Commercial vehicles are a vital part of the economy, so need to be hardy and reliable workhorses. The Mercedes-Benz Vito is one of the models in the segment that has established itself as the vehicle of choice for many a hotel shuttle service, in addition to some private individuals.
We travelled to Bilbao in Spain to sample the new Vito range, which will be available in South Africa in the second quarter of next year. Much like the current model, the range will comprise a bus, crewcab (dubbed Mixto in-house), and panel van variants. This last will have two different wheelbases, and three body lengths (all of which are 140mm longer than its predecessor).
So first, the design. From the front, the model has the new corporate design theme that underpins many of Mercedes’s latest passenger vehicles. The wider rear wind screen makes the vehicle look broader and the tail-lights are much smaller than on the previous model. They are slightly suggestive of the Volkswagen T5 Kombi, which also happens to be one of the Vito’s main rivals.
At the launch, I managed to drive all the cars in the range, starting with the Tourer in mid-specification PRO and high-specification Select trim, both with seating for up to eight passengers in a two-three-three configuration. Our launch variants with electrically operated side doors and 16-inch alloy wheels turned out to be a more comfortable ride than I had anticipated.
Although the fascia has some utilitarian elements typical of a commercial vehicle, there seem to be a lot of car components as well, such as the optional three-spoke multifunction steering wheel, which is similar to that of the C-Class.
A navigation system can also be specified, which worked a treat when we negotiated Bilbao and Madrid. Five engine derivatives are available throughout the Vito range, starting with the front-wheel drive 1.6-litre turbo-charged unit with 65kW and 230Nm, while a more powerful variant pushes out 84kW and 270Nm.
Both have six-speed manual transmissions. Then there is the 2.1-litre turbo-diesel available in three states of tune; 100kW and 330Nm; 120kW and 380Nm; and 140kW and 440Nm. The last mentioned uses BlueTec technology, which means the model complies with the stringent Euro 6 emissions requirements. In fact, says Mercedes, the model is the first in the segment to meet this requirement. The 2.1-litre engines have six-speed manual gearboxes, although a 7G-tronic automatic is available as an option, powering the rear wheels.
Fuel consumption is said to have been reduced by 20% across the range compared with its predecessors. According Klaus-Jürgen Benzinger, head of the Vito project, an all-wheel drive variant will also be made available in 2015 for certain markets, especially those where snow is a given. Good news from Benzinger is that service costs on the new model have been reduced by 6.4%, largely due to the service intervals — which are only every 40000km. It must be mentioned, though, that these service intervals have not been confirmed for models destined for our shores.
Both the 100kW and 120kW variants were impressively smooth, with slick gearboxes. The seating position is also worth a gold star, as is the visibility. In addition to the myriad safety acronyms — ESP, ABS and EBD — available on the top model, the car has eight air bags and something called Crosswind Assist, which prevents the vehicle from straying out of traffic lanes. Unfortunately, the weather was never quite that bad during the launch, so we could never put it to the test.
The cabin is fairly quiet and, according to the company, overall cabin noise intrusion has been reduced by some two decibels. Once I was finished with the Tourer, it was time to pretend to be the delivery man, driving the 84kW panel van which had been loaded half-full. The maximum payload is 1 369kg. The stability of the van was impressive, largely due to the extra 184kg on board and the tie-down hooks which prevented the load from skidding about.
Although the engine was fair about town, the vehicle struggled when subjected to some mountain passes that included steep gradients. The van baulked on some of the hairpin turns, and first gear was needed to get to the summit. I fear that, with a full load, the model will be found wanting. Mind you, there is a less-powerful variant of this engine, putting out 64kW, and I shudder to think how it will cope in similar instances.
In my view, and if you can stretch the budget a bit, rather opt for the least-powerful 2.1-litre turbo diesel, which puts out 100kW and would be able to handle mountain passes better. Mercedes has yet to confirm which models are destined for South Africa in 2015, although it is safe to assume that both the bus and panel vans are likely to be offered. But, unfortunately, the high roof option for the panel van has been discontinued because not enough drivers were interested in the previous model. For those with a penchant for a more luxurious version of the bus, dubbed the V-Class (replacing the Viano), that model will be offered here in the third quarter of next year.