By Trevor Gehlcken
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has been one of the mainstays of Britain’s light commercial vehicle parc since its launch in 1995.
But the smaller Vito has been somewhat overlooked by UK fleets during that time, its sales dominated by retail buyers and owner-drivers.
Quite why this should be is a moot point, but two things have certainly not helped the Vito’s sales prospects.
Firstly, the medium panel van sector has been dominated for years by the Volkswagen Transporter, which has achieved legendary status with its rock-solid reliability, premium build quality and best-in-class residual values.
Secondly, while there is no question about the Vito’s capabilities, its front-end prices have tended to be higher than those of its rivals. Despite strong residual values, this meant relatively high running cost figures, typically 3-5ppm higher than the Transporter at four years/80,000 miles.
Market competition has intensified even further with the arrival last year of the new Ford Transit Custom – which was named medium panel van of the year in the 2014 Fleet Van Awards – and the launch this year of a new Vauxhall Vivaro and Renault Trafic.
In short, the Vito was beginning to look tired and out of touch. The German manufacturer has now hit back with a brand new Vito, offering new engines, better fuel economy and a fresh set of safety features.
So confident is Mercedes-Benz that the Vito will revitalise its fleet business that, at the launch in Spain, Dr Jorg Zurn, the company’s head of van engineering, predicted that the three-pointed star would overtake Renault to become Europe’s best-selling van marque after the new model goes on sale in April next year.
Zurn told Fleet Van: “So far the Vito has been overshadowed by the Sprinter and we can understand this, but with this new model we aim to change all that.
“It may be a medium van, but it certainly isn’t medium quality. From the driver’s point of view, the similarity between it and the Sprinter will immediately become apparent.
“Noise levels in the cab have been halved and the cockpit has been completely redesigned.
“From the fleet’s point of view, total cost of ownership has been lowered and the engines consume an average of 20% less fuel than their predecessors.
“Meanwhile, servicing costs are 6.4% less, with intervals of two years/25,000 miles.”
Zurn added: “From our point of view, we are looking for growth. Our aim is to become the market leader across Europe and with the new Vito offering so much, we believe we can achieve this.”
From the outside, the new van looks similar to the old one, apart from a reworked front end, which gives it the look of a scaled-down Sprinter.
However, under the skin it’s all change. First is the addition of a 1.6-litre engine to join the present 2.1-litre unit, and the choice of front- or rear-wheel drive.
Basically, the Vito range has been split in two – the smaller engine with front-wheel drive for urban use and the bigger powerplant in rear-wheel drive format for heavy longer haul use.
For the 1.6-litre unit, Mercedes-Benz has extended its tie-up with Renault (the Citan comes off the same production line as the Renault Kangoo at Maubeuge in France) and has taken the well-proven unit which powers vans such as the Trafic and the Vauxhall Vivaro.
Mercedes-Benz was keen to point out that it had made quite a few alterations, such as adjustments to the combustion process, changes to the fuel injectors and exhaust treatment and a different engine management system.
Power outputs for the new Vito range from 88hp to 190hp. Gross vehicle weights, meanwhile, go from 2.5 tonnes to 3.2 tonnes, there are two wheelbases, three load lengths and payloads up to 1,369kg – a best-in-class figure.
The new Vito is 140mm longer than the old one, with the extra length coming at the front for added crash protection, so the load area remains the same as in the old model.
In addition to the front- and rear-wheel drive models, there will be a four-wheel drive version which won’t make it to UK shores.
Mercedes-Benz has also decided to ditch the electric version which is currently available for the old model – a big setback, surely, for the Government’s efforts to persuade us to drive electric vehicles.
Zurn said the demand simply isn’t there to make such a vehicle a viable business proposition.
Prices and final specification will be announced nearer the launch date.
Climbing aboard, the cab has been completely reworked with a new dashboard and more padding to protect the occupants from engine noise.
On our test drives around the Vito factory in Vitoria near Bilbao, I was impressed with the quiet, refined cabin environment and managed to talk almost in whispers while still being heard.
The cab has that classic Mercedes-Benz feel to it – almost as though it was hewn out of a single piece of metal.
The seats are typically Germanic: in other words, very hard and upright, but incredibly supportive on long journeys.
I did note, though, that the Vito lacks some of the nice touches of rivals such as a pull-down desk in the back of the middle seat and a special holder for a laptop or iPad.
Also on the negatives front, the 12-volt take-off is down near the floor, which means that if you stick a sat-nav unit in the windscreen there will be wires trailing all over the place.
The rival Ford Transit Custom has a special point on top of the dash for a sat-nav.
I asked Zurn about these omissions and was rather bemused to hear that the reason Mercedes-Benz doesn’t have them is that it doesn’t want drivers to be tempted to use devices while on the move.
Our test drives included a good mix of city roads, motorways and switchback routes through the mountains of green Spain and the two vehicles I sampled were the 1.6-litre 114hp model and the 2.1-litre 163hp.
On the flat and with half a load on board the perky 1.6-litre impressed, but as soon as I started climbing the hills (and they were steep ones, to be fair) it started struggling as I rowed around the gearbox looking for the necessary power to get us up to the top. Swapping over to the 2.1-litre, things felt much chunkier and more businesslike as this model blasted through the mountain ranges with gusto.
Both vans featured super slick gearchanges, although the clutches felt rather heavy.
All the test models were loaded with the various safety systems the Vito now offers and I was particularly impressed with the Attention Assist device which is slated to be standard on UK models.
It sounds an alarm and flashes up a little picture of a coffee cup on the dash if it senses the driver isn’t fully awake. How useful is that?
Side wind assist is also likely to be standard, although after testing this system in the bigger Sprinter, we are yet to be convinced.
Other safety technologies such as Blind Spot Assist, Active Parking Assist, Lane Keeping Assist and tyre pressure monitoring will probably be paid-for options, so only the most safety-conscious fleets are likely to order them.
This is a pity as they will pay for themselves the first time a driver avoids having an accident.