Mercedes-Benz Sprinter VS Isuzu D-Max
- Smooth diesel power
- Comfy, practical cabin
- Passenger-car tech
- Loud with windows down
- 360-degree camera would need to land as standard
- Much hyped new voice control can be... patchy
- Reversing camera as standard
- Suspension upgrade
- Off-road capability
- No AEB
- No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto
- Still noisy when driven hard
On the commercial side of the Mercedes-Benz business, a new Sprinter van is talked about in the same revered tone as a new S-Class. Seriously; the company's best-selling van has the same flagship aura about it as the uber-luxe limousine.
Even in Australia - where it wears a price premium over most competitors - Mercedes says it has managed to cling to the top sales spot in the large-van segment for more than two decades. But in Europe (and especially Germany) it's even more ubiquitous - they are absolutely everywhere.
This 2019 update is kind of a big deal, then. And with a new (and cheaper) FWD variant, overhauled cabin technology that now mirrors the best of the passenger-car range, and new safety offerings like AEB, active cruise and a 360-degree camera, Benz reckons this new model will bite off an even bigger share of the market.
And so we took the Sprinter for a quick spin ahead of its Q4 Australian launch to see if they're right.
|Engine Type||2.1L turbo|
Last year heralded a raft of significant changes in Isuzu Ute Australia’s (IUA) D-Max and MU-X line-up.
In its first-quarter 2017 launch on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Isuzu officially revealed the range’s new 3.0-litre engine, new six-speed automatic transmission, and upgraded Aussie-specific suspension – all engineered for Australian drivers and our unique driving conditions – as well as a few nifty styling improvements, including a new front-end.
Well, this year Isuzu chose the Mt Cotton driver training centre, just outside of Brisbane, as the venue to let Australian motoring journalists loose in some new D-Maxs and MU-Xs. The changes this time around aren’t anywhere near as big as they were last year but Isuzu is hoping that extra safety features as standard, styling tweaks and value-added service intervals will help to build on growing buyer interest in its ute and SUV range.
|Engine Type||3.0L turbo|
If it was any more practical it would do the loading and unloading for you, but there's also no obvious penalty for driving a commercial vehicle here. It's comfortable, quiet and now offers better interior technology than even most Benz passenger cars.
And with a cheaper entry point now on offer, the Sprinter should have absolutely no problem holding onto its top sales spot.
Would you buy any van other than a Sprinter? Tell us in the comments.
The D-Max was already a solid choice for those interested in a functional family-friendly ute and it seems Isuzu might be justified in banking on the new LS-T’s premium appeal, as well as the range’s safety upgrades, extended service intervals and styling tweaks for even more sales.
What do you think of the new D-Max? Tell us in the comments below.
It's a vast and slab-sided thing, of course, and practicality takes priority over design, but in the world of full-size vans, the Sprinter is a rather handsome beast.
Up front, the optional three-column LED headlights separate the massive horizontal slats of the grille, while sharp contours running the edge of the bonnet create a kind of power dome in the centre. It's a pretty dominant design, and it definitely lends the Sprinter a strong road presence.
But there's only so much crayon work you can do with a commercial vehicle, so, unsurprisingly, the Sprinter looks... a lot like a van. Lighter colours - and grey especially - look best, highlighting the subtle contours and making it look a little less blocky and heavy.
The cabin, though, looks properly great; a customisable blend of form and function (exactly how much of either is up to you) that - thanks to Mercedes' cool MBUX system and Touch steering wheel - feels like it could belong in a passenger car rather than a workaday van.
The materials are geared toward wear and tear, though, with fabric seats and hard plastics liberally splashed about the cabin.
Nothing has changed on the D-Max’s outside – it looks chunky, solid and purpose-built for adventure – but the LS-T’s interior now has that perforated leather on body-contact areas and soft-touch leatherette elsewhere. Inside the cabin remains functional but it now has a more premium feel.
It's available in in four sizes (five if you include cab chassis) and with three roof heights, so just how practical your Sprinter arrives is going to be up to you.
Benz reports total storage space can be up to 17 cubic metres, depending on configuration. The front-wheel-drive version is now eight centimetres lower at the back, too, making it a little easier to load.
Mercedes is yet to confirm the full load-carrying spec for Australian cars, but consider this; even the smallest and most underpowered model in the outgoing range could carry more than a tonne and tow in excess of 2000kg (braked), and those numbers are unlikely to have gone backwards. But then, that the big and cavernous Sprinter can carry stuff will surprise absolutely no-one.
The cabin is a super-clever mix of storage spots and hidey-holes, but special mention must go to the phone-sized slots in the dash for both passenger and driver, as well as the extra storage at head height, dash height and in the centre console.
We didn’t have the opportunity to spend very much time in the D-Max this time around but it appears to have retained the previous generation’s easy-to-live-with attributes. Everything is clear to see (the 8.0-inch touchscreen is a good unit), easy to use (big buttons, dials and knobs abound) and the cabin is roomy, comfortable, and hard wearing. Build quality and fit and finish remains solid and touring-ready.
The D-Max's tray is 1552mm long (at floor level), 465mm deep and 1530mm wide across the top, 1105mm wide, between wheel arches. It has four tie-down points in the tray, one at each corner.
This D-Max has a 1024kg payload, 3050kg GVM, a maximum braked towing capacity of 3500kg and 750kg unbraked.
Price and features
The big news here is the introduction of a new entry point to the Sprinter range, a (first for this van) FWD model that is also offered with a new, nine-speed gearbox.
Mercedes is yet to confirm pricing or full specification for the updated Sprinter, but it reckons we can expect to see the FWD model lop about $5k off the starting price, lowering the entry point for an automatic SWB vehicle to around $42k (and about $39k for a manual).
That would bring it much closer to the heart of its segment - the Renault Master, for example, will set you back about $35k for a SWB with a manual gearbox.
The Sprinter will arrive in a standard specification across the range (SWB, MWB, LWB and XLWB) with plenty of personalisation options from there. And we do mean plenty; Benz reckons there are about 1700 possible variations.
New for this update is Benz's very cool 'MBUX' multimedia system (the one in the spanking new A-Class), which will be operated via a 7.0-inch screen as standard, with a 10.25-inch screen a cost option. The MBUX setup uses the same AI-enabled voice recognition system as the A-Class - meaning you can talk to it without using pre-defined key words, although it's still far from flawless - and it pairs with a six-speaker stereo.
The system joins Merc's heavily redesigned 'Touch' steering wheel as the standout new features. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are yet to appear, but Benz tells us it's coming post launch, and will likely be rolled out as a no-cost option.
There are 23 variants in the D-Max line-up, ranging from the 4x2 single cab chassis SX manual ($28,600) through to the new LS-T (formerly known as the LS-Terrain), costing $54,700 (recommended retail price).
There are four variants in the crew cab (dual-cab) range – SX, LS-M, LS-U and the new LS-T (formerly known as the LS-Terrain), which we’ll focus on in this yarn. There are 4x4 and 4x2 variants for everything in the 2018 D-Max range; and manual or auto transmissions for a lot of the line-up everything.
The LS-T is auto only and costs $54,700 (recommended retail price). Available in 4x4 or 4x2 guise, the LS-T gets, above and beyond what came before, perforated leather on body-contact areas, soft-touch leatherette in other spots (also in LS-m and LS-U), 18-inch wheels, sat nav, roof-rails, and two USB charge points.
Safety upgrades include trailer sway control for all new D-Maxs – except the 4x2 low-ride SX single cab chassis manual – and rear bumper and reversing camera as standard on everything, except cab chassis models, but it is an option on those.
There are also three new exterior colours available for the D-Max: 'Magnetic Red Mica', 'Cobalt Blue Mica' and 'Graphite Grey Metallic'. The new MU-X also has the Magnetic Red Mica option.
Engine & trans
Aside from the new nine-speed automatic offered in the FWD version, the engines and transmission options are carried over from the current models, although they do now offer a little more oomph.
That means a 2.1-litre diesel good for 84kW and 250Nm, 105kW and 330Nm, or 120kW and 360Nm, as well as the diesel V6 that produces 140kW and 440Nm. They're paired with a six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic in RWD versions, while the FWD can now choose the new gearbox.
Mercedes is yet to confirm fuel use for the 84KW engine, but the mid-spec diesel will use 8.0L/100km - the very same as the most powerful 120kW option in the four-cylinder range. Updated numbers for the big 3.0-litre V6 haven't been revealed yet, either.
All those numbers are calculated on the claimed combined cycle.
We only got the chance to spend very little time in any new models and we’d have to drive it for a week or more to get a good handle on real-world fuel consumption but Isuzu claims the D-Max gets through 7.9L/100km (combined cycle). It has a 76-litre fuel tank.
It's utterly car-like. There's really no other way to describe it. Despite the fact you're dragging a cargo area big enough to swallow an Ikea showroom, the mass is largely unnoticeable from the driver's seat. In fact, if it wasn't for the way the sky-high driving position perches you above the steering wheel, it would be very easy to forget you're driving a van at all.
We only sampled one drivetrain combination - the 2.1-litre diesel paired with the seven-speed transmission, both of which carry over from the outgoing model, housed in a mid-wheelbase version - and the engine proved smooth and refined, gathering speed with nary a clatter or rattle in the cabin. It's not overly quick, but the low-down urge of the 360Nm (it appears at 1400rpm) is plenty willing to drag the Sprinter away from the lights.
With the window down, the diesel noise is far more noticeable, but the sound insulation does a great job of locking the noise outside when the cabin is sealed.
Even the steering feels surprisingly responsive, but with a reassuring lack of sharpness that mirth otherwise have you feeling like you're about to topple over. In a moment of pure madness, we pointed the Sprinter's massive nose at a climbing, twisting road, and while you're unlikely to win any hillclimb challenges,it doesn't feel overly top-heavy, either, and it will happily rumble to the top of most any mountain you should encounter.
Most importantly, though, the cabin is comfortable, mostly quiet, and feels less jittery or bouncy than plenty of dual-cab utes. With about 350 kilogram load on board, the ride was firm but not uncomfortable - exactly what we'd want from a van of this size.
And now, a small caveat. We were treated to a fairly limited test-drive on European roads that were ridiculously smooth, so we'll reserve full judgement on how the Sprinter responds to Australian conditions until it arrives locally in Q4 this year.
We only did brief drive loops on the launch, including a decent off-road course and towing a 1750kg boat with a D-Max on a twisting bitumen road, designed to replicate real-world driving conditions.
Running 20 psi (pounds per square inch) in our Bridgestone Dueler or Toyo Open Country tyres, the Isuzus handled everything on the 4WD loop with ease, including runs up and down steep greasy-muddy hills peppered with rocks and tree-root hazards, tight turns in between trees, plowing through mud puddles and more.
No surprise at its efficacy on rough terrain because it works off the proven 4X4 'Terrain Command' system, operated via a dial near the auto shifter, and which can be switched on the fly from 2High to 4High at speeds of up to 100km/h. To engage 4L you need to be stationary.
The LS-T is 5295mm long, 1860mm wide (excluding wing mirrors), 1855mm high (excluding roof rails) and has a 3095mm wheelbase and 1570mm track. It has a 12.6m turning circle. Kerb weight is listed as 2026kg.
It has 235mm ground clearance, 30 degrees approach angle, 22.7 degrees departure angle, and 22.3 degrees ramp-over angle. The LS-T's wading depth is 600mm.
The Isuzu ute retains the previous generation’s hill start assist (designed to hold gear during climbs) and hill descent control (which maintains engine-braking speed on downhills and is able to be regulated with acceleration or braking).
The D-Max’s underbody protection includes under-front steel plate skid/splash shield and steel plate guards on the sump, transfer case and fuel tank leading edge; and sheet steel under the fuel tank.
It has double wishbones and coil springs up front and leaf springs at the rear, reduced from a five-span spring set-up to three, which has resulted in a softer and more comfortable D-Max ride than before.
We had the opportunity to drive a 2017 and a 2018 model back-to-back through lumpy sections at different speeds and the newer model exhibited a clear advantage in the ride and handling stakes over its older version.
Benz should be commended for rolling out AEB as standard across the range for this 2019 update, which also includes new side airbags for the front seats, joining the dual-front bags from the outgoing model.
Active lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, active cruise and a 360-degree camera have also become available, but if and where they arrive as standard is yet to be confirmed. Expect cross-wind control to reappear, too.
The Sprinter has not undergone ANCAP crash testing.
The D-Max has a maximum five-star ANCAP rating from November 2016. As mentioned, noteworthy safety upgrades include trailer sway control for all new D-Maxs – except the 4x2 low-ride SX single cab chassis manual – and rear bumper and reversing camera as standard on everything, except cab chassis models, but it is an option on those.
Other standard safety gear includes six airbags (dual front, side and full-length curtain), ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, ESC, traction control and EBA (emergency brake assist), 'Hill Start Assist' and 'Hill Descent Control', plus three top-tether ISOFIX child-seat points in the rear seat.
It has a five-year/130,000km warranty, with five years of roadside assist and five-year/75,000km capped price service costs. Servicing is recommended at 12-month/15,000km intervals. Prices are: $350 (at 12 months/15,000km), $450 (at 24 months/30,000km), $500 (at 36 months/45,000km) $450 (at 48 months/60,000km) and $340 at 60 months/75,000km – for a total cost of $2090.