Commercial vehicles are by no means the sexiest part of the motoring industry. But their existence is imperative to keeping the wheels of enterprise turning.
It is these unsung automotive heroes that play a behind-the-scenes role in delivering those services and goods we need to survive. So the next time you see that fully-laden Daihatsu Gran Max trundling along in the middle lane, acknowledge it with a bit of reverence.
In the large panel van segment, there are a number of choices. Popular offerings include the Toyota Quantum, Volkswagen Transporter, Hyundai H1, Peugeot Boxer, Nissan NV 350 and Ford Transit Custom. The Mercedes-Benz Vito has always been a venerable choice in this ambit. And the German manufacturer hopes to continue to build on the success of the model, with the launch of the latest iteration. The new generation Vito was revealed to the local motoring press at Zwartkops Raceway last week.
There were no live dynamic demonstrations marking the big unveiling. I think the marketing folk from Mercedes-Benz were still reeling from that incident where a show starring the GT and C63 ended with the demise of both models. We were, however, let loose on the skidpan and a makeshift gymkhana, which is not as silly as it sounds, given that these vehicles are going to spend a large portion of their lives in abusive conditions. Nothing broke and no Vito ended up with wheels pointing skyward — we tried, trust us. The Vito is essentially the more hardworking brother of the luxurious V-Class, launched in South Africa this year.
And the resemblance is there — the two are nearly identical, except the Vito does without many of the niceties. LED daytime running lights are available, however. It is available in three guises. First up is the regular panel van. This is followed by the Mixto, which retains those load-carrying capabilities, albeit with a sprinkling of added versatility in the form of a seating row in the cargo bay. Then there is the Tourer, which is solely aimed at the application of ferrying passengers.
We also heard at the launch that a bakkie variant is expected. Inside, the Vito is probably the plushest of the panel van set, offering a typically Mercedes-Benz take on the genre. Quality is good and you even get the same satin silver electric window switches from the lauded C-Class. And buyers are able to specify some of the impressive driver assistance systems seen in the Mercedes-Benz passenger car range. These include blind-spot and lane-keeping assistance.
There are two engine choices on offer, in four levels of output ranging from 84kW in the 111 CDI derivative to 140kW in the 119 BlueTEC model. Buyers can pick between a six-speed manual transmission and a seven-speed automatic transmission — the latter is a segment-first, according to Mercedes-Benz. Interestingly, the Vito is also available with a choice of rear-wheel or front-wheel drive. Representatives explained that the front-wheel drive version caters for customers who want maximum load capacity (up to 1 344kg) as well as better traction, when driving with the cargo section empty. The rear-wheel drive model, they said, would suit customers with towing applications in mind.
For our test drive, we picked the most basic model in the range, the 111 CDI in panel van format. This is the offering that will be the option of most business owners in want of a no frills workhorse that simply gets on with the job. There is something pretty cool about being at the helm of a van, with that elevated driving position and commanding view. And the Vito is no more demanding to drive than something like a B-Class.
The clutch pedal is light and the manual transmission is fairly easy to operate, although we did encounter some issues getting our unit into first. And a colleague from another publication said the Mixto he was driving struggled to engage sixth. But perhaps this tightness can be attributed to the fact that the test units had less than 500km on the odometer.
Mercedes-Benz is confident about the robustness of the Vito, throwing in a five-year/120 000km service plan. Service intervals are a sizable 40 000km. The compact 1.6-litre engine upfront seemed happy getting the Vito up to freeway speeds. Mind you, there was no load in the back. And we would like to test its abilities under duress. It should also be noted that air conditioning is not standard in this model.
To keep the happiness levels of your workforce up, you had better tick this on the options box. The passenger-oriented Tourer would make sense for shuttle service companies. I jumped into the more generously equipped Select grade model, with comfortable individual chairs and armrests. It was conducive to a brief post lunch siesta. The Tourer PRO starts off at R516 272 While the Select begins at R676 088, but in the case of the latter, it seems you may as well just opt for the more luxurious V-Class, since prices kick-off at R695 981. But we should focus on where the bread and butter lies, which is at the bottom of the range.
The 111 CDI panel van we drove goes for R372 780. Cheaper than the Hyundai H1 panel van (from R410 900), although it is undercut by the Toyota Quantum (from R322 000); Ford Transit Custom (from R351 900) and the Volkswagen Transporter (from R357 600). One supposes that when it comes to vehicles of this kind, they really are much of a muchness. All are designed carry vast amounts of cargo and serve with as little trouble as possible.
But only one of them has the three pointed star on the nose. And for a brand-loyal businessman or -woman with a few AMG examples in the garage, staying within the marque makes sense. Mercedes-Benz also offers the Vito with their Agility leasing agreement packages.