(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/)
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.
- -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.
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.
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.
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).
Links for Sprinter builds:
3Up Adventures Sprinter
(I have an article on my website about converting a Sprinter. You can check it out here:)