Which Chassis is Better for an RV- Chevy or Sprinter?

 Which Chassis is Better for an RV- Chevy or Sprinter?

newrvEver 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.

Chevy seats.
Chevy seats.

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.

mercedeseatadjust
Sprinter seat adjustments, except for the lumbar support. There WILL be a test, so pay attention.

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.

Do NOT derive your Sprinter like this. Skidpad numbers are pretty close for empty, stock vans, though - .71 g for the Chevy and .67 for the Sprinter.
Do NOT drive your Sprinter like this. Skidpad numbers are pretty close for empty, stock vans, though: .71 g for the Chevy and .67 g for the Sprinter.

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.

Rack and pinion, even for the plumber's truck. Goodbye, recirculating balls and pittman arms.
Rack and pinion, even for the plumber's truck. Goodbye, recirculating balls and Pittman arms.

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.

campskunk

"campskunk" is a blissfully retired former public servant who has left the challenges of how to run the government to younger and less cynical hands, and wanders the continent in his Roadtrek Class B RV with his wife and cat. In addition to his work in the public sector, he has also at various times been a mechanic and delivery driver, skills which come in handy in his new role. Because his former job involved the forensic evaluation and sometimes the subsequent detention of some not-so-nice people, he uses the name campskunk instead of his legal name on the Internet. His was not the type of job where customer service feedback would be welcome.

9 Comments

  • After reading this article I think your verdict is the Sprinter is preferable–at least for you. It won in every comparison you made 🙂

  • Some of us are still working the Dodge B250 van chassis. Would love to upgrade to a Sprinter though, if anyone has a spare ETrek.

  • “The days of passenger car land yachts” … I couldn’t have side it better myself! That’s why I love the Chevy, for me. I love the highway cars of yon! Our 2006 RT 210P glides along the highway.

  • The Chev does have one advantage over the Sprinter and that is it can be garaged in a standard sized 9’3″ garage with an 8’9″ overhead door. I park my 2007 210 Pop in my standard attached garage with in floor heat. No varmints have access to my RT and I can maintain and charge my batteries, pack and unpack, and take care of the RT inside in a comfortable temperature no matter what the weather is. A Sprinter would require a special garage or off premises storage. This is one reason why we chose the Chevrolet.

  • Our 2007 210 Pop Chev also has a locking differential which is a godsend in winter weather on ice or snow on hills, etc. More than once it provided necessary traction on snow covered hills and I would have been stranded without it. I don’t think the Sprinter can match that.

  • I’m more concerned with the ability to find a mechanic to fix any problems with the Mercedes chassis being a single woman AND I’d rather not use diesel fuel Regular gas is easier to find.

  • Great Article. And very concise, accurate and descriptive. Now, when is Part two coming out?
    🙂
    “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”…. I would love to hear your comparison of ease of everyday use (headroom,space), ease and/or cost of service/maintenance/parking ability/on board storage etc..

  • Very informative. Personally I tend to favor the Chevy gas engine. About the only thing missing is valve displacement to improve MPG. I also tend to agree with the idea of more available service businesses. I would also love a cost of operation comparison, but think I could probably find it elsewhere. I’ve read earlier the sprinter has more storage, but I fear most of it would be up high, adding to what looks like a top heavy set up. I could be wrong, though.

  • I’ve been researching this and it seems the 2002-2006 T1N Sprinters are the ones you want. The latter NCV3 is heavier, has lower fuel economy, and has many dependability issues. In addition, knowledgable Sprinter mechanics are few and far between. Google “T1N vs NCV3” and you’ll get an earful. I thought I wanted a Sprinter. Now I’m looking at the ProMaster.

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