Driving a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter to the Best Damn City in America
Or, a mission statement of sorts.
Hi, I’m Max Prince, senior editor at The Drive. Six weeks ago, I quit a stable magazine job in Michigan and relocated to New York to help launch this website. The mule responsible for hauling all my earthly possessions, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, arrived on time. But I miscalculated the days between vacating my old apartment and moving into the new one. So, on the eve of departure, I parked in a vacant lot outside Detroit, overlooking the waterfront, and made camp inside the Mercedes. From this, I learned two things. First, living in a van down by the river is a real lousy scene. Also, great opportunities often have inauspicious beginnings.
The next morning was better. I picked up my friend Tim Cowhey, who volunteered to copilot for the trek East. The worst part of any move, he agreed, is dealing with the garage. Spare parts and tools are cargo; the unending procession of wheeled crap behind is an albatross. Here, the latter was an old BMW M3 track car, too long to be trailered with the bumper on and, as we learned, too low to be loaded without mangling an exhaust hanger. Muffler askew, our Teutonic centipede wriggled out of Michigan.
Oh, right. The best damn city in America. That ought to ruffle a few feathers. My dad grew up in New York, and his dad before him. No need to wax poetic about this place, there’s plenty of Whitman and O.Henry and Joseph Mitchell to go around. They’ll tell you it’s a temple of vanity and anonymity, speed and temptation, escapism and indulgence. Proof inorganic pieces can make a living whole, that a disparate cross-section of humanity can share an identity. For a life-sentence car guy, it’s affirmation of everything righteous and just.
The Sprinter and I forged a bond en route. Overloaded, with a three-ton anchor swinging from its tail, the thing was unflappable. It feels like a shrunken-head semi truck: Glassy upright cab, whooshing turbo diesel engine, shifter by your knee, front axle under your spine. The Ford Transit is peppier, quirkier; the Benz is simply a hoss. It’s hungry for work, eager to pummel a task into completion using honest old tools, torque and mass and a five-speed auto trans. Dollars to donuts this loaner is still running when they put me in the ground. A gangly, slab-sided middle finger to planned obsolescence? Be still my heart.
“I want a van. Maybe I’m finally getting mellower…”
“Nah,” Tim shrugged. “Just weirder.”
I’ll take it.
Other people loved it, too. At a hotel in rural Ohio, we crashed a wedding reception and tailgated behind the Sprinter until sunrise. Later, I found out the ceremony had been interrupted when somebody pulled a gun. The groom wore a patriotic do-rag, the bride a cocktail dress, and we all drank the bar dry. To my knowledge, there aren't any photos from that night. It’s probably for the best.
Slogging through hangovers is a grand road trip tradition. So is eating terribly. If you disembark without the sensation of a Lyddite artillery shell in your gut, you’re doing it wrong. Save two sit-down meals, Tim and I ate exclusively from shrinkwrap. The high-fructose gastro eviscerations demanded frequent stops in Pennsylvania. At a truck stop near Corsica I bought a C.B. radio and patriotic do-rag of my own. Then, at a junk shop: one framed promotional still of Gill-man stalking Julie Adams; one model kit car of Jungle Jim Liberman’s Chevy Vega drag racer; and one bicentennial pinup, a Vargas Girl wearing a powder wig and nothing else, waving the Declaration of Independence. The caption says: “Golly, Mr. Hancock, yours is the biggest of them all!” As of this writing, they’re the only pieces of décor in my new apartment. I might keep it that way.
All told, we drove 679 miles, long enough to remember there’s a certain romance to long-distance trucking in America. Quasi-lawless urban decay, spalling factories belching fire, tribes that renounce machinery, coliseums larger than some towns, lakes larger than some nations, the epicenter of reality-television fodder, and the greatest metropolis in the history of civilization. Nowhere else can you climb into an automobile, drive 10 hours and run that gamut of cultural voyeurism. Europeans say everything in America is too big. They don’t realize it’s just to scale.
Ten hours is plenty of time to think, too. It meant confronting some realities: That cars are fantastic but fundamentally boring, it’s what you do with them that matters; that destinations and decisions and history, and people, their tragedies and triumphs, are interesting. To wit, last week alone The Drive almost killed an editor racing supercharged jet skis, challenged a pro driver to an autocross/skeet biathlon, picnicked in a Lamborghini with the northeast’s hottest Italian chef and sent the founder of The Onion to drive a pickup in Sasquatch country. Which is to say, we’ll be doing things a bit differently around here.
Mostly, we’ll be chasing a feeling, whether in a turbo Porsche or scruffy Jeep, or crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in a diesel Mercedes van. The windows are down and the sun is setting and the song is swelling, and for a moment you’re suspended near perfection, so close to it your heart could explode, and suddenly every bittersweet mile is totally, completely, 100-percent worth it. The whole scene feels monumental, like the ending to some Odyssean epic. Or maybe, the beginning of a new one.
(BASE): $46,110 ($64,775 as tested)
TRIM: 2500 Passenger Van, Extended Wheelbase
POWERTRAIN: 3-liter V6, diesel; 188 hp, 325 lb-ft torque; RWD, 5-speed automatic transmission
WEIGHT: 6,085 lbs
MPG: 14 city / 21 highway
PAYLOAD: 2,907 lbs
VOLUME: 190.3 cu-ft