The Volkswagen Crafter and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter have something of a complicated past. Not that long ago, they were basically the same vehicle – based on the same platform, with the same interior, and were built in the same Mercedes factories in Germany.
Now the two have gone their separate ways, with very different results. So who’s done it better?
What’s new about these two vans?
In the last two years, both vans here have had a complete overhaul. The Volkswagen Crafter, released in 2017, is no longer a rebadged Mercedes with different engines and runs on a brand new platform based on Volkswagen architecture.
As a result, it feels much more like a VW product inside – with switches, infotainment and a steering wheel borrowed from the latest Golf rather than from an old Mercedes C-Class.
There’s also a rebadged MAN version of the Crafter, which has come about because truck and bus company MAN is part of the Volkswagen Group. So if you’re an operator running a fleet of MAN trucks and desperately want a support van with the same badges, now you can.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is newer still, unveiled in early 2018. It gets the very latest Mercedes switchgear and technology – more on that later. Depending on spec, it’s probably the most technologically-advanced van on sale today.
Both vans get updated powertrain options – including a nine-speed automatic gearbox in the Sprinter – and both are now available with front-wheel-drive, doing away with a bulky rear driveshaft allowing the load bay floor to be usefully lower to the ground.
How do they look?
Neither of these vans will be bought for their exterior design, but both are relatively stylish. The Volkswagen Crafter is the more restrained of the two, with a neat, razor-like front grille topped by a chrome flourish, and unashamedly square lines elsewhere to match.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has gone a little more bulbous: adopting a similar design to its predecessor, with rounded edges and a face designed to mimic modern Mercedes passenger car models like the GLE SUV.
To our eyes, the Crafter is the better looking of the two – the Sprinter’s pronounced nose making it look a bit too Beluga whale-like for our liking. That said, the imposing Mercedes corporate face gives it some added pedigree.
What are the specs like?
These days a baffling number of options are available to customise vans, and these two are no different.
Starting with the cabin, both can be had with niceties like heated and electrically-operated seats and, in the VW, the option for them to massage you too. Both offer the choice of infotainment screens – small and large with varying costs – and each can be specced with their own telematics system, should you wish to monitor an entire fleet of Sprinters or Crafters.
Crafters get the option of a simple rear-view camera, while Sprinters get the choice of a that or a more complex 360-degree one too. Both get the option of adaptive cruise control, LED headlights and various other safety gear like blind spot warnings and lane keep assist.
As far as load bay niceties are concerned, only the Sprinter offers the option of electrically operated sliding rear doors or adjustable air suspension to help load items.
What are they like inside?
The Sprinter’s interior is unashamedly tech-focussed. Dominated by the latest Mercedes infotainment system – called MBUX – in the centre of the dash, it’s a van that finally feels like it’s caught up with the rest of the automotive world.
It’s not perfect though: little thought has gone into storage space beyond the usual top-of-the-dash bins, and the touchscreen – further away from the driver than in the likes of the A-Class hatchback – is fiddly to use while on the move.
The Crafter’s interior is more like a Dieter Rams creation by comparison: simplistic, restrained, and free of distractions. Controls are chunky, sensibly spaced and easy to operate, and has a large touch screen flanked by physical buttons.
There’s more storage than in the Sprinter too: an inch-deep, iPhone-width tray runs across the dashboard, doors have a handy second bin further up, and the front bench seat can be easily raised to store items out of sight.
When it comes to load space, both are broadly similar, and all models except the shortest Sprinter come with 270-degree opening rear doors. The Sprinter offers a slightly wider range of lengths and heights, mind: both can fit up to 4.8 metres in length in their longest versions, but the Sprinter offers a ‘short’ wheelbase model with 2.7 metres of space too.
The Sprinter is also better at disguising its load lip: both vans’ floors are high thanks to the rear prop shaft, but non-FWD Crafters like ours have a clumsy-looking, painted metal step to lift things over beyond the door opening.
What about under the bonnets?
In the Crafter, there’s the choice of a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel in various states of tune – between 100 and 175hp – and a choice between front, rear or four-wheel drive. We’ve got the full-fat 175hp model in ‘4Motion’ four-wheel-drive guise – complete with an optional locking rear differential for really sticky situations.
The Sprinter comes with slightly more choice: either a 2.1-litre, four-cylinder diesel with between 112 and 160hp, or a larger 3.0-litre V6 diesel with 190hp. Ours is a 160hp 2.1-litre, paired with rear-wheel-drive and a six-speed manual gearbox.
What are they like to drive?
Vans have come a long way in the last decade, and that’s evident in just how easy both of these are to drive.
Our Volkswagen is a piece of cake to drive: a smooth automatic gearbox, reasonably light steering and great visibility mean it’s not really a challenge to drive. As with most large vans, its ride can get jittery without a decent load on board – probably not helped by our 4Motion version’s taller suspension – but on a motorway cruise it settles down instantly, and would be a pleasure on a long journey.
The Sprinter is similarly easy-going: steering is even lighter than the Crafter, the ride is supple (for a van) and the dash-mounted manual gearbox is a joy to use.
Unfortunately, our example was spoiled by Mercedes’s over-exuberant automatic handbrake which, as far as we could work out, can’t be disabled and refuses to automatically disengage.
Worse still, on multiple occasions it applied itself during low-speed manoeuvres while the van was still moving, leading to embarrassing and unwarranted ‘emergency stop’ lurching motions. Thankfully it’s a £260 option and, we reckon, is best avoided.
Choosing between these two is harder than ever: they’re both great all-rounders with up to date engines and gearboxes, and well-designed interiors to match. For us though, the Volkswagen Crafter is the better thought out product as a whole, and our winner here.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is a vast improvement on the old model – and one of the best vans you can buy today – but it feels like a case of style over substance in many areas. The Crafter can still be specified with many – if not more – of the creature comforts available in the Mercedes, and its logically-designed cabin should make life on the road less stressful.
As for our 4Motion four-wheel-drive version, aside from slightly worse fuel economy, it manages not to feel compromised over the standard Crafter – so if your delivery routes are off the beaten track, it’s certainly worth considering.