Mercedes Benz Sprinter Warning Light (& more) Hell

‘The Best Or Nothing’ is This Homeless Advocate’s Ultimatum

A clearly stated standard on the wall of the Mercedes Benz showroom in Kansas City, MO. Photo Diane Nilan

Since 2005, I’ve traveled through 49 states, an estimated 400,000 miles, under my nonprofit’s banner, HEAR US chronicling families and youth experiencing homelessness. I live full-time in a Mercedes Benz van converted into a small motorhome. Here is the story about my Mercedes Benz “distraction.”

After wearing out my first motorhome, Tillie, I decided to downsize. Against my better judgement, but with no better choice seeming to be available, I purchased a brand-new 2014 Mercedes Benz Sprinter van in October 2014, converted into living space by Sportsmobile. Of the features that excited me — much better mileage, up to 20 mpg, and MB dependability. The dependability feature has proven to be a pathetic myth.

Me and my van in a Walmart parking lot on a blustry morning. Photo by Diane Nilan

My first encounter with my new Mercedes Benz Sprinter psychosis was traveling through the middle of South Dakota just weeks after I picked up this slick camper-van. My friend Pat and I were on a Babes of Wrath trip, Homeless on the Range, headed from CO to KS. The dashboard lit up, “ESP Visit Workshop” and ominous pictures of tires. Yikes!

We pulled over, looked at the tires, and shrugged. We looked at the manual to no avail. The van, dubbed “Tillie 2” after my worn out Tillie 1 (not a MB) which I had for 9+ years without a hitch, seemed to be running fine. And with no MB dealer, or any repair joint, for who-knows-how-many miles, we crossed our fingers and went on.

One of many iterations of MB warning lights in my rig. Photo Diane Nilan

This pattern of disconcerting mysterious lights occurred irregularly but often.

When under warranty, I’d call MB Customer Service, speak to a nice woman, Susan, who would make arrangements for me to visit the next MB dealer on my route. As a one-woman effort to help homeless families, it was useful to have Susan paving the way for me. I’d usually sleep in the MB parking lot, have the schedule-delaying appointment the next day, and be sent on my way, assured that the MB service team fixed the problem.

Sometimes I’d barely get down the road and the lights would flash again. After turning the vehicle off, sometimes they’d inexplicably reset, to my relief. No harm, no foul. Until the next episode.

Ironic? Here’s a story about me by Spiegel, a German TV station.

Other light-related glitches occurred. The cruise control, which I use often, disengages when one error light comes on. Currently, as I drive through intersections, with no existing perils, it beeps a warning at me as if I was about to rear-end a vehicle.

One semi-helpful MB service advisor explained that when it’s windy the van thinks it’s going to flip, triggering these warning lights. Seriously. And he was right from what I observed.

October 29, 2019, Photo Diane Nilan

The most worrisome of my light experiences was also the most expensive, and the most vexing.The beeping and flashing lights occurred as I drove into the wind, but it said my DEF (Diesel Emissions Fluid) was low. Hmmm. I had just filled it not long ago, so that couldn’t be right, but I stopped, got fluid, and tried to refill (MB doesn’t have a way to measure the amount, so you pour until this cat-pee liquid spills out), and was validated. It wasn’t empty. But more alarming was the message on my dashboard, “10 Starts Remaining,” after which it would lock up, paralyzing my vehicle.

Not good, because I was on the way to pick up a friend for a little trip. Fortunately I was near Portland, OR, and found a MB-authorized service site. They looked at it and explained the problem, a broken bracket (which a MB dealer replaced 10 months previous for about $800), but this time the bracket also caused collateral damage, requiring $4200 repair and a 3-day delay in our plans. (My explanation, the gist of the description, lacks the technical details.)

Nothing to do but get it fixed, but I was told the initial (12/2018) repair should be under warranty. Contact the dealer. That’s where the MB shuffle began, and hasn’t ended. To make this long story short, I’ve contacted the repairing dealer, another MB service shop, and then MB corporate. To no avail. I’m out over $5,000 on repairs that, in my opinion, were the fault of MB.

To make matters worse, the infamous CHECK ENGINE light came on as I was recently traveling across rural GA on a film project. I debated — ignore it (hard to do since it’s shining in my face, and after the Portland repair saga) or find someone to tell me what the error message was. Friday afternoon is not a good time to try to access MB service, but I drove out of my way to a dealer in Tallahassee and was told they couldn’t help me, not even to diagnose it, and they sent me to an RV dealer saying they could do it (which I knew was likely not true, but I went. I was correct).

My friend’s friendly diesel mechanic was able to take a look on Saturday morning, put the diagnostic gauge on it, and explained the whole deal with MB’s emissions problem, ala the emissions issue Volkswagen went through. He reset the gauge, said it might last for a while, and explained that the only way around it was, in essence, to disconnect the emissions system. That’s a drastic, and expensive, step that I shouldn’t have to take.

Maybe coincidentally, recent seemingly minor electronic glitches have started to occur, making me think that I’m in for another round of electronic hell. My plans to vacation in Newfoundland this summer are in doubt because I need to trust my vehicle — my reason for selecting MB in the first place — something that hasn’t happened yet. But they do have a MB dealer on the island.

To summarize my 5 years of total dissatisfaction with my 2014 Mercedes Benz Sprinter 3500, I have had more service visits/problems with this vehicle in 5 years than I have had in my 50+ years as a car owner. This is for a vehicle that now has a mere 150,000 miles on it.

Memo to Mr. Speeks, MB CEO

What I want —

  1. To be reimbursed for the bracket breaks. And for the air conditioner compressor replacement (another fiasco of a story).
  2. To have MB do a thorough servicing of the vehicle at their expense.
  3. To have lifetime free red carpet service, expedited when necessary to accommodate my travel schedule (although seeing references to MB’s diesel emissions problems, I need to think about this).

or…

To have MB buy my vehicle back, including what I spent on outfitting it, so I can get out of this warning light, MB dysfunction hell.

Prove ‘The Best or Nothing’ is your way of operating, Mercedes Benz.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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