"Dunton," I said to my co-driver while pointing left at a sign, "is that way, correct?"
"Not sure," he replied. "Looks like we have to continue straight on for a while still. Maybe 20 miles."
I sighed. Behind the wide expanse of windshield inside the 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, the whole world sits ahead of you. The massive van provides a unique vantage point over—yes, over—its surrounding environment, with room for people and as many of their things as they can tote. To drive a Sprinter is to take a confident, elevated perspective on the road.
We were still about an hour away from our intended campsite, located in Dunton, Colo., on the beautiful, serpentine roads that connect one mountain with another. On one side of the road hang rocky, titian cliffs and ridges, which carved out tight pathways more likely meant for sports cars. Directly across, in stark contrast, sit lush green valleys dotted with narrow pine trees. How nature allows for the difference in color and texture is beyond me. I'm just following the solid yellow line, wherever it takes us.
A photo posted by Jeff (@jeffjablansky) on Jun 1, 2015 at 5:43pm PDT
How did we get here? Thanks to an invitation from Mercedes-Benz to take an early look at the Metris van, we ended up in the beautiful southwestern corner of Colorado for several days, and a few hours in the Sprinter constituted the first leg of the trip. Not much has changed about the Sprinter since we drove it earlier this year at its assembly plant in South Carolina and again as a custom conversion van. For 2015, the lineup includes two turbocharged diesel engines, a four-cylinder and a six-cylinder, and optional four-wheel-drive with the larger engine. There are more permutations than ever of Sprinter body styles—from minibus to crew van—and the interior remains the same, airy environment that defined the tall van.
The Sprinter was humming along quite happily by the time we reach the hamlet of Rico. That's when we knew we had traveled too far.
"Have we missed the turn?" my co-driver wondered out loud. We abandoned the printed road book and pulled out the portable navigation system. According to the electronic directions, we were under 12 miles away, the majority of which was on Route 38. That was a good sign, because the road book directions indicated that our original destination was also on Route 38, at the end of a dirt road.
Thus far, we were thoroughly enjoying the drive. The Sprinter balances maneuverability and sheer mass like most other vans cannot, with consistently smooth power from either the four- or six-cylinder diesel engines on offer. The combination almost makes van driving fun.
We made a left turn onto Route 38, expecting a dirt road, and we certainly found it. No sooner than we began our ascent up the dusty path, wide enough for one car but intended as a mountainous dual-carriageway, that we realized that the six miles to Dunton were going to be primarily off road. This, in a rear-wheel-drive van that weighs almost three tons unladen. Giddy up.
There was neither a guard rail nor a tree lining on the left side of the narrow road as we started up the hill—great news for two drivers with a passing fear of heights. We crept up the mountain in second gear, watching the elevation rise rapidly to the tune of 13 mph or less. At this rate, we were going to barely make it for dinner.
The Sprinter kept steady throughout the climb, failing to slip or make us nervous at any point. After the first couple of miles white-knuckling the van through the forest, we realized that the path had been used for vehicles before. Our evidence? A felled tree that was sliced through the middle with precision, to allow a vehicle to pass through. Tire marks at a track width similar to our van's led us forward, as we gasped for air at the high elevation.
We seemed to be making it through each challenge that nature laid before us. A deep mud puddle? Give it some gas. An extremely narrow, hairpin turn? Take it slowly and steadily. A pile of rocks? Move the sharp ones and tread lightly. Somehow, we were climbing the mountain, and we knew that the destination lay on the other side. My co-driver astutely reminded me that, in some parts of the world, this is the average daily commute. With both hands on the wheel, I nervously smiled.
Then, we encountered snow—on a beautiful, 75ºF day in June. Fresh, soft snow. We had climbed so high that we had reached the same height as some of the snowy peaks on the other side of the ridge. It wasn't a positive sign. Up in the middle of nowhere, without a cell signal or a reliable map, we decided to press on, and made it through the first pile of snow using the tracks laid ahead of us. The second snowpile was larger and rockier, but the Sprinter persevered. (We humans were fairly tuckered out.) It took every trick in the off-roader's handbook to make it up there, what with mirrors and spotting and only going as fast as necessary.
The lynchpin was a collection of snow about seven feet wide, ten feet long, and six inches deep. My co-driver, a native of the Midwest, was wary. I haven't had the best luck with snow this year, myself, and hesitated. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, this was also where the tire tracks ended. In fact, there were several imprints in the mud that indictated that this is where most drivers had turned around. Reluctantly, after what felt like hours (it was closet to 45 minutes), we performed a tight, 15-point turn atop the mountain and headed slowly back down to the pavement.
The neat part about making our mistake? We could have done the same trip up the hill with 10 of our closest friends, and most of their gear. (The possibility of having to sleep in the van, were we not able to continue the climb, did not escape our minds, either.) The Sprinter's versatility and sure-footedness made it all possible.
When we reached the pavement, almost half an hour later, driving on flat concrete at 25 mph had never felt so calming. Eventually, we came upon the turn to Dunton that we had missed, had a bit of a laugh about it, and made sure to make the right. Camp appeared about 20 minutes later, just as the sun was setting.
The afternoon of a couple of wrong turns proved a new and unanticipated mountain-scaling capability for the Sprinter, the van we thought had already mastered tricks of vehicles several size classes smaller. Had we possessed the added traction of the higher-up Sprinter 4X4, which we had the chance to try the next day on dry roads, maybe the snow would have posed a lesser threat. Chalk another one up to the van lineup that keeps changing the game.
By the numbers: 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter V-6 RWD
MSRP: $44,470 (includes $995 destination charge)
Power / drive wheels: 2.1-liter, 161-hp turbocharged V-6 engine / rear-wheel drive
Transmission: 5-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy (mpg): Not rated
In showrooms: Now