Now entering its third month with Fleet News, it's time to take a peek into the business end of the stylish Mercedes-Benz Vito.
The rear, rather unusually, features a tailgate in place of the typical 'barn door' arrangement. It's a matter of choice really – on the plus side, the occupants have something to stand under in the event of being out in the open in a downpour. On the minus side, the driver needs more space at the back to open the hatch – and care has to be taken as the door weighs a ton and could break your jaw if you don't get out of the way when it's on the way up.
Our cargo area is very sensibly ply-lined throughout, which is a £270 option but will pay for itself and more if you intend to use the van in a dirty environment. At selling time, you simply strip out the plywood to reveal a pristine interior. That little trick could see your van worth far more than an extra £270 compared to one with a scratched scuffed interior.
The Vito has a non-slip floor too. This may sound rather so-whattish but it saves diminutive loads from slipping about in the back under way. Several times in the past, on test vans with bare floors, I have placed shopping bags carefully away in the back of my van, only to find them scattered the length and breadth of the cargo area when I got home, eggs smashed and milk sloshing about everywhere.
The spare wheel is rather unusually placed on the inside wall rather than stowed away underneath the van. It means in the event of a burst tyre the driver can locate the spare without getting covered in filth, but it rather encroaches on the space available – a point potential buyers may find important if they intend to fill this van to the brim (which, of course, not many do).
Our Vito also features two side loading doors by the way, which are a bit OTT. Most fleet managers, we feel, would rather have a few quid knocked off the front end price of the van.
Although the Vito and our previous long-termer the Renault Trafic are technically in the same category – medium panel van – the French contender was a long wheel-base variant, while the Vito is compact. And the differences are quite remarkable.
Whereas the Trafic is very much in the old 'sit up and beg' style of a commercial vehicle, the Vito sits far lower on the ground and is much more car-like to drive. That's a good thing for anyone who's new to using commercial vehicles on a day-to-day basis, but, personally, I quite like the old upright position. It's certainly better for the back on long journeys.
And you'd be amazed at how much an extra foot or two on the wheelbase can alter the manoeuvring capabilities of a van. Whereas the Trafic could be a quite a problem winkling into those small supermarket car park spaces, the Vito flies in with never a frown – and generally feels much more 'chuckable' on the roads. That word, of course, may ring alarm bells in the average fleet operator's head but suffice to say the Vito makes an ideal short-haul round-town prospect.
The other difference is that our Vito only has two seats. They are mighty comfortable and feature lots of side support as you'd expect in a vehicle that bears the Sport moniker. However, as I don't actually own a car, it does mean that if we need to transport another passenger, my wife's 19-year-old Volkswagen Lupo is going to have to be called into play.
On the plus side, though, it means there is plenty of storage space between the two seats. You'd be surprised how cramped a van's front area can become when you add things like work rucksacks, handbags, bags of sandwiches etc.
The Vito is very much one of the new breed of vans for the smart, stylish business of the third millennium – and, after a month with us, we are enjoying this oh-so-capable vehicle in the extreme.
It weighs in at £28,995 ex-VAT with all the extra kit we have on board, which, admitted, isn't exactly bargain basement. True, you can pick up a Vito for as little as £17,855, but it won't look the same – and it won't have that head-turning cachet to it that will see passers-by not only admiring this vehicle but also looking at any sign writing you may have added, thus advertising your business.
For starters, the silver metallic paint and snazzy chrome side steps come as standard, along with seven-spoke alloy wheels, colour-coded bumpers, polished steel front grille, tailgate and foglamp trims and sport badging on the rear. You won't find any of that on 'cooking' versions.
Inside, we get as standard air-con, special sporty seats with extra side padding, electrically-adjustable heated mirrors, sport-branded floor mats and enough safety devices for us to say that if your drivers crash this van, they don't deserve to be working for you.
In addition, we get a reversing camera at £465, leather steering wheel at £145 and the icing on the cake, a wonderful seven-speed automatic gearbox at £1,475.
Many fleet operators will baulk at the price of the auto box but it could be a price worth paying. It means much less wear and tear on the gears, less strain on a driver who makes multiple drops during the day and it will also appeal more to second buyers when the van is sold.
More and more commercial vehicles are coming with auto boxes nowadays and we can see why, because they are so stress-free to drive. We predict that sometime in future, the UK will eventually follow the USA and ditch manual boxes altogether.
The Vito is like no other van we have tested before, given there is no conventional handbrake and no gear lever. The handbrake works by pressing a third pedal on the floor and is released by pulling a switch on the dash, as with most other Mercedes-Benz vehicles nowadays. Meanwhile Drive, Neutral Reverse etc are selected by a small stalk on the right of the steering wheel.
With the ignition key slot on the left of the steering wheel rather than the usual right, it makes driving this van a little problematical at first. Mind you, after a week or two I got used to this new way of operating and revelled in the smooth gear changes and whisper-quiet ambience in the cab, even at motorway speeds.
At first I thought that fuel consumption was rather on the high side after our last long termer, the Renault Trafic Formula 1 edition – I seemed to be visiting our local fuel station on an alarmingly regular basis. It finally dawned on me to check both vehicles' spec sheets and I then discovered the reason – the Vito has a 57-litre fuel tank, whereas the Trafic will hold 90 litres. Silly me.
Armed with that information and the back of a fag packet, it now appears the Vito is returning a healthy figure in the low- to mid-40s. We expect even better as the brand new diesel engine loosens up and will be reporting in more detail next month.
The arrival of our latest long-term test van, the Mercedes-Benz Vito, was something of a red letter day insofar as it is the first time in the history of Fleet News that a van bearing the famous three-pointed star has been with us for a six-month trial.
We have always felt that the Vito has rather underperformed in the medium panel van sector over the years – and quite why this should be has remained something of a mystery. My suspicion is that its bigger brother the Sprinter has been such a massive tour de forcein the market since its launch in 1995 that fleet buyers have simply plumped for the Sprinter without even considering the Vito.
If that's the case, then they really are missing out on a trick as quite a few Sprinter buyers could just as well do with the smaller Vito, which is cheaper to buy and cheaper to run. In fact Mercedes-Benz now prides itself on the approach its dealers give to prospective fleet buyers – an expert will sit down with the customer and discuss exactly what his or her requirements are before even talking about which model should be purchased.
Even if the dealer can make more profit by selling an unsuitable model, the buyer will still be pointed towards the best van for the job. This approach could well see Vito sales rising, as many fleet buyers apparently opt for vehicles which are bigger than they need be, thus wasting cash.
Whatever the reasons for the Vito's relative under-performance, build quality certainly isn't one of them. Vito has an awesome reputation here, as with all the cars, trucks and vans Mercedes-Benz builds. And there's another good reason for choosing a Merc van too which seems to be forgotten quite often.
In the event of a breakdown, a rescue truck loaded with spares from the local dealer will attend and in most cases will be able to get the vehicle back on the road again there and then. Many other manufacturers use the AA or RAC for the purpose and the likelihood here is that the van will simply be towed to the local garage for repairs, causing mayhem for the company which owns it.
Then, of course, as Mercedes-Benz also has a truck network within its dealerships, van buyers also get enhanced levels of aftersales service. You won't get stuck behind Mrs Jones with her little run-about when it comes to getting your vans serviced.
All this adds up to a powerful story for fleet buyers – and we are looking forward immensely to running the Vito over the coming months.
The model we have been given on test weighs in at £28,995 ex-VAT once all the added extras are factored in – but for that price you do get an awful lot of goodies, not least a stonking 2.2-litre turbodiesel power unit pumping out 163PS – more power than any sane driver could desire. If that isn't enough, there is also a 193PS model on offer, although we would not recommend that little firecracker for fleet purposes.
Our Vito has a reasonable 5.5 cubic metres of loadspace in the back, together with a payload of 1,129kg, which we reckon should satisfy the vast majority of fleet buyers.
Fuel consumption on the combined cycle, meanwhile, is 47.1mpg, which was well up with the rivals until the arrival of the new Citroen Dispatch/Peugeot Partner twins, which boast a phenomenal figure in the mid-50s, dependent on the model chosen.
So, with winter well under way and a whole host of safety devices on board as standard, we are now cruising the highways and byways of Britain with the utmost confidence.
Gross vehicle weight (kg): 3,050
Power (PS/rpm): 163/3,800
Torque (Nm/rpm): 380/1,200-2,400
Load volume (cu m): 5.5
Payload (kg): 1,129
Comb fuel economy (mpg): 47.1
Test fuel economy: n/a
CO2 emission (g/km): 158
Price as tested (ex-VAT): £28,995