Friday 9 July 2010

Driven #2:- Mercedes Viano.

Working at Mercedes, if a Sales enquiry comes in about the Viano, I tend to shrug my shoulders and pass the responsibility onto a commercial vehicles specialist a couple of miles down the road. We don't really deal with Vianos very often, they take up a lot of showroom floorspace, enquiry levels are low and they're a lot more expensive than people think.

And now I'm beginning to regret it. Not a deep, depressing, “Missed out on signing the Beatles” sort of a regret, but more the realisation that I now understand why the Viano has such a strong following. I may well have missed out on making a chunk of money.

I have just spent three days chauffeuring five foreign dignitaries from our Hong Kong operation. My ride for the duration was a Viano 2.2CDi, in top-line Ambient trim. My car had three rows for a total of six seats, but all forward facing rather than the vis-a-vis found in some examples. More luxury minibus than utility-limo. The seats are arranged on a longitudinal rail, and can be moved around at will to adjust load space or seat pitch.

Truth be told, mine had quite a strange spec. There was leather and privacy glass, excellent electric sliding doors, and the COMAND sat-nav system (of which this generation is looking pretty dated), but no provision for hands-free phone or parking sensors, which I should think would be pretty essential. What it did have, though, was an automatic transmission, which teamed with the thrashable 2.2CDi engine made for a suprisingly smooth drive, once I had recalibrated my senses to accommodate slightly tardier responses than I'm used to.

Much is said about vans and their being car-like to drive. I say this is rubbish. Refinement and NVH can be made more like that of a car, of course, but a van needs to feel a bit like a van to function. The upright driving position, mounted high, gives the excellent visibility you would expect, and there is full steering wheel adjustment, along with a wide range of seat adjustments. Personally, I found the pedals a little widely spaced, and found myself left-foot braking by preference, but this is probably down to cumbersome size 13 footwear rather than ergonomic neglect.

More car-like is the quality of fit and finish. On all visible surfaces the Viano manages to eclipse certain conventional cars from the marque, the CLC in particular is faintly embarrassing by comparison. There are a few signs of age creeping through, some of the switchgear is common to a long-departed old C-Class, but it all works and feels pleasant to the touch. Of note too is the fact that the buttons are chunky enough to be operated wearing gloves or with a deft jab from the driving seat on rough roads.

The name “Viano” does little to conceal its van origins, and nor does the way it rides which is much in the mould of a particularly refined, well, van. When carrying a VIP cargo smoothness is pretty important, and I could have done with more low-end torque to achieve it. To make a sharp entry onto a roundabout you have to give the little 2.2 a bootful of revs which, if done well, isn't so bad in itself, but it does send a crescendo of four-cylinder roar echoing through the cabin, which is usually a fairly quiet place to be.

My five-hundred mile old machine was showing an impressive 28ish mpg on the trip computer, and this would probably increase if the engine didn't have to be stretched so far in rapid-transit mode. I would be tempted to plmp for the three litre diesel instead, a bigger engine would be more relaxing and would also offer a soundtrack more in keeping with the executive travel aspirations the Viano is all about.

Now for the fun bit. What's it like when your passengers are ejected and smoothness and comfort no longer matter? How about entertainment? Well, there's no “Viano beats SLK in handling shocker” headline for this review, everything you learnt in physics still applies and an enormous metal box can't be punted into a corner with the vigour of an Exige. But it goes where you ask it to. There is roll, sure, but there is grip. The roll is useful as it points you towards the rapidly approaching limits, but there is a sure sense of fun to be had from the whole endeavour.

And if I extended the Viano to Vmax, which of course I didn't because it would be irresponsible and silly, it would probably top out at 103mph, at which point the rev-counter would probably be registering about four and a half thousand revs. This is all hypothetical, of course.

The Viano scores highly on percieved prestige, and this is good news for the VIP airport pickup market. Happily, the image is unlikely to be shattered once they start travelling, as long as the driver isn't horrifically heavy handed. And, when work finishes, the driver can extract genuine enjoyment on his journey home.

And next time somebody asks me for a test drive in one, I may actually look forward to it.