Mercedes-Benz Sprinter: Racing Across the Sahara Desert in Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Rallye Des Gazelles
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter testing the terrain for this year's Rallye des Gazelles. Credit for lead and featured photos: Daniel Mayfield

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has off-road bragging rights. A 4 x 4 version (new to the US this year) is racing for the second time in the 2015 the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles taking place from now until April 4.  (To watch the Rallye live go to:

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the rally is one of the toughest all-female sporting events on the planet. It’s a test of driving skill and navigation across southern Morocco’s challenging terrain.  What’s most stunning is that teams are not allowed technological assistance. In the absence of GPS, communications and service crews, teams must find the shortest distance between the checkpoints over nine days of competition with only the aid of traditional navigation – compass, outdated maps, and plotters.

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No GPS for these ladies- only traditional navigation allowed. Credit: Nicole Dreon forRallye Aïcha des Gazelles

The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is a prime example of a vehicle that can be morphed into a vast selection of models. In 1896, Benz & Cie revealed its first engine-powered bus. It consisted of a bench seat with an open wagon behind it. In 1955, the first Mercedes-Benz Van – L319 — looked like a van, albeit a clunky one. In 1995, 40 years on from their first van, Mercedes-Benz launched the Sprinter in Europe. Fast-forward to 2014 and a launch at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Ladson, North Carolina.

Mathias Geisen, GM Product and Marketing Manager for Sprinter, explained, “Today there are 5 models available with 50 variants and 200 different options.”

Rallye De Gazelles

An all-woman race, the Rallys de Gazelles is celebrating its 25th year. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

No doubt, you’ve seen a M-B Sprinter somewhere in your world— they can always be identified by the strong unmistakable signage on the grill work.

As Claus Tritt, General Manager, Operations Commercial Vans, Mercedes-Benz USA, noted, “For a commercial vehicle we always say it’s got a sexy back; behind the B pillar it’s all about functionality.”

So, what else can you find behind the B pillar? While taco, mac & cheese trucks and coffee bars are some of my favorite uses. I find it fascinating how the Sprinter can be fitted up for a variety of purposes.

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Racers showing off their pride. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

For example, Sprinter can be the platform for a range of luxury transport vehicles. At a starting cost of $90,000 and reaching past $170,000, 11 passenger vehicles can replicate your living room with leather interiors, seamless wood, wide-screen TVs and customized cabinets for storing your iPad. And, of course all of the controls (including the motorized shutters) can be configured from your iPhone. These contemporary RVs have everything from electric patio awnings, solar shades, granite counters, Columbian walnut cabinets and Corian tables to skylights. Kitchens and bathrooms are part of the package plus “storage basements” under the motor homes for luggage, outdoor gear and furniture.

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Beautiful ( and rugged!) scenery greets the Rallye de Gazelles teams. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

Airstream, which paired with Mercedes-Benz in 2004, has glamorous touring coaches starting at $149,031. And it’s not just for people who like the outdoor life. Mike Helton (President of NASCAR), Miranda Lambert and Jay Leno have bought these glam vans.

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Up and over the sand with stunning scenery. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

“The RV industry is on a record pace,” said Steve Hartman, Regional Director of Sales for Eastern Region Touring Coaches, Airstream.

I asked Steve about the coolest couch Airstream had ever created, but he said, “Everything is standard.  We really don’t do any crazy customization. If you want an indoor pool with a high dive the answer is no.”

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Teams race over and through all types of terrain – and the rougher, the better. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

But, he said, the price is right. “For $152,000 you can get a fully loaded Airstream with ultra leather seats that feel like gloves with memory foam for the back seat, hand built cabinets and upscale bathroom. It’s the best your money can buy!”

Money can buy a lot of equipment for a Sprinter-based ambulance as well.

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Taking a quick break and checking- what else- the map! Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

“Sometimes the value of the equipment can equal the value of the vehicle,” noted Mark Van Arnam, President/CEO of AEV (American Emergency Vehicles), a 23-year old company that produces ambulances.

The cost of an ambulance can range from $120,000 without equipment to over $250,000 with everything including life support, radios, surround sound, TVs, microwaves and even hand painted pictures of giraffes and storks for travelling with kids.

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Colorful vehicles enhance the Sahara Desert. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

“The ambulance is no longer the door of the emergency room…it’s become the emergency room,” Dr. Ron Ostrom, an ER physician, explained to us. “Those 90 minutes (called the Golden Hour) in the ambulance could be the make or break moment.”

AEV’s Arnam told us that his first ambulance was a 1968 Cadillac. He quipped, “It would go like heck but it wouldn’t stop…it floated. Those were the load and go days.”

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Beauty of the land with beasts of vehicles. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

Those load and go days are long behind us.

The standard engine for a Sprinter is a 2.1 L turbo 4-cylinder BlueTEC that produces 161 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque; and there is an optional 3.0 L V6 diesel motor (188hp, 325 lb-ft).

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Ready to roll. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

As expected, the Sprinter is outfitted with all the safety equipment for which Mercedes-Benz is known such as ADAPTIVE ESP stability and rollover control, ABS anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist and traction control.

As for the floating effect…several choices of springs, shock absorbers and stabilizer bars provide the correct suspension for each version of the Sprinter van.

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When in doubt, check the map.Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles

The 2015 Sprinter 2500 models come standard with Crosswind Assist, which I tried out at the proving grounds by driving into hurricane style winds supplied by a huge fan/apparatus.  The assist operates above 50 mph with sensors that detect lateral wind force and uses steering and brake intervention if needed.

Now, you ask, after a day of testing out all manner of Sprinter vans, what is your final analysis? I’m all about glamping in a fully equipped Airstream.  I’m also about going hard-core in Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles. Either way, the Sprinter can accommodate.

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A worthy celebration for the U.S. competitors. Credit: Nicole Dreon for Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles


Disclosure: Mercedes paid my expenses to attend the  Mercedes-Benz Sprint event. The opinions expressed are my own.

Holly has written about travel, cars, culture and health since she bought the first generation Macintosh. Her portfolio includes... More about Holly Reich