Is a Sprinter the Right Van for You?

(Editors Note: This last winter I had the very good fortune to meet a young couple who were living in their Sprinter van: Beth and Forest. Forest is very knowledgeable about Sprinters, and had posted about them on his blog. He graciously agreed to let me reprint it here.  Be sure to check out their blog at http://3upadventures.com/)

Beth and Forests Sprinter.

Beth and Forests Sprinter.

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.

Two Different Models: 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-1Fuel 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.

Sprinter-4Configurations:

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.

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.

Sprinter-2Bottom Line:  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).

Sprinter Resources:

Doctor A

Sprinter-Source.com forum

Links for Sprinter builds:

Sprinter RV DIY Gallery

3Up Adventures Sprinter

Conversions on Sprinter-Source.com such as this one.

(I have an article on my website about converting a Sprinter. You can check it out here:)

http://cheaprvliving.com/Sprinter-Conversion-.html

 

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

Posted in Conversion Details
23 comments on “Is a Sprinter the Right Van for You?
  1. cyrus says:

    They make nice RVs, but I’m personally very happy with my 725 dollar 1990 E150. And it was already converted! Why pay more?
    cyrus recently posted…A traceur and a photographer cross pathsMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      I agree with you totally Cyrus, I am not a fan of the Sprinters. But, to be fair, there are a few people in certain circumstances for whom they are a great choice–you and I are just not those people.
      Bob

  2. Linda Sand says:

    I have the other kind, a 2012 I’ve lived in for 6 months, with 5000+ miles on it and have had no problems with it to date. New is expensive but not always bad. Maybe they’ve eliminated all those problems you say the new ones used to have.
    Linda Sand recently posted…HomeMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Linda, having a new one even if it does have problems they are a very long time away. You are going to have many, many wonderful, trouble-free years in your beautiful Sportsmobile.
      Bob

  3. Interesting material for consideration. One of these vans has long been on my list for “someday” – mostly for the fuel efficiency and head room. This gives me some solid info to consider, but maybe I will stick with American vans for a while 🙂
    Robert Witham recently posted…Minimalism: My pursuit of simplicityMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Robert, they are a great choice for a few people, but if you aren’t a mechanic, aren’t willing to learn, or can’t afford a new one or to pay to have them fixed, I don’t think they are a good choice. It’s hard to go wrong with a good ole American van with a high top!!
      Bob

  4. Dixie says:

    Hi all! I reseached alot and decided a “Sprinter” would be ultimate! I searched and searched for a good deal. I finally found a used Sprinter (2004) with only 3000 miles on it!It had been custom converted for a handicapped person–then they were not able to use it–It sat for a long time . We purchased one year ago for a VERY good price! It has running water, hot water heater,shower,flush toilet, refrig,3000 inverter-etc. It just has a “strange configuration” We plan to tweek that this coming summer. It runs Fabulous!! Gets wonderful mileage (25+) or (22+ if towing toad) The best part is it’s 8+ years old and the license plate tax is “cheap”–But it’s like NEW! We’ve taken 2 very long trips in it and several shorter ones. It has been great. I will tell you my hubby is well versed with diesels–he had his own semi for years. Yes Mercedes diesels are a bit different but you just have to learn the peticulars! I hope we can use it for years to come(just retired!) Now I want to learn how to put solar on it! Dixie Nivala(N.MN.)

    • Bob Bob says:

      Dixie, what a score!! You can’t pass up a deal like that! I’m sure you are going to put many years and many thousands of miles on it having a great time.

      If you have any questions about the solar, feel free to ask.
      Bob

  5. CAE says:

    I looked at them a few years ago, but the price sent me running for the hills. They are nice, but so is the Astro. And I think I can get about 3 Astro’s to 1 Sprinter.

    • cyrus says:

      At least three. Or one astro and a year of not working.
      cyrus recently posted…A traceur and a photographer cross pathsMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Exactly how I feel CAE. On my limited budget a Sprinter is not even a consideration. Even if I could scrape up the money to buy a good used one, I couldn’t afford to keep repairing and maintaining. Parts for an Astro are everywhere and pretty cheap and any mechanic can work on one. The mpg isn’t as good, but the $10,000 you will save on the purchase price will buy a lot of gas!!
      Bob

  6. CAE says:

    I looked at them a few years ago, but the price sent me running for the hills. They are nice, but so is the Astro. And I think I can get about 3 Astro’s to 1 Sprinter.

  7. Dixie says:

    Thanks Bob! I very much hope to take you up on that offer this Jan. at the RTR. Dixie

  8. spydie says:

    I just bought a 2006 Pleasure-Way conversion sprinter with 23,000 miles on it (it’s just like new) and 15 hours on the generator (genset). The genset has given me some trouble as they need to be exercised under load for 2 hours every month (according to Cummins-Onan). But it seems to have finally come out of the stumbling problem with 60+ hours on it now. I’ve had it about 2 months and put about 9,000 miles on it. We have had everything from travel trailers (17′ to 27′), 40′ diesel pusher with 4 slides, and 3500 lb slide-in pickup camper, and one 1996 Roadtrek class B with Dodge chassis (360 cu in engine). The class Bs with Ford and Chev currently get about 14 mpg. I average 22 mpg and got as high as 25 and as low as 19 mpg. These conversions are very heavy vans. We have had more fun and comfort with this van than any RV we’ve ever had. It’s a keeper. Even at current fuel prices, it costs me 1/3 less to drive this than a comparable class B with Ford or Chev front end. The price? No more than any other Class B in comparable shape. Less than half the price of a new one. You can build your own RV for less money, but it will never be as nice as the factory finished ones unless you have a lot of time, money and expertise at your fingetrips, and look at all the traveling time you’ll give up while spending years re-designing the wheel! In the end, if you can afford a good used, low mileage camper van, the Sprinter is the best you can get for your money. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can save $10,000 by buying an american van and think about all the gas you can buy with that money. We did that once. Bought Winnebago that got 4.5 mpg but saved thousands over buying a fuel efficient RV. We didn’t keep it long. It really hurt every time we went into the filling station. You’re much better off to pay your money up front, then enjoy cheaper traveling. You’ll do a lot more traveling going that route.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Spydie, I have several friends with Class B and C Sprinters an they are amazing!! Beautiful, comfortable, and great mpg. You’re totally right, there is no other RV that can compare to them.
      Bob

  9. An excellent rundown into why the Sprinter is not appropriate for most people. Personally I prefer conversions of Ford vans for the added camoflage factor it gives you 🙂
    greenminimalism recently posted…How to Look After Your RV – RV Maintenance TipsMy Profile

  10. chris wiliams says:

    Me and my wife have been thinking of buying a sprinter van and living out of it and traveling around the country doing cool jobs . Is there anyone on this forum doing this or has done it in the pass .

    • Bob Bob says:

      Chris, I don’t know about cool jobs, but quite a few of us travel and work as campground hosts and others work for Amazon in their distribution centers at the holidays. I also know people who are Mystery Shoppers and do well at it.

      It can be done!
      Bob

  11. greg says:

    Any idea on how living in a ford connect transit would be? im looking into it!

  12. Alan M says:

    I currently own a lightly used 2010 Transit Connect that I rescued from a dealer who used it as a shop van. It had running problems sorted out by another dealer, including a clogged catalytic converter. My van only has 35,000 miles. I’m told that at 80,000 miles I can expect to replace wheel bearings, brakes, fuel pump, etc. None seem to survive much past 150,000 miles.Business owners in the service industries were NOT happy with the early TC model and frequent reliability problems.
    So I have been looking at the Sprinter, hoping that the diesel will get me 3 times the mileage of a gasoline van. Surprised to read that the later model has more reliability issues than the early model. I’m willing to become familiar with the Van I choose to convert into a “Stealther” to keep for the rest of my life, if possible. Maybe I’ll keep looking!!

    • Bob Bob says:

      Alan, the Chevy Express with 5.3 or 4.8 engine will average 17-20 MPG, the Sprinter is better but by the time you pay extra for fuel and maintenance they cost more to operate. After 2007 the EPA emissions on all diesels is killing them, they are now-high-strung, finnicky mess. Expect constant, expensive repairs and don’t expect to find a Mercedes dealer to do those repairs and when you do, expect to wait on parts and pay for the price of a good used Chevy van for the repair.
      Bob

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