Yippee Skippy--A Good Driving 4WD SPRINTER . . . Want One?

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
Today's Puzzle: What's Special about this Sprinter?

Johns4WDSprinter.jpg

Oh, wait; I gave the answer away in the title. :sombrero:

People who have followed the saga of the efforts to have a four-wheel drive Sprinter in North America already know that it's been a convoluted affair. You can read about it here

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/52931

and here

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/68976

and here

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/20766

and here

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/11568

and another dozen other places around the Portal and on the Sprinter-Source forum.

To save newcomers to this topic a fair amount of reading, here's the situation as it's developed over the past half-dozen years:

-- Mercedes manufactures a four-wheel drive Sprinter and distributes it in many world markets. The brochure for the current version is here: http://www.ourexcellentadventures.com/wp-content/documents/MBV Sprinter AWD brochure.pdf. But in spite of lots of Internet rumors and posts implying that the model was due in the US and Canada Real Soon Now, no 4x4 Sprinter has never been available here from a dealer.

-- You can make an even better off-roader out of a standard Sprinter using a combination of Mercedes and aftermarket components. European companies like Oberainger and Iglhaut Allrad make money making very capable offroad versions of the Sprinter. (Search the company names for lots more information and pictures.)

sprinter4x404.jpg

-- At one point, the components involved in these European conversions were briefly available and two US companies, Sportsmobile and Upscale Automotive (aka The Sprinter Store), each built one conversion that was in most ways similar to the Oberainger conversion. However, for reasons not fully documented, but believed to involve pressure from Diamler Benz not to sell to the litigious USA, that option became unavailable.

-- One of the reasons that the Mercedes parts were important was because the Sprinter is highly computerized, with the ABS, anti-slip, electronic stability and various engine parameters causing problems if outside a fairly tight range.

-- However, Salem-Kroger of Redding, California, proceeded in a different direction, using American components and producing better than I dozen (I think) Sprinter 4WDs. The vehicles worked, though the radically different driveline and associated changes in suspension, track and other elements made the driving experience considerably different from that of a stock Sprinter. Salem-Kroger has gone out of business, but a new company, White Feather Conversions in nearby Red Bluff, California, uses essentially the same design. Cost of their conversions begins at a bit over $20K.

So . . . that's where things stand now, with the only available conversion being the pretty heavily-modified, Dana 60 monobeam (Ford)-based, White Feather Conversion.

AND THAT ENDS THE HISTORY LESSON.
 
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mhiscox

Expedition Leader
THE CURRENT ONE-SOURCE SITUATION MAY CHANGE, THOUGH . . .

John Bendit at Upscale Automotive, who built Tom Tasso’s 4x4 Sprinter using the Oberainger-based conversion sourced through South African Company SportsVans, has continued development work on his own system since then and has recently finished up the prototype and made it available for inspection.

So, today, I inspected. :)

At this stage, John is not prepared to have all of the gory, and proprietary, details made public, as he has not made any decision as to whether to enter production. However, I can give you a pretty good idea of the results to date.

The modifications are extensive but it's not a redesign. There are some really good points about what John did. The tires stay the stock size. Front and rear wheels are the same size and on the factory track. No change is necessary to the rotors, calipers, sensors and other brake system items. The suspension remains IFS, with all of the ride advantages that entails. The truck is lifted about four inches and has a nicely-compliant suspension. Front driveline angle is reasonable and there’s no binding.

There’s a transfer case with a subtle lever at the base of the driver’s seat for control. Four high is available at all speeds and four low provides serious gear reduction. The decision was made not to do locking hubs to avoid the need for non-stock wheels, so there must be some reduction in fuel economy due to spinning the additional drivetrain, but the extent of the drop won’t be known without some more careful tracking. John is taking this truck on an extended trip over the holidays and may have a better idea once he’s back.

The stability controls, anti-slip and ABS all work well, in large part because John worked to keep everything that could stay Mercedes intact. The modifications were limited to the components that had to be changed to get four wheel drive, with everything else left stock. As a result, there are no warning lights, unhappy computers or other annoyances.

Having driven around in it today, I can report that far and away the best news is that you can’t really tell by driving that it’s been modified. The lifted body makes a little higher climb into the cockpit, but once seated, it wasn’t tippy or squirrely and it steered well on turns. Both driving through town and on the freeway, it felt like an unmodified NCV3. I also didn’t feel like there was a lot of drag on the driveline.

The prototype's suspension worked just fine, but a certain sort of bump could cause an audible clunk when a coil flexed enough to nick the frame. John already has plans to make some changes to the suspension setup that will eliminate that noise if there’s a production version.

It is likely that the older (2006-back) T1N model could be converted using many of the same strategies, but for the moment, the focus is on the 2007-on NCV3 model. The prototype is a single wheel 2500, and that’s the model that would make the best off-roader, but the conversion will, in principle, work just fine with the dually 3500 and even the motorhomes.

We didn’t go off-road in my short drive (my time constraints; John offered it up) but John has had it off road and in the snow with good results, and I’ll personally drive it out in Tillamook Burn or somewhere similar in the near future and will report back then.
 
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mhiscox

Expedition Leader
AND NOW TO THE OF THE HEART OF THE MATTER . . .

John already has many tens of thousands invested in getting to this well-running prototype and he faces the issue of whether to invest more. Over the nearly seven years I’ve followed the topic, there’s been hundreds of people—starting with me, who naively but seriously looked into shipping my van to Europe in 2005 for an Iglhaut conversion—who have said how cool it would be to have a true 4WD Sprinter. Now the question becomes how many, if any, of these hundreds might want to pay to have their van converted.

At an estimate of something under $20,000, the Upscale conversion is the cheaper of the two available alternatives and it’s the one that keeps the Sprinter driving experience mostly intact, should that be important. However, White Feather is doing customer conversions right now, whereas John has a completed prototype but is uncertain what comes next.

So what it boils down to is that if you might like to have a US/Canada Sprinter 4x4 made out of a new or used NCV3, you should contact John Bendit to let him know of your interest and, ideally, work out a plan to drive the prototype so you can make your own decision. You can reach John at (503) 692-0846 or at john@upscaleauto.com. There’s also information about Upscale’s last 4WD Sprinter at:

http://www.upscaleauto.com/sprinter_4x4.htm

but as of writing this, there hasn’t been any update of website to reflect the new design.

Though John and the crew at Upscale do some of my Sprinter’s maintenance, I’ve no affiliation with them and no interest in whether this design goes into production or not. But in the seven years I’ve followed the topic, I’ve seen a lot of people complain that there’s no good 4WD option for the Sprinter and now there are two possibilities. Unfortunately, while I would have jumped all over this prospect when my rig was new, having bought other, dedicated off-roaders means that I’m personally unlikely to do either this conversion or White Feather’s. But even in 2WD, the Sprinter makes an exceptional overlander, so if you’re looking for a capable off-road rig that’s nimble on the trail and in town and can still do 80 on the road and get good fuel economy, you might want to look into having a Sprinter converted.
 

T.Low

Expedition Leader
Good info, thanks.

Nice to know.

Personally, however, 7 years ago I was earning a 6 figure income and would have jumped all over a lifted 4x4 short wheel base Sprinter. But now, I am unemployed and it's tough enough keeping a flow of bike parts coming in to be able to ride consistantly.

Best of luck.
 

brettf

Adventurer
You have a point. But consider the cost compared to a Ford van with a DIY or even a professionally completed 4x4 swap. Big difference. But yes, there would also be a big difference in market, target, etc...

And when considering the above, it might garner more interest and discussion if the web page linked above didn't look like it was built by a 12 year old. In 1998.
 

mhiscox

Expedition Leader
And when considering the above, it might garner more interest and discussion if the web page linked above didn't look like it was built by a 12 year old. In 1998.
I suspect that many of the best mechanics around here do not excel at web page design. More to the point, though . . . I'm not sure that I agree that prettier web pages would affect whether there is enough interest to go into production of this conversion. The small number of people interested in ponying up an extra $20K to have a 4x4 Sprinter is a little surprising to some of us who have been involved in Sprinter discussions since they arrived in North America going on a decade ago; there had previously been much clamoring for the opportunity (some of it from me). But as you point out, that's likely a matter of cost; I doubt any potential buyer will make a decision based on web design.
 

michaeldorian

New member
I recently spoke with John and he is no longer doing this conversion. HOWEVER. He did mentioned that he has been working on a project to get 4x4 at a reasonable cost back into NCV3 that will be available in a years time...
 
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