Jude Morte / Jude Morte | March 31, 2008 00:00
Premium alternative cure for the common vanThe arrival of the Mercedes Benz Vito in the late 90s and early 2000s gave motorists the impression that even a premium car company like Mercedes Benz can venture into practical utility. But with the introduction of the Chevrolet Venture and the Chrysler Town and Country, the thin line between practical people loading and premium tastes got more blurred. And when the Mercedes Benz Viano was launched last year, the line got blurred all the more. Can it be better that the aforementioned vans?
Any van's exterior design nowadays brings up the phrase "bread loaf on wheels," and the P 4.3 million Viano's design is no different. The rear section very much embodies the aforementioned phrase, but much like any of its siblings in its V-Class line (the Vito, Vaneo, Vario and Sprinter), the a-pillar has a steep slope and a stubby nose.
The reason for such an outside design parameter? What you get on the inside. Its dimensions convey hints of comfort normally found in full-size vans and conversions such as the 1994-2003 Dodge Ram vans. Both sliding side doors can be activated via buttons on the center dashboard panel, on the key fob or on the pillars behind the front occupants. The windows - be the front ones or the rearmost Plexiglas at the third row - have power assist. Cupholders and storage areas abound within the unit. All seats are wrapped in snug, comfortable leather, and each row gets its own roof mounted light (or lights, depending on where you're seated), storage bins and cupholders. In addition, there's a movable folding/sliding table that can shuttle longitudinally between both rear rows. It's wide enough to span the middle of both captain's chair second row seats (end to end), tall enough to reach the breadbasket of whoever sits in the second row, and can be used for a five-player game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker at the rear area.
With any van, storage is one of its highlights, and the Viano (specifically, a 3.0L V6 Ambiente long wheelbase variant) is no exception. Both rear rows tote a flexible rail-mounted seating system that makes it incredibly easy to move the seats in very closely spaced (25 mm) steps, and the backrests of the second row seats can be folded down and converted into tables or footrests. Also, all rear seats can be placed in a compact "stowed" position to save space or removed altogether - with no special tools needed - in order to swallow bigger cargo or turn the rear section into sleeping quarters. Nice feature, no doubting that, but the Chrysler Town and Country's Stow N' Go feature - where all the seats need not be removed; they're just folded into undertrays below the floor to create a flat surface - is still the loading template.
On the road the van huffs and puffs somewhat loudly to get decent acceleration, and the gas pedal gets increasingly heavy on the right foot as speed goes up. Overtaking on any surface is helped immensely by the four-speed a/t's manual mode, as the ECU frustratingly takes its sweet time to downshift. The results are middling (for a premium segment product) but expected of a van - a 160 kph top speed and 6.2 km/l on four days of mixed driving.
With any van, handling is tipsy and the turning radius is wide. The Viano is no different. The chassis teeters a lot on hard turns, tiptoeing on its Goodyear Eagle NCT 5 225 60R16s to get decent roadholding. The ride is decent (or even serviceable) at the front, but the Airmatic suspension at the rear is bouncy and can be dizzying for rear occupants. Steering is heavy in feel, yet little in feedback.
The Viano's safety features redeem the suspension/steering shortcomings. The engine braking and the brakes are STRONG, and the latter gets heavier (in terms of foot application) when the speedometer jogs around the dial. The Parktronic feature has useful indicators (with a beeper that goes off when the van is one foot and below from any object) above the rear view mirror and above the rear windshield. The side mirrors are wide but not tall, an unusual feature for a van.
And the electrically operated sliding side doors and rear hatch have pinch feature that prevents limbs and extremities from getting caught in the hinges or chassis corners.
Most vans are built to haul cargo and people, period. But with the Viano, the premium people loading segment just got WAY better. Just think of it as a premium alternative for the common van, given its features and Chrysler Town and Country competition.