First Drive: Mercedes-Benz Vito

Date: Thursday, December 04, 2014   |   Author: James Dallas

Mercedes-Benz is confident its new generation Vito will see the model emerge from the long shadow cast by its big brother, the Sprinter, and enable the brand to take centre stage in the medium van sector.

Jorg Zurn, Mercedes’ head of engineering for LCVs, spells out the firm’s ambitions for the new van.

“We want to be the market leader in Europe with the Vito,” he says.

“It’s a medium-sized van but it’s not a medium-sized solution. Nothing about our new mid-size van can be called ‘average’. Whether we are talking about performance, efficiency, safety or quality – in the mid-size segment there will be no getting around the Vito in future.”

A broad line-up means the Vito will be available with two wheelbases, three lengths, three weights but just the one roof height when it goes on sale in the UK from May 2015. It will also get two turbo diesel engines in five power ratings and come as a panel van, crew van and passenger-carrying Tourer. Unlike the previous generation Vito that launched in 2003, UK customers will be able to choose front- as well as rear-wheel drive vans. Mercedes, however, will not sell the new 4x4 version in the UK due to the expense involved in adapting the system to right-hand drive.

The manufacturer draws attention to the benefits provided by the Vito’s lightweight FWD system. Combined with the compact 1.6-litre diesel engine this provides excellent traction when carrying light loads, it says. The medium-length van has a kerb weight of 1761kg, which, when coupled with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 3.05-tonnes results in a generous payload capacity of 1289kg.

Ford’s Transit Custom, which is available in two lengths, provides 1242kg in 310 LWB model, although overall, the blue oval’s mid-sized van range offers payloads from 704kg to 1507kg. Another key rival, VW’s Transporter cites a maximum payload of 1310kg for the SWB T32 but an all-new model will arrive next year. The FWD drive Renault Trafic and Vauxhall Vivaro models, which like the FWD Vito, are powered by a 1.6-litre diesel, have a weight limit of 1270kg.

Mercedes says the RWD Vito, which takes the larger 2.15-litre engine, is a better fit for operators needing to cover longer distances with heavy loads on board and also for those requiring a higher towing capacity. With a GVW of 3.2-tonnes the RWD Vito has a payload capacity of 1369kg.

 

Engines

Mercedes believes the FWD Vito’s 1.6 powertrain will appeal mainly to solo operators or small businesses based in towns and cities for whom keeping costs to a minimum is the priority. The transverse-mounted compact four cylinder unit is available in two power ratings – 88hp for the Vito 109CDI and 114hp for the Vito 111.

The more robust four-cylinder 2.15-litre RWD-mounted engine is better suited to more demanding applications, according to Mercedes. It is available with three power outputs, the 114 CDI with 136hp, the 116 CDI with 163hp and the flagship 119 Bluetec, which can deliver 190hp. Mercedes claims the last of these is the first Euro6 engine in its class.

All the engines in the new Vito line-up get six-speed manual transmission as standard apart from the top of the range Bluetec 119 190hp derivative, which gets the 7G-Tronic Plus as standard.

The seven-speed automatic system is also up for grabs as an option on the 114 and 116 versions.

 

Economy

Mercedes claims the second generation Vito will cut diesel consumption on the combined cycle by an average of 20% across the range.

The Vito BlueEfficiency package with fuel saving devices such as start/stop, speed limiter and low rolling-resistance tyres will be available on all RWD models and the manufacturer claims the 116 CDI BlueEfficiency will be the greenest van in its class with fuel consumption of 49.6mpg. VW’s 2.0-litre 114hp Transporter Bluemotion achieves an official 44.8mpg while the 2.2 100hp Ford Transit Custom Econetic pitches in with 46.3mpg. The 1.6 120hp SWB, low roof Renault Trafic delivers 47.9mpg, according to its maker, a figure matched by its Vauxhall-badged equivalent – the Vivaro. The Vito comes with service intervals of 25,000 miles/24 months across the board.

 

New Dimensions

The Vito has GVWs ranging from 2.8 to 3.2-tonnes and Mercedes has extended all three lengths of the new model by 140mm compared to the previous model. The resulting vehicle lengths are 4895mm, 5140mm and 5370mm.

Mercedes points out that with a maximum height of 1910mm all variants of the Vito fit below the 2.0 metre limit for multi-story and underground car parks as well as automatic car washes.

The manufacturer claims a low CD value (drag coefficient) of 0.32 has improved aerodynamics and, in turn, resulted in better performance and economy.

 

Safe as houses

As ever Mercedes has focused heavily on safety with the Vito benefiting from a lot of the equipment introduced on the latest Sprinter.

The Merc-pioneered Adaptive ESP, which gauges the van’s load condition in hazardous situations is, of course, standard and the Vito range gets 16 or 17-inch disc brakes depending on the model.

The brand claims the new Vito is the only panel van to provide airbags and a seat belt reminder for both the driver and passenger as standard.

All vans also come with Attention Assist, which is designed to guard against erratic driving behaviour resulting from fatigue, for example, and Crosswind Assist, which aims to keep the van on course if a heavy gust of wind hits it when travelling at 50mph or more. Tyre pressure monitoring is a standard fit on all vans too and an array of other safety devices is available as options.

These include Active Parking Assist, Blind Spot Assist to enable safer lane changing and Lane Keeping Assist, which alerts the driver if the vehicle drifts out of its lane.

Collision Prevention Assist, which warns if the van is dangerously close to the vehicle in front and Pre-Safe occupant protection, which tightens seatbelts before the van moves off are other devices to have migrated from the Sprinter.

Another first in the medium van sector, according to Mercedes, is the optional Intelligent Light System (ILS) that provides an alternative to the standard halogen headlamps. The ILS consists of LED indicators, daytime running lights, dipped and main beam headlamps and a cornering light function.

The system is designed to vary the light distribution on motorways or country roads depending on speed.

Mercedes claims to have improved the suspension in the new Vito by upgrading the steering with electro-mechanical power assistance and revamping the kinematics. Coil springs and new spring and damper tuning aim to improve ride quality and, while the panel van and crew van are designed to carry heavy loads, a comfort suspension system with less taut springs and more sensitive shock absorbers is optional on the crew van and standard on Tourer models.

 

Pulling its weight

The RWD Vito has a maximum towing weight of 2500kg, which puts it on a par with the VW Transporter, out muscles the Renault Trafic and Vauxhall Vivaro (2000kg) but falls short of the Ford Transit Custom’s top capacity of 2800kg.

To make life easier for operators who need to pull trailers, Mercedes has introduced an optional reversing camera with trailer mode to take the strain out of the coupling procedure. We had the chance to try out the system, which is activated by pressing a button on the dash. The camera’s eye then pans down to show a reduced area behind the van. By aligning the vertical yellow line on the in-cab screen with the trailer’s drawbar the driver can manoeuvre the vehicle directly in position to attach the drawbar – removing the need for a colleague to get out and give directions or to manhandle the trailer into position.

Picture this

The new Vito is not the most prepossessing van to look at but it does have a neat and tidy appearance that suggests it is ready to go about its business.

Chunky, unpainted bumpers at front and rear are standard but colour-coded ones can be specified if desired. The front bumper contains an air-intake and sits below the radiator grille with its signature three perforated slats.

A ridge in the centre of the bonnet helps to create an arrow shape and, according to Mercedes, enhances aerodynamic performance.

The headlamps and tail lamps are high-positioned to make them visible to other motorists and to protect them from taking knocks in heavy traffic.

A hefty tailgate comes as standard but twin rear doors are available if preferred. A nearside door also accesses the load bay.

We got behind the wheel of the RWD Vito 116CDI powered by the 2.15-litre diesel engine with a power dispensation of 163hp mated to the 7G Tronic Plus automatic transmission.

This model has the mid-range length of 5140mm, a wheelbase of 3430mm and a height of 1910mm in common with the rest of the line-up.

Mercedes has not yet confirmed trim levels or prices for the UK ahead of launch but hinted specification would likely be determined by a range of option packs.

Our two-seat panel van was well endowed in terms of safety kit and driver aids with Active Parking Assist, Collision Prevention Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Attention Assist, ILS headlamps, Hill Start Assist a rain sensor and cruise control all included to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Both driver and passenger were also protected by thorax and pelvis side airbags as well as window airbags.

Contoured seats hold occupants comfortably and securely in place and a large backrest provides good support. Despite Mercedes saying the seat cushion is longer than on the previous model, it did not seem overly generous to us.

Both seats have two-way head restraints and can be adjusted lengthwise as standard, as can the backrest angle. The driver's seat is also height-adjustable and thanks to a new curvature in the top section enabled by a change in the bulkhead’s contour, the backrest can be tilted back by a further 83mm, which should find favour with taller drivers.

For delivery services involving frequent entry and exit a more hardwearing ‘Plus’ driver’s seat with a slightly raised centre to aid getting in and out of the cab is available. We got the Comfort seats with adjustable surface angles and an armrest on the inside. A bench seat is offered as an alternative to the single passenger seat we had.

The controls in the cockpit are functional, uncluttered and within easy reach of the driver but the interior generally is on the dull side and certainly not so attractive or stylish as that of the Ford Transit Connect, although the quality of the materials is high and sturdy throughout.

The leather-covered multi-functional three-spoke steering wheel is pleasing to hold in a ‘car-like’ way and our one was reach and rake adjustable - but this may be an option on some models.  Using the steering wheel buttons the driver is able to operate the radio, navigation system, telephone and instrument cluster.

The selector lever for the automatic transmission is attached to the steering column, which takes some getting used to but does save space. One problem for drivers not familiar with Merc cabs is that you can get it mixed up with the windscreen wiper control, which (in Mercedes vehicles) is on the other side.

Mercedes has persisted with its foot-operated parking brake, which, again for those not familiar with the brand, takes a while to adjust to.

All round vision is good thanks to a large, sweeping windscreen and triangular windows at the bottom ends of the A-pillars. Large exterior mirrors with wide-angle sections give a decent view behind.

The top of the dashboard houses three shelves for papers, clipboards or tablets. These are partially covered to prevent reflections in the windscreen.

Cup holders are positioned to the top right and left of the dash.

A 12-volt socket is installed underneath the centre console that incorporates open trays for small items. More stowage is provided by a glove box, albeit unlockable, and the doors offer space for smaller items halfway up with a larger section underneath that can accommodate 1.5-litre bottles.

On the other hand there is no overhead shelving and no laptop mounting facility. Mercedes claims this could cause a distraction and compromise safety.

The Audio 15 sound system contains a 5.8-inch display screen (entry level vans get a 3.5-inch display), which can enable mobile devices, link to the sat nav and display the excellent reversing camera if opted for.

Our Vito was easy to drive and well mannered in the city and, with a half-load in the back the 163hp drivetrain provided plenty of power in all driving environments. The 7G-Tronic transmission was impressive, whether taking the strain out of negotiating city traffic or providing smooth, precise performance on winding mountainous roads and long motorway stretches.

We found the steering to be sharp if a little on the light side when tackling bends but the suspension kept body roll to within comfortable limits and RWD means accelerating out of bends is impressively dynamic.

The RWD 116CDI is the Vito to choose for operators who need a van to soak up plenty of punishment – covering long distances with a heavy load on board or a trailer on the back.

We also tested the 109CDI Vito in FWD mode with the 1.6 88hp engine. Paradoxically this van emphasised the strengths of the more powerful RWD version when out on the open road where it struggled to cope with steep hills. The six-speed manual gearbox also demanded a lot more work. The comparative lack of standard safety kit, only Attention Assist and Hill Start Assist were included, although it did get rain sensors and cruise control, as well as the lack of air conditioning also emphasised that customers should carefully scrutinise the option packs when speccing their vans.

 

Verdict

A high quality, capable van but perhaps not quite a match for the benchmark set by the outstanding Ford Transit Custom.

 



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