There’s nothing like having a bit of space around you, with room to stretch out and do your own thing. That’s exactly what extra-large people carriers, what we’ll call super-MPVs, such as the Mercedes Viano give you. Forget squeezing into a conventional MPV with its third row of laughably cramped seats and next to no luggage space. A family bus like a Viano needs an estate agent to sell it, it’s that big and versatile. It’ll seat six in grand style or up to eight in almost equal comfort, with more than enough free space for their bags and coats. Even a bicycle, if you’re pushed.
Other super-MPVs like the Viano include the sharper-looking VW Caravelle, the tad too-commercial Ford Tourneo and the more comfort-oriented Peugeot Expert Tepee. Like the Caravelle, the Viano comes in a choice of standard and long-wheelbase lengths, although unlike the Caravelle there’s a third extra-long-wheelbase option, too.
The engine line-up is a little confusing. Vianos badged 2.0 CDI have the same 2.2-litre, four-cylinder engine as those that are badged 2.2 CDI except that in the former, the engine produces 136bhp and in the latter, 163bhp. Vianos badged 3.0 CDI have the most powerful “van” engine on the market: a V6 diesel engine producing 224bhp, and an impressive 324 lb ft torque.
Twin sliding doors make getting in and out of the Viano, especially when you’ve managed to squeeze it into a conventional parking space, a piece of cake. There are three trim levels: Ambiente places the emphasis on luxury with its soft carpeting and burr walnut-effect trim; Sport has sports suspension, drilled pedals and 18in alloys; Avantgarde combines the best of both with exterior touches such as aerodynamic side skirts.
The Viano turns every trip into an event ‒ in a good way. Entering it is to step up into a brave, new world. Its vast windscreen bathes you in light while giving you almost Eddie Stobart-levels of forward vision. Completing the HGV-effect is a shift lever that sprouts conveniently from the fascia. In truth, you’re probably sitting no higher than the driver of a Range Rover; after all, the Viano will fit most multi-storey car parks. But it’s different and it’s fun.
On the downside, the combination of a high-sided vehicle weighing 2,239kg, riding on relatively narrow tyres and with suspension tuned for comfort is not going to produce car-like poise and grip. Keep calm and carry on is the best advice when driving a Viano. At normal speeds its steering is reassuringly precise, and its ride soft and forgiving. But ask too much of it in the corners and it will give you a sharp but not necessarily short lesson in understeer and the law of diminishing returns. The Sport version with its firmer suspension and fatter tyres is probably a sharper drive.
On the motorway, our Viano 2.2 CDI Ambiente Extra long wheelbase held a stress-free 70mph cruise for 400 miles, returning 34mpg. Remarkably for such a large windscreen, wind noise wasn’t particularly noticeable, while the engine was quiet and unobtrusive. The auto changes were smooth and barely detectable, and when some grunt was needed to escape slower moving vehicles, the big Viano responded with aplomb.
Space: this is why you buy a super-MPV like a Viano. That and family harmony. For our 1000-mile test I took my family of five to Scotland and back. Two teenage sons and another in his early 20s need space to stretch out. With self and wife sitting at the front, two boys occupied either end of the centre seats while the third occupied the back, pushing down the middle row centre back rest ahead of him to use it as a leg rest. Behind him was more than enough space for everyone’s luggage.
The seats slide on rails and can be folded and stowed every which way, as well as removed, significantly increasing your load and passenger carrying options. All have arm rests but could have been more generously proportioned, or at least more supportive. Though trimmed in leather (standard across all Vianos) they felt a little utilitarian.
Electric windows, including the rear hinged windows, cruise control and height-adjustable front seats are standard. Ambiente trim brings self-levelling rear suspension. To make putting bulky loads in the back easier, you can press a button on the key fob to remotely lower the rear of the vehicle. Neat. One significant standard-fit omission is a parking aid. Our test car had it as a £645 option although it also comes with the £948 optional Activity package that, bizarrely, includes black-tinted windows, great for that rock-star look. Parktronic was indispensable and should be standard on all Vianos. The optional Comand multimedia system, comprising CD changer, sat nav and Bluetooth, flattered the clear, business-like fascia but at £2,097 it’s far too expensive.
The Viano is often made to work hard for its living, clocking up high mileages and a lot of time stop-starting around cities (or on the M25) as a taxi. Check service history and the quality of its maintenance carefully. Owners report that build quality is not up to the usual Mercedes-Benz passenger car standards; they note electrical faults, rattles and squeaks in the cabin, problems with the seat construction, air-conditioning and ventilation failures, locking and ignition failures, sat nav failures, stiff manual gearboxes and an alarming tendency towards premature rusting. At least one owner has experienced a fire in the under-bonnet sound insulation material. Other common faults include turbo problems and a build-up of carbon deposits in the diesel engines due to injector seal failures.
Mercedes-Benz dealerships have not been well rated in recent years for their customer service, and some Viano owners report a lack of interest in rectifying any issues — particularly galling given the price of this vehicle and the cost of servicing it. However, the franchises do appear to be picking up, as Mercedes came fourth in the 2012 JD Power dealer satisfaction survey.
There is an extensive list of recalls issued for the Viano and related Vito van since their 2004 launch; the Vehicle Recalls section ongives all the gory details. In recent years the Viano has been recalled for suspension failure, multiple fuel leak problems, overheating in the air-conditioning system, falling-out rear windows, parking brake failures, spare wheels falling off, airbag failures and more. Check that all necessary rectification work has been carried out.