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Mercedes Sprinter Issues and Breakdowns: Sprinter Will Not Go, RPMs Drop Very Low (Normal idle, put into D or R, RPMs drop, Engine Lugs

Last updated 2019-09-30 - Send Feedback
Related: diesel fuel, Mercedes Sprinter, video

Photographer and cyclist and Mac expert and software engineer Lloyd Chambers is available for consulting on general Sprinter considerations at his usual consulting rates via phone, or in person in the Palo Alto, CA area. Save yourself hours and mistakes by discussing issues up-front. More about Lloyd....

This page discusses a 2017 Mercedes Sprinter diesel problem that appears to be highly correlated to altitude (6000 to 11600 feet) and probably also correlated with overnight temperatures of 50°F or cooler, with the issue frequently occurring with overnight below 30°F and especially at 25°F and colder.

View: synopsis | history/log| reader comments |resolution / fix

SYNOPSIS: normal idle, put into D or R, Sprinter goes nowhere, rpms drop and engine lugs

Contact Lloyd with ideas or similar issues.

  1. Start engine, give it half a minute or so to warm up. Observe rpms at 900 to 1300, depending on altitude and temperature.
  2. Shift into D or R (either).
  3. PROBLEM: observe rpms drop to 500-600, engine lugs badly (audibly bad), Sprinter will not move.
  4. Floor the accelerator pedal and keep it there: nothing happens, even for minutes— no change in RPMs, no change at all.
  5. Shift back into P: RPMs return to normal. Rev engine—revs up to any rpm freely
  6. Repeat ad nauseum.

After some indeterminate period (2 to 10 minutes), the problem resolves with the Sprinter reluctantly moving away. If there is even a mild up-slope, often RPMs rise very slowly, taking as much as a minute to get up to power and move more than 50 feet. Then normal operation and power resume within a few minutes.

Video Part 1, after idling 2 minutes to warm up:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHUHEwtjgOA

Video Part 2, after idling 9 minutes to warm-up:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gb9JglzSItg

Having mentioned this problem to more than one service department on service visits, and getting little more than shrugs, my hopes are not high for seeing this resolved. I want a dealer to call Tech Service and track this down! I have one dealer in mind who might get the job done. My confidence in another is low.

Maybe all it is is software (and maybe not), but the truth is that mechanics hate doing them—my information is that Mercedes pays them very poorly for piecework that can take hours yet pays only for 30 minutes or so (not paid by hour). So one never knows if all software is up to date or not and it can be like pulling teeth to get the latest software.

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Notes

  • Might be altitude related, but this is not certain; I don’t start my Sprinter at home much, but it has not failed at home (500 feet altitude). Failures seen at 6000/9000/10000/112660 feet elevation. However it rarely dips below 40°F at home.
  • Happens over a wide temperature range, at least 14°F to 54°F, so if temperature related, does not have to be more than just cool temperatures—suggests altitude.
  • Cold and elevation both seem to be involved, but I do not have the combination of cold + low elevation to determine if it is cold (only) or elevation (only) or cold+elevation.
  • Goes into gear, so does not appear to be transmission related—just makes no power. No unusual sounds, just doesn’t go.
  • Seen at least a dozen times over a year from 6000 to 11600 feet, and every day over 7 weeks in my September to November trip in 2019.
  • Full service B done in April 2019, problem occurs before and after a year, maybe more.
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Possibilities

  • Lack of turbo boost due to faulty altitude or other sensor(s)?
  • Faulty ECU software? No problems seen prior to Feb 2018 ECU software update.
  • Diagnostic code indicates one problem, see 2019-11-11 history log.

How am I supposed to comply with the Owner’s Manual when the Sprinter won’t go? The warning has been made explicit in the 2019 Owner’s Manual (less explicit in 2017 version).

 

Resolution / fix

None as of October 2019.

History / log

When “outside temperature” or “ambient” is cited, it means an actual thermometer was left outside on the hood, one that records the low temperature.

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2019-11-20 sea level in warm conditions OK

Sea level (500' elevation) in warm conditions = no issues.

2019-11-11 problem continues, with a safety scare

I’ve been dealing with the no-go issue by starting the engine and letting it warm up from 2 to 10 minutes (longer when colder). Even when temperatures don’t go much below freezing for very long, the problem persists. So it is NOT an extreme cold issue—something under 40°F might be enough. The problem occurs at altitudes of 6000 to 11600 feet but whether altitude is involved I cannot say because I don’t have the combination of cold and low altitude to check against.

Even on relatively warm nights (not much below freezing), I cannot get the Sprinter to move (R or D) until warmed up several minutes. With colder temperatures, it 8 to 10 minutes to go anywhere, dropping to 500 rpm and lugging badly and going nowhere. Put into N or P, the engine RPMS are as high as 1400 when cold, and the engine revs freely when pressing the accelerator pedal.

None of these issues occurred until after that damned California-mandated ECU update in Feb 2018.

Safety scare

Returning from a daylong hike with temperatures in the 40's, I started up the Sprinter, let it warm up for a minute or so.

Checking in both directions for traffic (none seen), I put it into D (drive) and being pointed downhill, it rolled away easily. Cranking the wheel to turn uphill, I was now straddling both lanes on a blind corner at night. The accelerator pedal had NO EFFECT, just as described.

I immediately floored the accelerator pedal and held it there. The Sprinter would not move. The engine did not die, but it would not go anywhere either. I do not recall if the RPMs dropped in this case, being more shocked and afraid of being hit by an oncoming vehicle, but at the least there was no increase in RPMs.

Slowly, reluctantly, about 30 seconds later, the Sprinter started going and I drove away. Once warmed up, it behaved normally as is always the case.

Diagnostic code

The following diagnostic code is found:

ECM-EngineControl ($7E0) P0506 PowerTrain Confirmed Idle Air Control System RPM Lower Than Expected

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2019-10-25: check engine light comes on, and stays on

Conditions (typical): 11600’ elevation, 25°F overnight

I have been dealing with the no-go issue by letting the Sprinter idle for 2 to 10 minutes after starting up—as advised against in the user manual. But when it won’t go, there is no choice but to let it idle for some minutes.

High in the White Mountains around 11600 feet, the check engine light comes on, and stays on across restarts. This forces me down and out the next day because I do not want to be stranded. I drive down to 4000 feet elevation and I forget to check on that light, but after returning from a 3 hour bike ride, the check engine light has gone away, and does not return for the duration of my trip through November 11.

2019-10-03: usual problem, resolved

Conditions: 9800’ elevation, 32°F @ 10PM dipping to 28°F overnight, startup @ 12:3- PM @ 60°F

Startup ok. Vehicle would not go forward or back on level ground until warmed up 5 min.

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2019-10-02: usual problem, resolved

Conditions: 9000’ elevation, 28°F @ 10PM dipping to 13°F overnight, startup @ 8AM @ 28°F

Startup ok with slightly rough idle @ 1300 RPM.Died when tried to move with parking brake slightly applied on level ground after one minute of warmup. After two minutes warmup, was able to reverse on level ground (no brake), rolled away in D on level to downhill, engine steadily warmed up and behaved normally.

2019-10-01: usual problem, resolved

Conditions: 8100’ elevation, 27°F @ 10PM dipping to 9°F overnight, startup @ 8AM @ 28°F

Startup ok with slightly rough idle @ 1300 RPM.Died when tried to move with parking brake slightly applied on level ground after one minute of warmup

2019-09-30: usual problem, resolved

Conditions: 8100’ elevation, 27°F @ 10PM dipping to 20°F overnight, startup @ 8AM @ 28°F

Startup ok with slightly rough idle @ 1300 RPM.Died when tried to move with parking brake slightly applied on level ground after one minute of warmup. After two minutes warmup, was able to reverse on level ground (no brake), rolled away in D on level to downhill, engine steadily warmed up and behaved normally.

2019-09-29: S tranded most of day

Conditions: 10020’ elevation, 25°F @ 10PM dipping to possibly 14°F overnight (estimate), startup @ 8AM @ 19°F as per Sprnter console

Maybe this one can be written off as diesel fuel gelling from the cold.

Multiple attempts to start: first two start, lug badly for ~2 seconds at 500 rpm, then quits. Last attempt fails. Plenty of cranking amps no question (battery good). Fuel likely summer blend (from California coast and central valley stations), no anti-gel agent in use.

Gave up and went for a hike. Returning at 3PM, Sprinter started up fine at 37°F, albeit a bit rough. Ran fine once started, but I let it idle 30 minutes to be safe before trying to engage R and D, for fear of the usual no-go issue, so no data on that behavior.

2019-09-28: Sprinter would not go as per detailed description

Took ten minutes to be able to move as per videos.

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2019/2018 year prior

Perhaps a dozen such “no go” problems, ranging from a minute to 10 minutes in delay. All at altitude of 6000 feet or higher as far as I can remember.

Reader comments

Joe writes:

I have exactly the same experience.

First, I know my science is sub par to your excellent work but my ramblings may shed some light on it.

1) Because you like science I suggest the most knowledgeable MB dealer on “ cold” is Lone Star MB in Calgary,AB. Before calling them check their website blog - not sure if it has this item but it may be & they do have some useful info I have read.

2) My prior Diesel + Cold experience was with a Ford Excursion 6.0 Diesel. That puppy was dead at 20F & no amount of glow plug action could start it. Only spraying Ether in the Breather would work but I hate that stuff because strips the oil off the piston rings. The SOP was to wait until temps got above 25F & it would start reluctantly (assuming one had not totally depleted the 2 batteries during the failed Glow plug attempts)

3) In my experience the Sprinter will fairly well start above 20F but run rough. As the the temperature drops below 20F it requires successive Glow Plug cycles (without actually engaging the starter!) At 18F I found that it would require at lest 6-8 cycles. And it would start & stumble & cough etc etc, always die on the first full start attempt and then require 2 or 3 of the prior procedures to finally get it to run (very very rough & not quit).

Now for the next hurdle: assuming you got the engine running for awhile, at least to the point it “sounds “ normal (maybe 15 minutes) the Sprinter acts like its stuck to the ground. Without any authority I am fairly certain it’s due to the fact the transmission is still 15F & the fluid like glue. Since there are no shared fluids with the engine you are relying on plain old heat transfer from the adjacent engine block which might take 20 minutes of engine running to get the transmission to respond (& even at that, sluggishly).

4). The solution: install an Espar Hydronic Diesel water heater to solely to pre-heat the engine to 180F 🤪. Engine starts like its in Miami & the Tranny goes along for the ride. Then it never matters how cold it is ! (Bonus it saves all that ritual unassisted cold weather starting procedure which has to be hard on the engine.

DIGLLOYD: I never had these problems the first six months of operation. But after the Feb 2018 ECU update required by the California Air Resources Board (with sticker required to smog check), things seemed to not run so well. So I am dubious that it is a 'hardware' issue. And if it runs rough at start, it has always settled down pretty quickly in the past.

Moreover the Sprinter hardly ever pauses for glow plug operation... I didn’t even know it really had them! It had no pause whatsoever trying to start it today. Which raises the question as to whether they are working at all?

I’ve had the Sprinter start many times in sub-freezing conditions and run normally. But the sub-25°F experience is more limited. Last December I had it exhibit the symptoms going to bed at 25°F (engine still warm) but a warm front had moved in and it was 43°F when I started it, and had been for some hours from what I could tell. And I’ve had the no-go issue into the high 40°F range (and did not keep track all this time) I think also the low 50°F range. So I don’t think the no-go issue is heating issue. The does-not-start-and-stay-on issue today is all new, and definitely not the coldest temps I’ve been in it with—and I had gone to bed with a nice warm engine.

Still, the Espar Hydronic Diesel water heater might be worthwhile, but I admit to it being intimidating on who to have install it and inspire confidence that it won’t spring a leak or cause issues of its own.

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Mark G writes:

Dang. Sorry to hear that. I have almost given up on the Mercedes Sprinter. Backed out of custom order at the last minute. Now waiting to test drive a 2020 Transit AWD with ecoboost (most powerful) gas engine. Planning on some custom suspension mods to improve ground clearance if I decide AWD is good enough for my needs.

I want a Sprinter for many specific strengths but diesel engine and all its related concerns are just too much to ignore. There's a good sprintersource post about block heaters and this issue you describe somewhere on the forum. They found a specific issue that was something related to the turbo, or some other part that a certain dealership had identified. They had an overnight test they could do in the dead of winter to diagnose. MB was made aware. That's all I remember. Let me know if you find a solution.

Hang in there sir!

DIGLLOYD: I guess one half-assed solution is to drive around and make the engine hot before going to bed, then wake up at 2 AM and (bad for a Sprinter) idle it for 20 minutes, then pray for morning.

The question of the turbo is a good one—my guess is a software bug and/or altitude sensor bug that causes the turbo to provide no boost. After all, how many people regularly camp out at 10K feet or (often) 11600 feet? Tonight I am at 8100' and I will see how it behaves in the morning. I parked where I have a cell signal and sunlight will hit early and it's flat, just in case!

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