So a few months ago I received an email from Mercedes Benz asking me to an event… VanExperience Live 2016. I think about saying no, explaining that the site is CARwitter, but then I mull it over for a day or so and think – Why not? The commercial vehicle side of the coin is totally different to anything car related, so let’s go and try it out.
Rocking up to Millbrook I’m surrounded by tradespeople, fleet managers and even the Police. It’s an eclectic mix of punters, but this event is fully open to regular van buying customers.
Held over 10 weekdays, this years’ event pulled in over 2,500 consumers, an all time record! Merc have a lot to shout about too. In the UK last year Mercedes sold 36,212 vehicles…that may seem small fry when you compare that to the 60,814 Nissan Qashqai’s or 133,434 Ford Fiesta’s sold in that same time frame, but the market turnover is much smaller in the commercial sector.
Vans are kept far longer than your average car, they are a long-term investment that keep businesses on the move.
Speaking of on the move, the first drive of the day was around Millbrook’s well-known off-road course. Probably one of, if not the best off-road courses in the UK. I had only ever traversed its dips, climbs and cambers in a Land Rover Discovery…sitting in the back of a crew cab Sprinter with 4 other blokes I was a little worried as we ambled off into the mud.
Thankfully this Sprinter is a very unique machine. It has 4 wheel drive with a slightly raised ride height. Taking it over twisted logs, through water and over some fairly articulated ground it was all very impressive, but a little tame…then came what can only be described as a sky vanishing climb.
Hitting the bottom of this sandy incline I gradually add more power, the van creaks a little as its large cabin shifts slightly with the gradient. We get halfway up and the Sprinter slows considerably…after all this is a lot of heft, a 3 tonne van with 4 burly blokes…and me.
The instructor says “Don’t let off the gas”. My foot stays pinned. You can feel the sand logged road tyres scrabbling for grip. Slowly pulling us further up the hill.
“Whatever you do don’t let off the gas!” I look at him questioningly, does he think I’m mad?!
We keep climbing, everyone pinned back in their seats by gravity.
“DON’T LET OFF THE GAS!” I had to answer this time as he sounded a bit more alarmed…reassuringly I shouted back that I wasn’t going to, and that I’m not actually mad (in case the previous look didn’t convey that).
The Sprinter keeps climbing. Slowly. And then we get to the peak. Grey clouds and drizzle fill the windscreen. The front wheels pull us up onto the top. I then gently let off the throttle and everyone in the cab starts to natter about how impressive it is.
But what goes up, must come down.
We drive onward and then come to a crest. As the front wheels sit on the edge you can’t see the bottom. It’s a great view across Bedfordshire don’t get me wrong, but a little scary…
Creeping slowly forward I’m holding the anchors. The instructor then tells me to lift off the brakes and just let the van do its thing, it has hill descent control – naturally.
With a little hesitation I lift off. The Sprinter speeds up slightly, but the traction control is heard frantically braking the sand filled tyres, slowing us down this rather grip less concrete slope.
It doesn’t slip, not even once. This thing is insane! It’s a van for Christs sake!
Driving it back to base I jump out (literally) from the driver’s seat and land in the mud. The Sprinter is plastered in terra firma, its occupants safe and sound having negotiated terrain that military vehicles are tested on.
Oh, and if a 4×4 version isn’t enough you can purchase a 6×6 variant.
Walking around Millbrook at lunchtime the realisation that Mercedes Sprinters run the world really sinks in.
My previous contact with a Sprinter has always been when my parents have moved house.
They hire a long wheelbase Sprinter from a local provider, we load half a house inside it, Dad normally reverses it into something because it’s the size of the Titanic, and that’s the long and short of it.
But when you see all the different variations sitting there, Sprinters are the lifeblood of businesses up and down the country.
All the major supermarkets use them – Ocado, Morrisons, Asda, Iceland. Ambulance services use them. The fire brigade use them. The police use them. Dyno Rod use them. HSS tool hire, UPS, DPD, Parcel Force, DHL, Lyreco, JCB, mobile mechanics, tyre fitters, minibuses, even ice cream vans…you get the picture. They ALL use the Mercedes Benz Sprinter.
That’s in part due to the amount of Bodybuilders (no, not the muscley type) that work with Mercedes and the Sprinter platform to come up with pretty much whatever you want on the back of a bare chassis.
You can do the same with say a Transit, or a Crafter but due to the ubiquity of the Sprinter they dominate the market, making the UK second in the world behind Germany for Merc van sales – the USA are third?!
The event itself is just awesome, it’s the only bespoke manufacturer driving event held on this scale in the UK. It has even become so successful that Europe are looking at flying over customers for a day to next years’ event.
You get to take each style of van around the alpine hill route, but you drive them back to back with the competitor vehicles. It gives you enough time to see how the controls feel and to check out the interior.
You move across the range from Sprinter, to Vito and onto the Citan…which is more Renault Kangoo than germanic quality. A bit of a range letdown to be honest, the much newer Ford Connect is far nicer all round.
The rest of the day consisted of testing out the ESP systems in the wet, and a walk through all the services on offer by Mercedes when you purchase said van.
So Van Experience Live from a car guy’s point of view? Impressive. The capability that can be had from a humble van, coupled with the reliability and cheap genuine service parts was quite eye opening.
I now can’t stop spotting Mercedes Sprinters…I hope I don’t start writing down the company name and number plates in a little black book, whilst standing at the side of the M1.
If you want to find out more about Van Experience Live, or attend next years event click here.