WINNING THE SPACE RACE
Mercedes has made its van-based Viano people carrier smarter, cleaner and more comfortable. What hasn't changed is the vast space inside, as Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second ReviewOne thing Mercedes' Viano MPV has never been short of is space. As a people mover in the truest sense, it's only real competition comes from other large, van-based MPVs - or public transport. If you want to take up to eight people and their luggage in a vehicle that makes a very high quality statement, then it's a difficult option to ignore.
BackgroundThere aren't many alternatives open to you if a really sizeable People Carrier is needed for up to eight people. And if that MPV must make a really sizeable statement of quality, the options reduce to just one: this Mercedes Viano.
Like its direct competitors, Hyundai's i800 and Volkswagen's Caravelle, the only way that this Viano can offer up to eight seats and appreciably more space than is already available from cheaper Ford Galaxy or Volkswagen Sharan-class large People Carriers is to be van-based. In this case, on a Mercedes Vito. That might not be the biggest van that Stuttgart makes but it's quite large enough to create in the Viano a very large MPV indeed. And a more sophisticated one these days that boasts sharper looks and more frugal engines that promise lower running costs.
Driving ExperienceThe Viano is as happy taking on a re-stocking trip to the garden centre with the in-laws as it is standing in for the team bus in a school football match. You'd expect the downside to all that to be a very utilitarian feel when you get the thing out on the road but take a seat behind the wheel and it's not quite as van-like as the exterior looks might lead you to expect. The vast glass area means it's simple to see out of and the boxy shape makes it easy to place when parking.
All Viano models now are diesel-driven and most are ordered with four cylinder power, the choice being between 2.0 and 2.2-litre CDI 2.1-litre units pushing either 136 or 163bhp through the rear wheels, with the choice of either 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission. With either 310 or 360Nm of torque on offer, both powerplants deliver enough pulling power to haul a braked trailer of up to 2,000kgs but if you want to do so with even greater ease, then you can opt for the 224bhp 3.0-litre V6 CDI auto-only model tested here. This cuts the 12.1s 0-60mph time of the 2.2-litre variant to just 9.1s and increases the top speed from 117 to 125mph.
The slightly gruff note that the CDI diesel delivers, despite its vibration-muffling balancer shafts, is likely to be masked in most cases by a cabin-full of chattering people. And it's with this people-carrying remit in mind that Mercedes has created the Viano, overhauling the suspension of its Vito van parent with numerous changes to such things as the springs rates, support bearings, strut towers, dampers, anti-roll bars and bearings to create more car-like standards of ride and handling. It's not enough to make this feel like any kind of luxury saloon, but given what the German engineers had to work with, the supple, well-controlled quality of the ride is very commendable, even if you do without the optional self-levelling rear air suspension.
Design and BuildYou won't be buying this car because you want to cut a dash on your street. The very fact this Viano's looks are so boxy (despite its surprisingly sleek 0.33Cd drag factor) will be a strong selling point to buyers for whom space is the ultimate luxury. Not that Mercedes hasn't made some effort to smarten up this model's look in recent times. There are revised headlamps with daytime running lights that on plusher versions like this feature hi-tech bi-xenon cornering light technology and trendy LEDs. They flank a smarter, simpler grille with its three silver-painted chromed louvres. The front wings, bumper and apron have been subtly revised. Move past the sliding side doors following the wedge-shaped contours to the rear and you'll find a sleeker rear taillight design. Plus, on a practical note, the redesigned body-coloured mirrors with their integrated indicators now offer a wider field of vision.
Another advantage of the Viano's van-based design is that it's available with standard, long and extra long body sizes. The standard Viano has a 3.2metre wheelbase and a 430-litre boot, while the long wheelbase version increases this to a generous 730 litres of luggage space. If that's still not enough then there is the rather clumsily named extra long wheelbase model with an extra 23cm between the axles giving a massive 970 litres for your luggage.The Viano gets around the problem that affects most other MPVs, namely that buyers must choose between a third row of seats and full use of luggage space.
The passenger compartment features a rail system that allows for a wide variety of seating configurations. Fore and aft adjustment and flexible repositioning of the individual seats and benches is easily achievable and both the seats and the benches can be folded flat or tilted fully forwards. The 25mm hole pattern in the floor means that the seats can also be rotated to face in almost any direction, opening up the possibility of a cosy face to face seating position. There are three main seating configurations. Having two three-person bench seats in the back gives a total occupancy of eight. Or you can opt for one bench seat and two individual back seats or, indeed, two rows of two seats in the back. In the latter positions the first row of seats can be turned around to create a four person conference set-up with rear passengers enjoying face-to-face seating. Seat backs can be folded, creating useful table tops, or a larger work table can be created for passengers to picnic on as the miles zoom by.
And with ambient lighting, plush carpets and high grade upholstery and trim, the Viano's interior finally comes close to matching the solid yet cosseting quality Mercedes' executive saloons are renowned for.
Market and ModelAlthough the Viano's engine and trim structures are simple and straightforward, the three size options give it a broad price bracket that stretches all the way from £28,000 to nearly £40,000. The cream of the conventional MPV crop from the likes of Renault, Citroen, Ford and Volkswagen compete on price with the most compact Viano but not on space. If you actually need eight seats and a huge boot, the choice is not between the Mercedes and Renault's Grand Espace but the Mercedes and another large, van-based MPV such as Volkswagen's similarly-priced Caravelle or the appreciably cheaper Hyundai i800..
Whichever Viano you choose, it will come well equipped. The standard specification includes ESP dynamic handling electronics, anti lock brakes, ASR traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution and hydraulic brake assist system. Every occupant gets three-point seat belts with tensioners and belt force limiters for the front occupants. A driver's airbag features on all versions with plusher trims getting a passenger airbag. The options list is where you'll find twin-sized airbags for the passenger side and thorax sidebags.
Cost of OwnershipFor a vehicle of the Viano's size, the fuel and CO2 returns on offer aren't at all bad. Expect a combined cycle fuel return of 38.7mpg (meaning a decent range from the 75-litre fuel tank), together with 192g/km of CO2, regardless of whether you choose 2.0 or 2.2-litre CDI models, in whatever bodylength. Only if you opt for the auto-only 3.0 V6 CDI variant do costs begin to become more in line for what you'd expect from something this heavy, with a combined cycle return of 32.8mpg and a CO2 reading of 226g/km.
To achieve these kinds of returns, Mercedes' engineers have had to think very hard indeed, adopting a series of what the brand calls 'BlueEfficiency' measures which together have reduced fuel and CO2 returns by up to 8% on previous levels. These features include low rolling resistance tyres, battery management optimisation, ultra-efficient power steering and fuel pump technology and, most importantly, an ECO Start/Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, say when you're stuck in urban traffic or waiting at the lights. Insurance groups range between 28 and 35 and all Vianos come with a clever Assyst service computer that detects when a visit to the workshop is required, taking into account the vehicle's actual usage.
SummaryIt maybe a forgotten member of the Mercedes model range but the Viano makes a lot of sense. In fact, assuming that you can't face budget-brand transport and don't want a van-derived minibus, I'd argue that there aren't too many options to Viano motoring if you need to transport up to eight people in the kind of style to which they'd doubtless quickly like to become accustomed.
With its rare combination of spacious seating and generous luggage capacity, the Viano is a paragon of practicality, bridging the gap between MPV and minibus. What it all boils down to is that if you want a car, buy a car. If you need an MPV, buy one that can really do the business. The Viano is part of a very small breed that answers that calling.