REVIEW DATE: 25 Jan 2008
There Are Certain Things That You'd Expect From A Mercedes-Benz Van And The Latest Vito Does Little To Disappoint. Steve Walker Reports.
Of all the insignia that it's possible to have adorning the grille of your next commercial vehicle, the celebrated three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz is probably the most alluring. Lots of major motor manufacturers dabble in the CV market but none of the ones that do can lay claim to the kind of brand equity associated with that German firm. Some strange things have come to pass in the van land over the years but until Bentley pull the covers from their new flat-bed truck, Lamborghini launch a high-performance panel van or Rolls Royce decide to hand-craft a minibus, Mercedes' pre-eminent position should be secure. Of course, much of this cachet comes in the form of reflected glory from the acclaimed Mercedes-Benz passenger car range and eventually, commercial vehicle products like the latest Vito van must stand or fall on their own merits.
The autumn of 1996 saw the arrival of the original Vito onto the UK commercial vehicle market and the vehicle quickly established a strong following among van buyers. The aforementioned badge prestige and an options list brimming with lavish add-ons, meant that the Vito appealed to retail customers for whom cost was less important than comfort and the 'right' image. That said, strong reliability and buoyant residual values helped soften the blow of the Vito's premium pricing in the eyes of fleet customers. The story is a similar one with the current Vito, still manufactured at Mercedes' plant in Vitoria, Spain. It's expected that around 70% of total sales will be to retail customers but the vehicle is not without appeal for more thoughtful fleet managers willing to take the longer view.
".you can't help but be impressed with the quality of the ride."
The latest Vito panel van, with its wedge-shaped front, eye-shaped headlights and roofline falling away towards the tail, is offered in three load lengths - compact, long and extra long. The first two sit on a standard wheelbase of 3,200mm but the largest model gets an extension between the wheels to 3,430mm. Then there is the high-roof model that's available in long wheelbase form only and pushes the load height up from a standard 1,902mm to 2,328mm. The upshot of all this is a potential load volume spread from 4.65 to 6.49 cubic meters. There's 1,277mm between the wheelarches, so that Europallet will fit.
All Vito panel vans share the same permitted gross vehicle weight, 2,770kg. The largest payload potential comes in the compact Vito (980kg) and the smallest (850kg) is in the extra long model. The Vito range is completed by the Dualiner and Traveliner derivatives, the former adds an extra row of seats behind those in the front, while the later is a fully-fledged minibus with an increased 2,940kg gross vehicle weight. Beyond this there's the Viano, an up-spec cousin of the Vito Traveliner sold as part of the passenger car range. Mercedes traditionally don't thank you for drawing attention to the similarities between this luxury MPV model and the Vito commercial vehicle (the same was true of the links between old Vito and the V-Class) but it says something for the quality of the van's design and construction that a vehicle with the same underpinnings and styling is deemed worthy for entry into the much-lauded Mercedes-Benz car range.
Beneath your Vito's sharply sloping bonnet line will be one of four versions of the same common-rail direct injection diesel engine, unless you're one of the few who opt for the specialist 231bhp V6 petrol option. Mercedes see only a small number of specialist operators choosing petrol power for their van in view of the refinement and performance achieved by their 2,148cc oil-burners. The engines aren't half bad either, abundant maximum torque of 250Nm, 290Nm, 330Nm, or 440Nm, depending on whether you go for the 95, 116, 150 or 204bhp version, is available across a broad rev-range and refinement is genuinely impressive. Noise in the cab grows incrementally as you descend the range of engine options but even the 95bhp model is relaxed enough and the addition of an optional bulkhead goes a long way toward cutting the rumble to a whisper. The free-flowing power keeps the number of gear-changes required to a minimum but if you really want to work the Vito, the 6-speed manual transmission is solid, if a little notchy. Pick the petrol option and it comes equipped with an auto 'box.
Driving the Vito, even with nothing of substance in the back to subdue the heavy-duty suspension, you can't help but be impressed with the quality of the ride. The springs and dampers set to work in gliding the vehicle over even the most rutted, uninviting surfaces but handling is not adversely affected. Should you get carried away and push the Vito beyond its limits of its driving dynamics, there's a plethora of acronyms to reign the vehicle back in again. ABS you know but BAS, EBD, ESP and ASR may not be so familiar, suffice to say that they'll intervene in braking, and power delivery to help you come to a stop or continue onward safely. All of these systems are standard and that's very encouraging.
The Vito's designers can give themselves a pat on the back and a big Christmas bonus for shoehorning the van's rear-wheel drive transmission under the floor without pumping up the loading height (562mm in the long wheelbase model) by too much. Space must be at a premium down there but drivers benefit from the improved handling and the tighter turning circle associated with rear-wheel drive as well as the vertebra-friendly access for hoisting gear into the rear. The mechanicals squeezed under the floor might explain why the jack as been relegated to a mounting in the rear offside corner of the loadbay but it's easily accessible and shouldn't get in the way. On all Vito van models there's an area cut away behind and beneath the front seats that adds 200mm to the load length. Pipes, pieces of timber and other lengthy items that you may not otherwise have fitted in can be slid into this space and accommodated.
The cab isn't up to Mercedes-Benz passenger car standards but for a van it's about as good as it gets. Most of the controls are located on a neatly presented centre console with the gearstick protruding from the dash below. The neat, uncomplicated layout should please drivers although a small glovebox and shallow storage recesses don't leave too much knickknack capacity. The parking brake is foot operated, something that might seem strange for some at first, but it works well and one suspects it's one of those things that you'll just get used to over time.
Overall, the latest Vito is a superbly conceived and executed commercial vehicle product. It will cost more than any of its direct competitors but you can see where the extra money goes and you're not just paying more for that three-pointed star. Mercedes can expect to be at the top of the small panel van tree for some time to come.
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