Ever since I switched from a 2003 190 Popular to a 2013 Sprinter chassis, people have been asking me, how does the new one drive compared to the old one? What are the differences? Which is better?
Here's my take on it, based on seven years in the Chevy and coming up on one year in the Sprinter: This will probably apply to your choices, because the rate of design innovation can charitably be designed as glacial for cargo vans. All post-2002 Chevys are pretty much the same, and so are all post-2006 Sprinters.
I'm going to restrict myself to the topic of how they drive and handle, not reliability, cost of operation, initial price, depreciation rate, etc. Let's just pretend someone else is making the payments, doing the maintenance and repairs, and all that other non-fun stuff. Say you have to drive a few hundred miles and want to know what it would be like in each of these vehicles.
First place to start out is driver position and seating. Because of the different designs, the Sprinter offers better visibility and spaciousness up front. You aren't riding beside the engine like in a Chevy, it's all underneath the floor, and the windshield is larger. As far as seating, individual preferences in seating style come into play. The American ideal of a driver's seat as comfortable as your living room recliner is the goal for Chevy, whereas the Germans take a more of a sit-up-and-pay-attention approach. Chevy seats from Roadtrek have a power lumbar support; everything on the excruciatingly ergonomically correct Sprinter seat is manual, so either way you're going to have to fiddle with almost all of the knobs yourself to get situated.
Chevys have a longer seat base and more padding, Sprinter seats are broader at the top near the headrest and have individual adjustments for seat height, front and rear. You are less nestled into the Sprinter seats, you sit on them, not in them. Bottom line for me is I have found that I have less backaches driving the Mercedes all day. This is a skinny 6'1″ male talking, though, so each of you will have to sit in and hopefully drive one yourself to decide. The earlier T1N version of Sprinters (pre-2007) had a more horizontally positioned, bus-like wheel that some found awkward, but the newer NCV3 body has eliminated this problem. Both Chevy and Mercedes have adjustments which allow you to put the wheel where you want it.
Engine and transmission are also completely different in feel; the Sprinter has a turbodiesel with half the displacement of the Chevy, and there are completely different philosophies of automatic transmission design in Germany and North America, so if you're used to one, the other will “feel funny” at first. The Sprinter transmission has adaptive learning and is trying to adjust the timing of the clutch packs and bands to your driving style, so the transmission control module is probably saying the same uncomplimentary things about you that you're saying about it if you're having problems adjusting to the difference. Look for more integrated engine braking features in the Sprinter, partially because of the superior engine braking capabilities of a Diesel engine. I feel a lot more comfortable on long downhill grades in the Mercedes than I did in the Chevy.
Power? Here, the Sprinter is going for fuel economy, and the Chevy is going for horsepower. The turbo-diesel design of the Sprinter, however, ensures vast quantities of torque from 1400 rpm all the way up, so it tends to pull better in situations where the Chevy's hunting for the right gear. If you drive it like a car, the Chevy's horsepower is reassuring; if you drive it like a truck, the Sprinter approach is better. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, and you may come to a different conclusion that the next buyer based on what you like. Both will get up an on-ramp or mountain just fine, albeit in a different style.
And the ride? The Sprinter's unibody construction and suspension geometry produce a more supple feel than the Chevy's, but the Chevy has that GM float we all remember from the days of passenger car land yachts – it's designed for the interstate highway system, since they were both developed at the same time. My wife Sharon rides in the back and prefers the Mercedes ride, but that's because I had increased the spring rate on my 2003 Chevy, and now it's back to normal thanks to the Sprinter's increased cargo carrying capacity that eliminated the need for suspension mods. The Sprinter will do better on uneven surfaces, so if you plan on backroading it frequently you may consider that as a factor.
Handling is going to have to go to the Sprinter for any objective evaluator – the technology is way ahead of what GM is producing for light commercial vehicles, which has not changed much since World War II. Rack and pinion steering and superior suspension geometry allow the Mercedes wheels to track truer and respond faster to inputs from both the road and the driver. The Sprinter is also faster to adapt technological innovations such as crosswind assist, which compensates for drift as well as yaw in transient loads caused by crosswinds. Let's face it, these are both big boxes and you'll definitely notice crosswinds in either while driving. Because of its taller shape the Sprinter will heel over further in the same speed crosswind, but the superior engineering and electronics will mean it requires less steering compensation by the driver to stay on track.
So what's the verdict? They both do some things well, and do everything adequately. You're the variable, not the chassis. Get in them and drive each. You will know what's right for you.