Mercedes-Benz Vaneo 1.7 CDI Family review
by David Finlay (7 March 2003)
In motoring, as in so many aspects of life, first appearances are not always trustworthy, and there can't be many better examples of that than the Mercedes Vaneo.
The name isn't much help, suggesting that this mini-MPV is based on a van when it is in fact based on no such thing. The next hurdle is that I imagine a lot of people might be put off by the Vaneo's external appearance.
It is certainly the weirdest-looking heffalump the motor industry has produced since . . . well, that would be the Fiat Multipla, then. And at least the Multipla looked deliberately weird. The Vaneo shape seems to have been arrived at more or less by accident.
The design brief was to create a small-ish people carrier based on the A-Class, hence the close facial resemblance. Although the Vaneo is longer, it's still fairly compact in terms of road space, but it has a quite incredible amount of interior space. It will take four very large occupants with no trouble at all, and as long as you don't go for the optional third row of seats you can also fit very bulky objects in the luggage space.
All this volume (accounting for around 70% of the car's total, according to Mercedes) is made possible by the Vaneo's considerable height. It's about 1.2 metres from floor to roof, despite the fact that the floor you sit on is, as in the A-Class, a large sandwich-style affair. The thinking behind that is that, in the event of a front-end smash, the engine and transmission will be carried under, rather into, the front occupants, which is worth remembering when you're considering how close you sit to the nose of the car.
With the rear seats removed the Vaneo becomes, to all intents and purposes, a van. It also looks like a van. In some ways it feels like a van from the driver's seat, thanks to the enormous windscreen. On the other hand, it also doesn't feel like a van at all, partly because the high floor allows a driving position that is very similar to that of a saloon car.
Likewise, the build quality is definitely that of a passenger vehicle rather than a commercial. And the feel of the major controls will be immediately familiar to anyone who has driven a Mercedes saloon.
There are four engines in the range, including three petrol ones of 1.4, 1.6 and 1.9 litres. The test car, though, used a 1.7-litre turbo diesel, which feels sluggish until you realise that you have to press the accelerator pedal some way before the action starts. Once you're into the way of this, the engine turns out to be usefully powerful, to the extent that on damp roads it can overcome the grip of the front tyres and create little understeering moments or chirps of wheelspin.
That's the only major criticism of the way the Vaneo drives. Although its very un-car-like shape is always apparent, it has remarkably good road manners. It's not at its happiest on roads with lots of crests and dips, but it's a smooth runner on more major routes, and it soaks up sharper bumps very well indeed.
Our car had a five-speed manual gearbox with a normal clutch, though you can also get a manual with automatic clutch (not something I'd go for myself after experience with this system on other models) or a five-speed automatic transmission. The last-named costs an extra £1215 and includes the Speedtronic cruise control which you get on petrol models.
In case you were confused by the word Family in the car's title, it refers to the middle of the three available trim levels, of which Trend and Ambiente are the bottom and top respectively. Items included in Family but not in Trend include a second rear view-mirror (for watching and, if necessary, glaring at rear passengers), a 12-volt socket in the luggage area, front electric windows, roof rails, storage boxes under the rear seats, and a waste bag which can be secured to the headrests.
Also in Family models, the luggage space includes both a folding shopping box and a pull-out loading floor which can carry a handy 120kg. That's if you load it in the middle - the recommended maximum drops to 80kg if you put heavy objects on the unsupported end.
This is all useful stuff. If you pay the extra £1100 for an Ambiente you get less of the above (though it's still available as options) but fancier equipment such as air-conditioning, alloy wheels and a smattering of leather trim. Personally I think the Family set-up is the best, but tastes are bound to differ.
In the time-honoured Mercedes manner you can also shell out a lot more for extra equipment, including some very fancy stereo systems, a cockpit management and navigation display, a mobile phone, parking sensors and so on. Some of the options are grouped together in five "activity packs" entitled Carry, Cycle, Dog (yes, really), Surf and Winter Sports, according to the lifestyle of the owner. Prices vary wildly for the packs, since some of the items are already included in the cost of the car they will be fitted to, depending on trim level.
I wasn't too convinced by the Vaneo the first time I saw it, but it grew on me a lot. While it may not be a great looker, it is beautifully built, ingeniously designed, enormously practical and far better to drive than a first glance would suggest. I have a nasty feeling that the styling may persuade many potential buyers to look elsewhere, but that would be a pity, because they might then miss out on what I've gradually come to think of as one of the most effective mini-MPVs on the market.
Second opinion: Yes, you have to drive this car rather just sneer at its appearance (as a number of motoring writers have done) to appreciate its good points. While definitely premium-priced, it's very strong on practicality and adaptability, having been designed from the start with excellent load-carrying and seat-moving arrangements. The A-Class was one of the very first cars on the UK market with a common rail turbo diesel engine, and the unit fitted here was a smooth runner, although - burying your right foot in the sandwich floor or not - the Vaneo is no firecracker away from a standing start. Unexpectedly pleasant to drive, and I appreciated the auxiliary electric heater on some cold-morning starts before the very efficient engine built up enough disposable temperature to kick off the main heating system. Ross Finlay.