and steep climbs were never a problem. Got into a nice routine and found we had all the space we needed. TRIP OF A LIFETIME as we toured and hiked National and State Parks …and avoided cities. (Should have left our bikes at home as park roads are not bike friendly due to traffic and too narrow)
      Our plan was to sell Sprinter after trip which we did. (Rental cost would have been $16,000+ vs depreciation of $2,000 …still low mileage when sold.) Dumb move. We ended up missing being able to stay inside the parks (hate hotels) and camping on the beach or rivers edge and bought another (2004). Just got back from Bay of Fundy where we camped on beach front campground. Fall foliage tour up next. Got 21 mpg with lots of stop and go and picture taking.

  3. This is a really great article. I’ve owned a Sprinter since 2006 and all the points you bring up are correct. If you keep up on proper maintenance and take care of the vehicle they are great. But there are a lot of neglected and improperly maintained Sprinters out there that give them a bad reputation.

  4. I have two T1Ns now. About 6 years ago I bought a second hand Vista Cruiser (Gulfstream) which had been listed for sale on eBay. It had 30k miles on it then, and has 80k miles on it now. A good vehicle! Very comfortable, but – I’ve always looked at the wasted volume inside and wished I could layout one myself.

    In January I bought an ex-ambulance patient transporter in Australia with 430k KILOMETRES on it (250 k miles) and I’m in the process of converting it to a bush camping campervan. The bed is the same height as the galley bench (counter) top at 900 mm (35″). Lots of room beneath the bed w/o folding it up to rout around in ample storage beneath the bed. I know with that mileage it might be time for a transmission replacement, but the price was right and I can afford to replace the tranny and be ahead of the game.

    The Sprinter is cost effective, volume effective transport.

  5. Hi Beth,
    Thanks for such a resourceful article. My GF and I are traveling right now, but thinking to visit Colorado in the summer. Then, we hopefully will be in the market for an adventure vehicle. Great Article!
    Cheers.

  6. Great article. I am very interested in the 06 roadtek but my research on transmissions is scaring me toward the younger models. Do you have any wisdom of the pros and cons of this issue.

    1. My bias is definitely towards the older models. Transmissions tended to go at about 250K for DIY conversions. Roadtek and other RV types are a lot heavier any maybe that would change things? I don’t know. I do know the RVs definitely take a hit on fuel mileage.

  7. Thank you so much for the article! The new 2016 sprinter now has a 4×4 version, which could be a consideration for some. Ford also has gotten into the game with the Transit, which is sold with the 4cyl gas ecoboost engine. Probably more places in the US to get service than for the Sprinter. I’ve heard some bad stories about Sprinter complexity and service cost – do you still think the T1N is the best option? Better than new sprinters or Ford Transits? Thank you again!

    1. Mark, The Transit probably falls into a similar category as a basic Chevy van which the article clearly advocates for some folks who would be stymied by complexity of a Sprinter and rely wholly on service centers. Opinions about the T1N versus newer Sprinters still stand *because* in some ways they are simpler (further detailed in the article).

  8. No axe to grind on Transits, but watch the side by side crash test video against the Sprinter.
    The T1N doesn’t have an exaust particulate filter, so tolerates a bit more neglect than the newer Bluetech models with DEF and DPF complexities and maintenance costs. The T1N’s OM647 engine does seem to develop more than its share of injector seal leaks, which is a $5.00 part and a two hour DIY job if all goes well, or a costly mess if the bolt snaps or a thread strips. Same with glow plug replacements, which are pencil thin and too often stick in their bore.
    That said the fuel economy and ride quality beat most American pickups and vans, and you can’t beat walking around in the tail of a high-roof version.
    Be aware that most of the Cargo models did NOT have rear bench anchor points in the floor when they left Germany, and while DIY bolt-ins are common, some may not be crash worthy so all should be inspected before you trust them to hold.

  9. Just stumbled upon this article and I’m glad I did! I’ve been back and forth between putting cash down on an older Dodge Sprinter, or putting that same cash down on a certified pre-owned Ford Transit. I think you may have swayed me to keep the dream alive on a T1N!

    Great write up!

  10. This is an awesome article. Ive been researching on and off for years and just learned about the transit. I’m still so indecisive on what to buy. You’re suggesting an older sprinter with under 200K right? ideally i would like to buy used and just want to make the right decision. My BF and I plan to convert and full time live in it; eventually traveling. we are looking for room to stand (he’s 6’2) and to add a bathroom area. so if i invest in the conversion I want to have the best chances of avoiding a break down or something major. I just wanted to make sure I was reading that right. Thank you thank you for putting this together! on craigslist you cant exactly put t1n in the search engine lol. people think Im nuts when I ask. so how do you know?

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