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IN A CLASS OF ITS OWN


If there can be such a thing as a workhorse with a pedigree, Mercedes' newly revised mid-sized Vito van is surely it, as Jonathan Crouch reports.

Ten Second Review

The revised Mercedes Vito offers a more efficient range of more powerful Euro V-compliant engines, a fresh face, a smarter cabin, revised chassis settings and increased payload capacity. As a result, Stuttgart's medium-sized panel van contender looks better equipped than ever to take the fight to an increasingly impressive array of Ford Transit and Vauxhall Vivaro-sized rivals.

Background

One of the things you learn early on in business is that the cheapest options aren't always the best ones. And that the way you deliver your goods says plenty about them. Both things explain the appeal of the Mercedes-Benz of medium range vans, this model, the Vito, which slots in just below the larger Sprinter model in the German brand's LCV range. Over 1.1 million examples have been sold since its original launch in 1996 but in a tougher, more eco-conscious commercial market, this design now needs more than just badge and build quality to stave off competition from less prestigiously badged but arguably more complete rivals. Hence the improved Vito model we're looking at here, smarter, more practical, better to drive and crucially, less costly to run.
All of which it will need to deliver if it is to be a credible alternative to tough rivals as diverse as the Vauxhall Vivaro / Renault Trafic design, the Peugeot Expert / Fiat Scudo / Citroen Dispatch collaboration, the Volkswagen Transporter and of course the ubiquitous Ford Transit. All these alternatives claim to match this Vito's all-round excellence for less money but Mercedes reckons that it won't take operators very long behind the wheel to appreciate the difference that the Three-Pointed Star can make.

Driving Experience

The powerplant that forms the backbone of the range is a redesigned Euro5 version of Mercedes' stalwart 2.1-litre four-cylinder common rail diesel borrowed from the larger Sprinter model, an engine which has already gained a good reputation for its combination of performance, economy and refinement and, almost uniquely for a four cylinder LCV diesel, is fitted with balancer shafts to eliminate vibration and improve what were already class-leading levels of refinement. As with previous Vito models, this unit comes in three states of tune, the options beginning with the 95bhp 110 CDI entry level version tested here. It feels a little faster than the quoted 18.1s rest to sixty time would suggest thanks to a useful 250Nm of torque which offers an unusually broad operating range between 1,000 and 4,000 revs and will probably be quite sufficient for urban-based users not carrying really heavy loads or tackling too many long distances. Most businesses though, will need a van more easily able to deliver both, so will be looking closely at the two more powerful four cylinder Vito diesel options, the 136bhp 113 CDI or the 163bhp 116 CDI, these variants offering either 310 or 360 Nm of torque respectively and able to sprint to sixty in as little as 11.1s.
Unusually for a van in this sector, there's also a V6 CDI diesel option offering so much torque (440Nm) that it has to be channelled through a standard automatic gearbox. The Stuttgart engineers have developed this unit to offer as much as 258bhp but most British buyers will be quite satisfied with the 224bhp on offer from the 122 CDI model - that's 10% more than the equivalent previous generation version, meaning that sixty from rest now takes only 9.1s
And over bumps and around corners? The ride might be a slightly firmer than you're used to but it's an undeniably supple and well-controlled one you'll quickly adapt to and appreciate. There's also the fact that, a little unusually in this class, this van is rear rather than front driven, meaning more rewarding handling than you might be expecting and a tighter turning circle.

Design and Build

The face of the improved Vito has a chunkier, more robust look that takes its cues from the current Mercedes passenger car line up. This simpler, two slat grille, for instance, is flanked by restyled headlights that feature a larger reflectors to increase light output, plus have integrated daytime running lights and fog lamps. If a lot of night driving is on the agenda, Bi-xenon headlamps with a cornering function are optional and they come with LED daytime running lights and a washer system - both welcome on a murky winter's day.
The Vito's wide door opening and well placed step mean that getting in is a simple enough manoeuvre and once seated aloft, you'll find a cab with three-abreast seating that's closer than ever to Mercedes-Benz passenger car standards thanks to the introduction of higher quality fabrics (or optional artificial leather) and a new anthracite-based colour scheme for the interior. It helps that the smart steering wheel isn't set at such a bus-like angle as you'll find in some competitors, with further car-like cues found in the way that most of the controls are located on a neatly presented centre console with the re-shaped gearstick protruding from the dash below.
All very smart, but when it comes to the smaller everydays bits and pieces that'll tend to clutter up your cab - mapbooks, McDonalds wrappers and thermos flasks - I have to say that this cabin isn't exactly overflowing with stowage capacity. No passenger seats folding to reveal work tables, no clipboard holders popping up into your line of sight - not even cupholders convenient to the driver's reach.This is one area where the Vito's rivals get the better of it. Still, you do get this large storage compartment on the centre top of the dash which will accommodate most of your day-to-day paperwork. And, of course, it all feels extremely solid, durable and well screwed together. Squeaks and rattles? The Spanish manufacturing plant in Vitoria has done well here: there simply aren't any.

Market and Model

List prices suggest that you'll be paying somewhere in the £17,000 to £30,000 bracket for your Vito van excluding VAT, depending on the variant you select and the options you choose. That'll demand from you a premium over the kind of figures you'll be paying for, say, an equivalent Ford Transit, the Vauxhall Vivaro/Renault Trafic design or the Peugeot Expert/Fiat Scudo/Citroen Dispatch collaboration but isn't much different from the kind of money you'll pay for a comparable Volkswagen Transporter. And all of these rivals will suffer in comparison to this Vito when it comes to all-important residual values and whole life costs.
As for the Vito model range, well a choice of standard or high roof heights you'd expect but more unusual in this class is the provision of up to three body lengths - compact, long and extra-long with permissable gross vehicle weights ranging from 2.8 to 3.2 tonnes. Plenty of space and heft then for the seriously hefty cargos this panel van can now swallow - anything from 4.6 to 6.49m2. Which means that at the upper end of the range, those needing to exercise this will want to avoid the 95bhp and 250Nm of torque offered by this entry-level 110 CDI variant in favour of the extra pulling power of 136 and 163bhp 113 or 116 CDI models - or even the 224bhp 122 CDI V6 diesel range-topper. The parallel range of passenger-carrying Vitos offers the choice of a Dualiner - basically this same panel van with a rearward seat - or the Traveliner, an up-market mini-bus with seating for up to nine people.
Safety-wise, you get ESP stability control with ASR Acceleration Skid Control on all models, plus ABS with Brake Assist to maximise its effectiveness and a useful feature that flashes the rear lights to warn following motorists in emergency stops. Tick the box for a factory-fitted trailer coupling and a clever TSA Trailer Stabilisation system is also inclided. Twin front airbags are standard in the rear-setaed models but panel van variants like this get only a driver's 'bag in the standard tally. But of course, as you'd expect, you can specify passenger, side and curtain airbags from the options list. Plus there are Isofix child seat mounting points in Dualiner and Traveliner models.

Practicalities & Costs

The Vito comes in three handy and not so handy 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. If it's ultimate cargo capacity you want, though, you'll need to find somewhere to park the high-roof model. It's available in long wheelbase form only and pushes the load height up from a standard 1,902mm to 2,328mm and the load bay volume up to an impressively cavernous 6.49 cubic metres. That compares with the hardly bijou 4.65 cubic metres for this compact Vito. One dimension's the same for all Vitos, however, and that's the 1277mm between the wheelarches - just wide enough to slide in a Europallet. There are load-restraining belts and plenty of tie-down points to keep whatever you're carrying from moving around. If despite all this provision, you still forget to tie things down, there are protective panels up to guard against interior scrapes and dents.
Keeping costs down will be a major priority for potential owners, so news that the Vito's new engine line-up has become more economical and cleaner - with reductions of up to 15 per cent claimed for CO2 emissions - will be welcomed by private and fleet users alike. In the case of this compact 110 CDI, that means a combined consumption of 36.2mpg and 206 g/km of carbon dioxide. Further reductions in fuel consumption and emissions are possible if you opt to have your Vito wear a discreet BlueEFFICIENCY badge just under the windscreen pillar. Mercedes claims that the scope of the package is unique in the vans segment and it's the cumilative effect of a number of small measures that make the difference. They include a start/stop function (not for automatic transmissions), battery management, low rolling resistance tyres, an ECO power steering pump, a gearchange indicator, a controlled fuel pump and a number of mechanical modifications.

Summary

The biggest compliment I could pay the revised Vito would be to suggest it to be the least van-like van I've driven to date. Transit-class designs don't usually also have to function as luxury, up-market people carriers as this one does and the difference in build excellence is obvious as soon as you take a seat inside. But nice though it is to have a quality feeling behind the wheel of one of your company's LCVs, that doesn't pay the business bills. So Mercedes has looked at the best that its competitors can offer and borrowed high technology from its luxury car line-up in order to match them.
The result is a benchmark among vans that you can buy with head as well as heart and one that can carry heavier loads with more speed, less noise, greater comfort, sharper handling, reduced fuel consumption and cleaner emissions. Medium range Transit-class customers will always have cheaper options of course. Nearly all though, are lacking this van's one most crucial ingredient: Star Quality.

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