In a beachfront parking lot overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Christian Adam pulls back the sliding door of his 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van to reveal a well-equipped kitchen and smartly designed living quarters.
“This is my home,” Adam said, gazing into the Santa Barbara, Calif., surf.
It also doubles as the mobile office for his photography business. Other times, the van is a traveling apartment for when Adam, an avid rock climber, and his girlfriend take off to hike in the Owens River Gorge of the eastern Sierra Nevada.
Such versatility has made the Sprinter the vehicle of choice for devotees of van life, a subculture — not unlike the tiny homes craze — for people pursuing an active, mobile lifestyle of water and snow sports, among other outdoor activities.
The architecture of the Sprinter makes it unique among vans, said Alex Hare, a vice president for Strategic Vision, an automotive market research firm. Designed for work use, the rear cargo doors provide easy entrance. The long floor makes it easy to outfit and equip. A body-on-frame construction provides rugged capability. The ceiling allows most adults to easily stand upright.
It’s also surprisingly nimble for a vehicle with the bones of a commercial van. Adams said it drives as easily as a minivan. The large Mercedes star on the hood and luxury vehicle lineage give it the cachet that a Ford or a Ram can’t match.
Sprinters are used for executive limousines, Instagram-worthy adventure vans, ultimate surfmobiles and mobile bicycle shops. Adam’s van has a bed that folds into a work table.
Owners cite varied reasons for making the Sprinter their preferred vehicle for van-life pursuits.
Eric Lizerbram, a physician, surfer and dirt biker from San Diego, said he likes the high ceiling and storage space.
Jeff and Crystal Robertson, who are originally from Santa Cruz, Calif., but now live in their extended-wheelbase Sprinter outfitted by Roadtrek, liked the 4×4 option, crucial for off-roading and adverse driving conditions. The diesel engine also returns greater fuel economy than other gas-powered vans, they said. The Sprinter only comes with diesel engine choices.
However, despite its many features, not every owner gushes over the Sprinter.
Steve Banta, a Newport Beach money manager and avid cyclist, said his Sprinter suffers from an outdated audio system and manually operated front seats that are designed for commercial delivery drivers and aren’t comfortable for long-term cruising. The Sprinter can also command hefty maintenance bills. Service centers are sparse since not all Mercedes-Benz dealerships are equipped to work on the vans.
Others have been frustrated by the emissions control system that needs a refill of diesel exhaust fluid every 8,000 to 10,000 miles and is tricky to maintain. While the fluid is affordable — and necessary to pass environmental standards — the high-tech system is complicated.
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Tom Robertson, president of A. Blair Enterprises in Louisville, Ky., said his company replaced its entire fleet of more than 30 Sprinters with Ford Transit and Ram Promaster vans over ongoing DEF issues.
But the combination of commercial sales and consumers gravitating to the van life have pushed Sprinter sales higher than ever. Mercedes sold more than 26,000 of the large vans in 2016, a 2 percent increase over 2015, according to Autodata Corp. It’s the highest total since the Sprinter made its U.S. debut in 2001, as a Freightliner, then as a Dodge from 2003 to 2009.
The Sprinter’s price starts at $32,495 as a cargo van. The stock passenger version has a $40,475 base price. But complex customizations can easily drive the price north of $100,000 or even $200,000, depending on what the owner wants, said Christopher Schey, spokesman for Outside Van in Troutdale, Ore.
Adam, who divides his time between the van and his girlfriend’s apartment, paid $42,000 for his Sprinter, which leaves him with a monthly payment of $630. That’s a deal considering the steep cost of housing in tony Santa Barbara.
It is a comfortable arrangement, said Adam, 26, who originally sketched the floorplan on a napkin. The cabinets are reclaimed oak. There’s enough overhead storage and closet space for his wardrobe and possessions.
“Storage space was key,” he said. “I needed it to feel like a home. Not like I’m living out of my car.”
Under the galley lies a half-sized refrigerator. The cabinets across the aisle contain an external hard drive with 12 terabytes of memory. A battery stores energy corralled from the rooftop solar panels. An 18-gallon tank provides water for a hand-held shower coiled up inside the sliding door.
The Custom Shop Connection
The adoption of the Sprinter by van lifers has created a surge in business for shops that transform the cargo vehicles into living spaces.
“It saved us,” said Mark Gibbs, general manager at American Camper Shells and Van Works in Stanton, Calif.
American Camper Shells had five facilities in the Los Angeles region when the economy crashed in 2008. Business fell by 70 percent and the company retreated to one property.
When the commercial business rebounded, Gibbs also noticed customers buying Sprinter vans for personal use. He saw it as a throwback to the days of the Volkswagen Bus surf vans and outdoor culture.
“We’d always dabbled in vans,” he said. “What has happened with the Sprinters coming to the U.S. is it’s a whole different van business compared to what it was with Ford and Chevy vans.”
Today, Sprinters account for 80 percent of American Camper Shells’ van business, and 90 percent of its lifestyle vans. On a recent visit to the palm-lined facility, four Sprinters were under construction and one awaited pickup. Its owner is a documentary filmmaker who requested the cargo space be outfitted to handle heavy camera equipment and also serve as an editing bay.
American Camper Shells also built a surf-inspired van for Lizerbram, the physician. He put 12,000 miles on the odometer during the first six months he owned the van.
“We’re building something that people can use, and it’s OK to abuse it a little bit,” Gibbs said.
Dave Hoskins of Aluminess Products Inc. has a similar story. His company produces van and truck accessories such as bumpers, roof racks and ladders exclusively out of aluminum — a novel idea when Hoskins started manufacturing them out of his garage in 2001.
The company grew quickly but had to pull back during the recession. Business has returned, and then some, due in large part to Sprinter customers. Aluminess moved into a 17,000-square-foot facility in Santee, Calif., last year. Its warehouse is now noisy from the buzz of welders constructing roof racks and garage hands shuffling ladders along the production line.
Sprinter owners such as Adam are Aluminess’ top source of ladder and roof rack orders. He has an Aluminess ladder affixed to the side of his van for easy access to the cargo box on the roof.
“You’ve got this generation that’s living on the road and blogging,” Hoskins said. “We get quite a few of those.”
Even with a recent expansion, Aluminess currently has a five-week order backlog, Hoskins said.
Adam waited two months for his ladder.
The products can be pricey. A powder-coated aluminum ladder from Aluminess runs $464. Roof racks cost around $1,500, and the aggressive front bumpers start from $2,400.
Sprinter owners typically spend $15,000 to $20,000 making modifications to their vans.
One customer asked for gold-plated faucets “that you would never turn on in a million years,” said Aaron Lane, spokesman for Creative Mobile Interiors Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.
“There’s definitely enough business out there for everyone,” said Schey of Outside Van.
A Sales and Social Darling
Mercedes-Benz dealers are riding the Sprinter wave.
For years, Sprinter of Long Beach in Signal Hill, Calif., sold about 150 vans annually, mostly to commercial customers, said Herb Lugger, general manager of the dealership. Last year Lugger hired an assistant, picked up a new fleet account and launched a dedicated Sprinter service team. Sales jumped by almost 50 percent to 220 Sprinters, he said.
“A big portion of my sales are repeats and referrals,” Lugger said.
Sprinter sales go through their own sales channels at franchises attached to Mercedes-Benz dealerships.
“We see huge growth potential still,” said Mathias Geisen, a general manager at Mercedes-Benz Vans. “We wouldn’t invest half a billion in a production facility here in the U.S. if we weren’t convinced this is exactly the right product for this market.”
Geisen said Mercedes-Benz Vans is focused on continuing to grow Sprinter commercial sales. When the new U.S. plant opens, it will help Mercedes avoid the 25 percent tariff imposed on those imported cargo vans. Passenger vans are only subject to a 2.5 percent rate.
“We’ve set up everything in a way that there are no limits for additional growth for the next years,” he said.
Geisen said that while the commercial side accounts for a vast majority of sales, it’s personal Sprinter owners who are boosting the van’s image. It’s the outdoors types, not the plumbers, who are creating buzz for the van.
That’s what Adam has found.
“Any parking lot I go to, I leave the door open and someone will come up,” he said. “They want to talk about how they have one, or have a friend who does, or they’re planning to get one.”
Adam enjoys being part of the Sprinter community, and shares his experiences on his Instagram account, @SprinterVanLife. Originally meant as a place to post occasional photos and help his parents keep track of him, Adam’s account quickly surpassed 34,000 followers.
Several other Sprinter-themed accounts also attract large followings and have helped build a younger generation of #vanlife enthusiasts. Though the Sprinter captured just 7.1 percent share of sales in the large van market in 2016, it dominates social media posts for its segment.
Yet sometimes, van life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Adam said his wood floors are impossible to keep clean, and Santa Barbara recently passed a strict parking ordinance against large vans and recreational vehicles. Lately, Adam has tried to steer his Instagram posts toward the practical — and sometimes messy — side of van ownership.
“You don’t have a bathroom,” Adam said, and “you have to plan accordingly.”