The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and why it’s fun to stay at the YMCA: Motoramic Drives

Every masterpiece begins with a blank canvas. So it was for Jacques Morali. A French-born composer and music producer with a great affection for New York discotheques, Frére Jacques had a great beat, and you could dance to it, but he had no band, singer, or —lacking fluency in the language — English lyrics. Fortunately for him, and for American popular culture, he recruited some random local talent from the bars, Broadway choruses, and tunnel tollbooths (really!) of Gotham, and from these humble human materials, put together a group that could bring to life the music he heard in his head. His concept for this delightfully demented reverie also included costuming his performers in the full panoply of macho and mustachioed archetypes usually seen on muscular guys who are paid, after a brief period of gyrating, to take them off.

The resulting act, The Village People, went on to sell over 100 million albums worldwide, appear in a never-released commercial for the Navy filmed on a decommissioned destroyer, and provide Americans — often stealthily — with a delightfully campy inversion of gender normativity.

Which brings us to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

The tall and extremely "European" looking van, which has been available in the US since 2001—though sometimes badged with Dodge or Freightliner logos, depending on the vagaries of Daimler's post-millennial purchase or divestment decisions—is rather unadorned and austere: an empty box on four wheels. Powered by Mercedes' venerated diesel, it's got a pulse, but not much more. As such, it acts as something of a white space, capable, with a bit of gussying up—a hydraulic lift here, a grey-water pump there—of assuming any number of identities. And while we have yet to see one costumed in Leatherman livery, a recent trip to Chicago at the behest of Three-Pointed Star found us wandering amongst an assortment of Sprinters seemingly outfitted to suit each of the other Village People—or someone's fantasy farrago of blue-collar stereotypes.

The immensity of this range of customized vans made perfect branding sense as, unlike every other vehicle on the market that is not a Rolls-Royce Phantom or fifth-generation Honda Civic, over 75% of Sprinters sold in the US endure some form of post-purchase up-fitting. And unlike the Roller's leather-wrapped teak humidors, or the Civic's fart cans and painted plywood spoilers, nearly all of the Sprinter's add-ons adhere to fellow Chicagoan Louis Sullivan's modern architectural credo that form should follow function.

This meant that we were exposed to, and encouraged to drive in, eat from, climb upon, and otherwise interfere with, a Busytown-like array of purpose-built work trucks that would make Lowly Worm feel like he'd inched into an automotive compost heap. There was a refrigerated model outfitted to deliver fish; a low-boxed, and bin-laden, cable repair van; a utility pole-conquering cherry picker, with 35-foot extendibility (and secret catapult and "crazy spin" settings); the now-ubiquitous food truck conversions, serving up the equally ubiquitous mac 'n' cheese and cupcakes; a trio of ambulances, equipped with a serial killer's dungeon worth of restraints and gurneys, but lacking even the tiniest trickle of morphine; handicapable buses rigged with hydraulic lifts able to elevate nearly half-a-ton of humans and electric scooters; a trio of über-luxurious recreational vehicles that would invite a pelting with flaming s'mores at any KOA; and all manner of bachelor party ready "executive coaches" laden with enough flat screen TVs, ten-zillion watt stereo systems, and beverage refrigerators to keep The Hangover franchise going for another dozen years.

As a means of demonstrating the vehicle's acronymic soup of safety systems, the engineers from M-B also had on hand a Sprinter endowed with an ex-race car driver, a stability-defeat override, and an extra 2000 lbs. of liquid weight harnessed up high in a steel roll cage, providing it with the remarkable ability to get up on two wheels during sudden turns. This was scarier than the teardrop-windowed, blank-paneled child molester edition, which was thankfully not available.

Making all this customization possible is the Sprinter's dizzying array of standard models. This includes five core configurations, each of which is available in multiple lengths, wheelbases, payload capabilities, and roof heights, for a grand total of 19 base van/truck variants. Every one of them, no matter how grossly weighted, feels oddly peppy, due to the low-revving, clattery, Rudy mill under-hood, which produces as much torque as a Porsche 911 Carrera S, while delivering real world fuel economy that is certain to make fleet managers smirk, (unless their offices are connected directly to where these vehicles idle.)

It was hard for us to pick a favorite. But after a full day of test-drives, we would have to go with the Cab-Cassis model. Essentially a pair of seats connected to an empty frame, with some tail lights and a license plate a zip-tied to the rear, this was the only Sprinter capable of smoky burnouts. Unlike its brethren, and the Village People, it lacked a costume. But we've always had a fondness for, ahem, stripper models, and in this, as in most other realms, Mercedes-Benz handily delivers.