This first option, naturally was to consider getting another Sprinter. Having built two of them, it was the obvious choice to get back on the rod quickly. But there were two mental serious blockers I came up against: First was price. Both of my Sprinters had been second hand, high mileage units. But even then, my 2015 was $35K CAD, the most I had spent on a vehicle, ever. Looking into new models (2020), a high-roof, 4×4 version was approaching 100K by the time it drives off the lost which is just an insane amount of money. Keep in mind, this is for the empty steel box, you still have to upfit it on top of that. It’s probably an realistic option for someone who sells their house to become a #vanlife nomad, but as a part-time adventure vehicle for me, spending that kind of money made no sense. I want to spend y time out enjoying it, not working more hours to pay off nearly 100k.
The other challenge for me was reliability. The diesel aspect of the MB Sprinter is both its best and worst quality. On the one hand, the 3.0L engine is quite powerful and efficient considering its pushing a huge cube down the road. But in order to meet North American standards, MB had to implement a complex emissions system that includes a DEF tank (that essentially squirts Urea into the exhaust), plus a complex assortment of sensors. On my 2013, I had the DEF heater fail in the middle of the winter and managed to limp it along until the spring when I could replace it. But the deal-breaker for me was right before I sold it, I got the infamous “10 starts remaining” message on the dash. You can look it up, but essentially the Mercedes engineers decided the best approach if a critical emissions component failed was to give you “X more starts” to get the vehicle to a dealership.
This message reared its ugly head a friend and I were beginning a weekend camping trip. I had always dreaded this moment and here it was at one of the worst possible times. We took it in good stride and joked about it, but did have to plan our weekend as to “not use too many unnecessary starts.” We worked it out and figured out if we left the engine running for short stops, we could return home with one or two starts that I could use to get to the dealership. Parking at a trailhead for a few hours: Okay, that will expend a start. Stopping for gas? Leave it running. Going into a restaurant? Mmmmm, better leave it running. These were ironic decisions considering this system was trying to “prevent” unnecessary emissions.
Once I did get the vehicle to the dealership, I discovered this situation was even worse than I imagined. Both of my NOx sensors had failed, and to replace them it would cost $2500! But it get even worse! When I asked if I could just buy the sensors and have an independent shop change them, they told me that the new sensors had to be “programmed” into the emissions system and only dealers or authorized mechanics had the system to both do that, and reset my “starts warning.” I didn’t believe this at first, but did confirm it with other sources. So, basically if you re driving your diesel Sprinter anywhere further than “10 starts away” from a dealer, you might end up with a disabled vehicle.
In the end, I paid the dealer, as it was really my only option. I did discover that these sensors had actually been replaced once on the vehicle previously, and pleaded with them to warranty them, but they declined, but did graciously offer me $300 off the bill.So if you decide to use a Sprinter as a overland vehicle, or leave the bounds of North America with it be warned that if this comes up your options for avoiding a disabled vehicle are:
- Get to a dealership
- Reset it yourself with an MB Star system (Ebay?)
- Use a “modified” ECU with the emissions systems disabled (probably illegal)
travelling … to remote places in North America and beyond, would not be a good choice for me
In my mind, the Sprinter may be a good choice for delivery companies and van-lifers who stay close to major centres. But as an overland vehicle, travelling with it to remote places in North America and beyond would not be a good choice for me.