I am going to set my stall out right at the start here. For the week I spent driving the Mercedes-Benz Vaneo, I spent much of it scratching my head and pondering 'why?'. Forget the simple question about why you would give a mini-MPV a name as glamourous as a pile of bricks. More, why would Mercedes-Benz build such a car, at such a price and with such meagre specification?
Surely the point of mini-MPVs is that they are cheap to run, cheap to buy, practical and easy to use. That is why the likes of Vauxhall, Renault and Citroen are so good at making them. Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, is brilliant – possibly the best in the world – at building desirable, luxurious, expensive vehicles.
The Vaneo, looking like an A-class which has grown into a gawky teenager, falls uncomfortably between those two stools.
The automatic 1.7 CDI Family version on test costs £18,590 on-the-road, comfortably eclipsing a similarly mid-range Citroen Xsara Picasso, the best seller in the market, by about £4,000.
So what are you paying for? It is as well built as an A-class inside, which means it is constructed more solidly than most cars, but uses cheaper materials than other more expensive Mercedes-Benz models.
Within the driver's reach are many of the comfortingly well done quality switches and chunky stalks, and everything is set out along the pleasing 'T' axis, as used in the A-class. The seats are very comfortable and there are also seven of them, so larger families will fit in.
But seven seats use up all the luggage space, with the back two right up against the rear door. And try getting them out. You cannot fault the system and they click in and out beautifully.
The seats are also constructed of high quality if rather naff coloured materials, but they are so, so heavy. The rear two are bad enough, but the individual second row seat is a dead weight, and I have to say I found it a struggle, let alone a mother looking after a petulant brood and a week's shopping.
The Family pack on our test vehicle comes with in-built booster seat, ABS with brake assist, front electric door mirrors, electronic stability program, a pull-out loading floor in the boot and fold-out tables on the back of the front seats.
For £18,590, this is not good. It does not even come with air conditioning, something the kids would love on a hot day, or a CD player. As for the 91bhp 1.7 CDI common rail diesel engine, it is noisy and slow. In fact, at start-up it is as noisy as any diesel I have driven in the past year or two.
While speed is not a consideration here, I would have thought that refinement would have been. It does at least return a decent 48mpg combined, although the automatic box pushes carbon dioxide emissions up from 157g/km for the manual to 174. The ride is fine but the steering is heavy and hard work at slow speed – surely a mini- MPV should be light and easy to guide around town?
I come back to the question of 'why?'. If Mercedes-Benz had its heart set on building a mini-MPV, why not do it in great style at an expensive price for those who have loads of cash?
Instead it is trying to reach down into a market it doesn't know how to compete in, and the Vaneo risks being expensive and pointless.
Only the most supreme badge snobs would opt for this over the competition.
Mercedes-Benz Vaneo 1.7 CDI Family fact file
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £18,590
CO2 emissions (g/km): 174
BIK % of P11D in 2002: 19%
Graduated VED rate: £150
Insurance group: 7
Combined mpg: 47.9
CAP Monitor residual value: £6,200/34%
Depreciation (19.23 pence per mile x 60,000): £11,538
Maintenance (2.66 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,596
Fuel (9.00 pence per mile x 60,000): £5,400
Wholelife cost (30.89 pence per mile x 60,000): £18,534
Typical contract hire rate: £413 per month
Three rivals to consider
Choosing competition for the Vaneo proved difficult because it streaks ahead in list and P11D price. As a result the Citroen Berlingo doesn't make it because it cannot come close. That is to its credit, though. The Scenic gets closest because it offers the smart Monaco model, which has leather and all the goodies. The 307 SW is the cheapest, and at nearly £2,000 less than the Vaneo, has seven seats, a swish sunroof and car-like driving qualities. It looks a good buy.
307 SW £16,655
Not much in it on service, maintenance and repair costs, but the Vaneo comes out as the most expensive. But those who believe owning a Mercedes-Benz leads to sky-high servicing bills will not find that here. Servicing for the Vaneo is helped by the ASSYST variable service interval package, which warns the driver when it is in need of a garage appointment in the near future.
307 SW 2.25ppm
The Peugeot runs out a clear winner here by virtue of having the most advanced engine, and not having an automatic gearbox. It does show up the ageing Vauxhall unit though which is the same capacity using the same type of transmission, and ends up the highest of the four cars. If the automatic Vaneo and Scenic were manual, they would close in on the 307 SW, and leave the Vauxhall out on a limb and a long way behind.
307 SW 7.40ppm
Time and time again, Mercedes-Benz eclipses the competition on residual values. So much so they end up being cheaper to run overall than less expensive vehicles. But not this time. The Vaneo depreciates more per mile than the others, although higher front end price is part of the reason. In relation to their list price, all these cars drop very similarly in value, with the Zafira just sneaking it as the best by virtue of the lowest ppm cost, despite not being the cheapest.
WHOLELIFE costs here are very consistent. The most expensive – the Vaneo – is also the most expensive to run while the cheapest – the 307 SW – is the least expensive. The only surprise is that Mercedes-Benz did not do its usual trick of blasting the competition on residuals. Because of excellent fuel consumption and good servicing costs, the 307 puts clear space between itself and the others. Over 60,000 miles, it would cost about £2,500 less than the Vaneo.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
The results are skewed because there are few automatics in this market at this price. So the Vaneo and the Scenic do worse than the manual 307 as a result. The worst performer is the Zafira, which manages to be manual, yet still be the highest emitting vehicle. Because of the current bandings the gap is not too large, but look out in three years time when the tax rates increase.
There is something for everyone here. The Zafira is high spec and very competent with innovative seating and lots of space. The 307 SW is more car-like and stylish, has less room but still has seven seats, although for more occasional use. The Monaco-specced Scenic is the luxurious alternative with lots of extras but only five seats, although they are leather – would you let mucky children on them? As for the Vaneo, the other three cars cover all the bases in better fashion, except the 'I must have a Mercedes' option.