Designers’ smart moves have increased the versatility of commercial vehicles and their storage options. Remember when, 10 years ago, Isuzu converted its Trooper from a glorified delivery van to a Sports ‘Ute? And, when Chevy’s pickups were reconfigured with four doors, bucket seats, and CD players? Those changes presaged the introduction of a generation of vehicles that made our old stationwagon look like a prairie vehicle.

Just when we thought we’d seen the end of the ‘Can You Top This’ game in the automobile industry, Mercedes Benz threw us a curve ball when it introduced the Freightliner Sprinter, a van.

Taking the position that current vans were originally designed for private use and adapted for commercial use, the Sprinter was conceived as a high-end commercial vehicle with a focus on efficiency, ergonomics, safety and reliability. Though new to the American market, it was voted the “European Van of the Year” in 1998.

The only concession to styling is a sloping windshield that produces a drag coefficient of only 0.34 to 0.36. She won’t win any beauty contests. However, from a utilitarian standpoint, the designers score many points.

One reason is versatility. It can be delivered as a passenger van with a side door and seats, or as a cargo van that will fill a niche in the construction industry by doing double duty as a delivery van or portable workshop.

Offered in three versions, the van’s wheelbase may be 118, 140 or 158 inches, and roof height may be 93.1 to 102 inches. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, coupled with the 118-inch wheelbase, produce a 36.7-foot turning circle. That is not 450SL performance, but is excellent for a utility vehicle.

The payload is impressive: the cargo bay in the short wheelbase configuration is 247 cubic feet; the intermediate wheelbase has 321 cubic feet; the long wheelbase version a whopping 473 cubic feet. The large cargo spaces are a byproduct of a rear-wheel design that frees up space by placing mechanical components under the hood.

Access is excellent. Rear doors are more than 5 feet wide, and the sliding door is nearly 4 feet long.

The Sprinter is powered by a turbocharged, five-cylinder, 2.7-liter diesel engine that produces 154 horsepower at 3,800 rpm and 243 pounds per foot of torque through a wide, 1,600 to 2,400 rpm powerband. The five-speed automatic transmission is electronically controlled.

The front axle features independent suspension with a lower transverse link and damper struts specially reinforced for the American market that will keep tires anchored to the road without producing a bone-jarring ride.

A dual hydraulic circuit brake system features four-wheel antilock brake system (ABS) and electronic brake dist ribution (EBV). Better yet, a third safety feature is acceleration skid control (ASR), which we’ve only seen on high-end sports “‘utes.” ASR automatically brakes a spinning wheel in low-friction conditions encountered on wet or icy roads.

Both vans are constructed at the Sprinter plant in Dusseldorf. However, cargo vans are delivered in a semi-assembled state to Gaffney, S.C.

But don’t look for the Mercedes peace symbol on the hood. The Sprinter is marketed in the United States through Freightliner dealerships. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $26,300.

Truck Vault

With disorganization and potential theft problems looming over work vehicles, solutions rarely addressed both. The Truck Vault (TV), an after-market product, brings order to chaos.

The TV converts the back-end of pickups to a form-fitting platform under which are two, 5-foot-long drawers, two compartments behind the fender well and two on the front spanning the width of the bed.

Though the long drawers are only 6 inches high, you’ll be surprised at their ability to attract gear. Since the units are shipped with five dividers, they are ideal for organizing drills, toolboxes, spools of wire and boxes of supplies. The storage bins are lined with a thin carpet that provides a level of protection against abrasion.

Though a lock on a tailgate affords a level of protection against uninvited guests, combination locks on the vault act as antitheft devices. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.