Monday, 5 December 2011

Driven #47:- 2011 Mercedes-Benz Viano Edition 125 V6 CDi 3.0

Firstly an issue that applies now every bit as much as it did when I drove the other one. Let's get this straight; Mercedes-Benz are marketing this as basically a grown-up minivan. Well, I'll challenge that and say that a grown-up minivan is, well, a van. You can even buy this vehicle from M-B Commercial Vehicle outlets with a Vito badge attached in place of the Viano one. I say stop the madness and admit that this car is, basically, a Van. And a very good one at that.

Last time I spent time with a Viano it was a fairly prosaic, four cylinder Ambiente model. As a way of carrying groups of people around it did an excellent job, somehow more professional, more businesslike than how a similarly capacious Chrysler Grand Voyager always comes across. I enjoyed driving it, as you probably surmised from my report. But it had me wondering what it would have been like if it had been blessed with a little more power.

Today I found out, with the indecently rapid CDI 3.0.

Since my last report on the Viano the range has received a bit of a freshen-up, bringing the ubiquitous LED driving lights with it and also the impression of rather nicer interior fit and finish, although the latter might be my imagination as it still looks almost exactly as it did before.

This car, the Edition 125, celebrating one hundred and twenty five years of Daimler Benz productivity, wears about the most dramatic dress-up-kit anybody has ever nailed to an off-the-shelf van. Depending on your point of view it either looks ridiculous or absolutely fantastic. I'm basically an overgrown child, so I fall into the latter camp. The multispoke DTM style, Shades Of AMG wheels may be wildly inappropriate on what is ostensibly a minibus, but they sure do fill the arches and bring more attention to the Viano than any van this side of Mr T and Hanniball's. It's actually not grossly overdone; they stopped well short of Boeing-style aerofoils, but what;s there is enough to separate it from its humdrum origins.

This short-wheelbase model benefits from five full-size seats astern which can be positioned variously in vis-a-vis or tandem layouts. Sitting face to face seems somehow more in keeping with the executive pretensions of the vehicle, and also brings the benefit of increased knee-room. A table or desk and in-flight-entertainment system can all be fitted easily, but were absent on the test vehicle.

The five speed TouchShift tiptronic gearbox (who's manual mode is good but almost totally pointless most of the time) is extremely smooth shifting and suits the torque characteristics of the vehicle to a tee. In fact, the whole powertrain has been tuned very wisely; although the nine-second 0-60 time is very impressive, you get the impression that it could have been faster if it was M-Bs wont.

A version of this engine, the OM642, is used in all of the current V6 diesel models in the Mercedes-Benz passenger car range. It can call upon 224 horsepower as well as 330 pounds of static twist, as long as you have 1400 revs or more showing on the dial. This means it's not quite as potently tuned as when it appears in a CLS or S-Type, but it makes up for this in other ways.

Instead of going for pointless bar-room bragging rights it's tuned for effortless, responsive flexibility. You get the feeling that M-B never intended to build a heavyweight dragster, just an extremely smooth, comfortable method of carrying six VIP guests. Quickly.

In every respect; smoothness, power and refinement, the V6 is almost embarrassingly better than the four-cylinder mill. The strong acceleration is accompanied by the same cultured growl that this engine emits when it's used in MBs passenger car range. And with every mile covered, after every fluid insertion into fast moving traffic, you can't deny the sensation that the big diesel is probably not vastly less efficient than the little one, either. With the automatic gearbox bolted to it the four-cylinder engine seemed to always be making more effort than it actually was. The figures spoke of an eleven second 0-60 time, but the noise and effort told a different story. And the more you had to stretch it to eke the last bit of performance out, the quicker the dial on the fuel gauge would head in the wrong direction.

I remember when I first read the following from the press release (which made me almost howl with laughter); “...the new Viano AVANTGARDE - EDITION 125 combines the spaciousness of an MPV and the dynamism of a sports car in one extraordinary vehicle.” Well, more fool me. By Jingo, they're actually right.

I was astonished by the level cornering and the high degree of grip from the 245/45 ZR19 Continental SportContact tyres, especially when the high unsprung weight of the machine was considered. It grips doggedly and only gets messy when you're attempting speeds that, quite frankly, you shouldn't even be entertaining unless your brain is made of tapioca.

Mind you, I harbour a slight reservation as to how long the front pair of tyres can be expected to last; they're being asked to do a whole lot. At least it's rear wheel drive; being asked to propel and steer might otherwise have proven their undoing.

At the conclusion of my report on the 2.2 I “estimated” that the maximum speed that it could be made to move at would be 103mph. Of course, I would have had to have been wholly irresponsible to have put that to the test, especially not on the A120 between Colchester and Frating, at a quarter past eleven in the evening. Well, I have it on good authority that; were you to be similarly irresponsible, in a rush to lose your driving license and with it any chance of driving for the firm again; you'd find that the CDi 3.0 will Vmax at 125mph.

Look, I'm just reading this from the handbook, OK? I didn't. I swear.

All of this is excellent news. With the V6 Diesel Mercedes-Benz has pretty much cornered the market for jumbo people carriers with genuine pace and prestige, and, with the Edition 125 package, have dressed in clothes that can't be ignored. But, almost inevitably, it's that very package that robs it of absolute competence.

I'll dismiss the first shortfall out of hand as it's not really fair to bring it up. The Edition 125 comes only as a Short-wheelbase model , and that helps it to enjoy far less of a commercial vehicle image, but this all comes at the cost of a change of physics; we're talking about same factor that causes a long wheelbase S-Class to ride better than a short wheelbase one. With more of the vehicle carried between the axles than over them, the ride is automatically flatter and more composed.

The short-wheelbase Viano is at a natural disadvantage then, but that's without taking into account the effects of the Edition 125 suspension, which certainly can't satisfy all of the people, all of the time. It is, though, as close to being a “drivers minibus” as I've ever known before.

Having established that this thing is, against all odds, a ridiculously good steer, the question remains whether the concept of a vehicle like this isn't essentially flawed. There is no doubt n my mind that it can entertain the chauffeur to the point of hysteria. Whether his six passengers will be quite so amused is another matter. Its a similar conundrum to the AMG S-Class variants; why bother having such a plush, indulgent interior when the hard suspension and no-profile tyres have you wincing with every pock-mark on the road surface?

Personally I could live with a flaw like that. I think it's an absolutely terrific vehicle, even though I'd probably end up with no passengers willing to travel with me out of terror or life preservation. Just me and six empty seats. Suddenly it all seems a bit pointless. But where cars increasingly follow the path of do-gooding, it's almost refreshing to find one that makes no sense whatsoever.