Fleet News

Road test: Mercedes-Benz Vito

A SURVEY published recently claimed van drivers were increasingly being given a say in which type of vehicle they are given.

If that information is correct, it could well prove good news for the new Mercedes-Benz Vito, as with more powerful engines, a better interior and increased safety features over the model it replaces, this van is bound to be requested by aspiring employees.

First launched in 1995, the Vito has until now been largely a 'retail van', with only 30% of sales going to fleets. But the extra features of the new model, with only a modest price rise, could well see the balance alter radically in the future as the benefits of the three-pointed star become obvious.

The new Vito is a force to be reckoned with. Not only does it feature three load lengths, two roof heights and three engines, it also has a standard CD player, electric windows, remote central locking, ABS brakes and – the unique selling point – Mercedes-Benz's ESP system, which senses any unwanted sideways movement of the van and corrects it by applying the brakes separately to any of the four wheels. As no other vans on the road have such a system, the Vito is probably the safest you can buy.

But the icing on the cake as far as Mercedes-Benz is concerned is that, with the extra benefits over the old model, the new Vito manages to look dashing and handsome too.

Gone are the chunky looks of the old model, to be replaced, in Mercedes-Benz's own words, by a shape with considerably more 'breeding'. The side profile has been given a more dynamic look, the headlamps and radiator grille have been reshaped and the rear has been given large vertical tail-lights. The whole effect is that the Vito looks rather like an overgrown Mercedes-Benz car, which is no bad thing.

Prices range from £12,995 to £16,065 ex-VAT. Vito is also available with a second row of seats (called Duoliner) and nine seats (Traveliner).

At the UK launch, there were no high-roof vehicles available to drive, but having seen these versions in Germany, I can confirm the good looks are somewhat spoiled by the addition of a rather ugly roof panel.

Inside, the cab has been totally restyled with a new dash and instrument panel. There is a large stowage area for A4 paper on top of the dash and White Van Man will be able to stash his 1.5-litre cola bottles in each door. There is an enormous 11-litre glove box and a can-holder incorporated in the ashtray.

A driver's airbag is standard, along with adjustable steering wheel and driver's seat, heated mirrors and a single CD player.

In the back, load lengths vary from 2,422mm to 2,897mm while load width is 1,650mm. Load height is either 1,338mm or 1,745mm. Load volumes vary from 4.65 cubic metres to 6.49 cubic metres and payloads from 863kg to 1,100kg. Gross vehicle weights are 2.7 tonnes or 2.9 tonnes.

Unlike its competitors, the new Vito features two sliding doors, a non-slip wooden floor and side protection panels to half height as standard. Options include a choice of bulkheads and a rail-mounted cargo restraint system.

Under the bonnet, the new model features a 2.2-litre common rail diesel unit offering either 88bhp, 109bhp or 150bhp and torque of 162lb-ft, 199lb-ft or 243lb-ft. An automatic option will be available on the lower- powered models but there will be no petrol engines, effectively quashing any hopes of an LPG-powered version. Big news too is that transmission has changed from front to rear-wheel drive.

Mercedes-Benz director of sales and marketing Peter Lambert said: 'Rear wheel drive offers better handling, tractability and a smaller turning circle. Normally, it means a higher load height but the new Vito's is only 30mm higher than the old one.' More controversially, the new model features a foot-operated parking brake that drivers will find takes some getting used to.

Lambert said: 'We hope to see sales of the new Vito rise by a third in three years. At present, we only sell 30% of Vitos to fleets but we see this figure rising dramatically as rental and leasing companies see the van's benefits.'

Warranty for the new model is three years/125,000 miles.

Behind the wheel

The elegant setting of Stapleford Park in Rutland was ideal to show off the new Vito for the first time to an eager gaggle of van journalists, for if nothing else, this van is a most elegant beast.

It has to be to succeed, as it will be going head-to-head against the combined might of the Renault Trafic/Vauxhall Vivaro/Nissan Primastar, the present queens of the light panel van catwalk. So which is the prettiest? In my book, the Vito has the edge. It also has that coveted three-pointed star on the front too.

But we must remember that while looks may count for a little, most van fleet operators will be studying the price lists and here the Vito may have problems. Its cheapest variant comes in at £12,995 ex-VAT, exactly a grand more than the cheapest of the Renault/Vauxhall/Nissan triplets. Mercedes-Benz would of course argue that the three rivals don't have ESP (more of which later), a standard six-speed gearbox and all the other goodies the Vito has, but company Scrooges may say they don't want it all anyway. It's very much a case of paying your money and taking your choice.

My first drive was in a long-wheelbase 88bhp version, which is likely to be the biggest fleet seller. Climbing aboard, the cabin looks as smart and upmarket as you'd expect from a Mercedes car with hard, flat seats that the Germans make so well and knobs and switches all having that rare quality feel.

The dash-mounted gearlever means space is limited for a second seat passenger but for the driver there is plenty of adjustment on seat and steering wheel to get the ideal driving position – provided a bulkhead isn't fitted. My second drive had this option and my 6ft 3in frame didn't feel half as comfortable as the bulkhead takes up valuable legroom.

The load area was almost as impressive as the cabin. That standard non-slip load floor not only means the van won't get scratched badly in its working life, but it also enables the load-lashing eyes to be countersunk into the floor. It might seem a small point but how many large loads get snagged on these pesky little items when being pushed into a van?

Having driven both 88bhp and 109bhp versions at the launch, my advice to fleets would be to go for the lower-powered model.

OK, so both were tested empty and may behave differently fully laden, but the 88bhp powerplant is a lusty one which will pull willingly with the minimum of fuss. The extra bhp will cost £900 – a hard figure to justify in fleet terms. As for the blistering 150bhp version, don't even think about it unless you happen to be buying vans for the police or ambulance service. Mind you, your drivers would love you to bits if you did.

Out on the road, most of the journalists moaned and groaned like cissies over the foot-operated parking brake. Having experienced it on various Mercedes-Benz cars over the years I couldn't see what the problem was. You simply stuff your foot on a fourth pedal next to the clutch to put it on and pull a lever on the dash to take it off – not exactly rocket science.

If the Vito looks like a Mercedes car, it acts rather like one on the road too. Slick gearchanges, light clutch, nicely-weighted power steering – everything is in place to make driving this van as pleasant an experience as possible.

And so on to safety. All I can say is that with ABS, ESP, acceleration skid control, electronic brake force distribution and hydraulic Brake Assist, even the worst drivers should be protected. I was invited to Mercedes-Benz's test track in Stuttgart last year to test the ESP system when it was first introduced to the larger Sprinter van. Having successfully carried out a series of outrageous manoeuvres that would have left most other vans stuffed in a hedge, all I can say is that anyone who manages to crash a van fitted with this wonderful safety aid deserves to be locked up with no chance of parole.

The only way a driver will know that he or she is being 'helped' is that a discreet orange light will flash on the dashboard. It might never happen, of course, but the first time it does, a driver's life – and your precious van – could be saved.

Driving verdict

It is not cheap, but fleets which buy on front-end price alone rarely buy Mercedes-Benz vehicles anyway. With all that extra kit loaded on board as standard, the Vito is actually handsomely priced for such a handsome van.

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    Mercedes-Benz Vito
    Model 109 CDI 111 CDI 115 CDI
    Power (bhp): 88 109 150
    Torque (lb-ft): 162 199 243
    Load length (mm): 2,422-2,897 2,422-2,897 2,422-2,897
    Load width (mm): 1,650 1,650 1,650
    Load height (mm): 1,338-1,745 1,338-1,745 1,338-1,745
    Payload (kg): 863-1,100 863-1,100 863-1,100
    Prices (ex-VAT): £12,995-13,665 £13,895-14,565 £15,395-16,065

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