Mercedes-Benz's Sprinter vans are ubiquitous in Europe, and the luxury cargo carriers have become a more visible presence on American streets as well, where they have robust competition from U.S. manufacturers.
Now the German company is hoping to create a new mid-sized van niche – and dominate it.
Mercedes introduced the Metris passenger and cargo vans early this year. Smaller than the popular Ford Transit – also reviewed here – or Ram ProMaster, but roomier than the Ford Transit Connect or Ram ProMaster City, the Metris vehicles are lightweight, and drive more like sedans. They are also the least expensive Mercedes vehicles for sale in the U.S.
Aimed at the commercial user -- the passenger vans for hotels or rental car agencies running shuttles; the cargo vans for plumbers, electricians or cable installers -- the Metris machines are easy to drive and easy to park. With fuel economy at a claimed 22 miles per gallon combined city and highway, they are also relatively inexpensive to operate.
Despite their carrying capacity and cargo bays, the vans are nimble and maneuverable, and they drive smaller than they look. The front seats ride high over the short hood, where the visibility is generous. The suspension is a little stiff, without a full load, but the steering feels crisp and precise.
The vans are powered by Mercedes' two-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engines, which produce 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, through a seven-speed automatic transmission.
All that torque creates convincing pep, and feels like it's coming from a bigger engine. The Metris is quiet and feels competent around town and on the freeway, accelerating easily in and out of traffic.
The cargo van has a huge open cargo space – in excess of 4x4x8 feet. You could stack a whole cord of wood in there, or move a set of bunk beds with the kids still in them.
The cargo units can also be isolated from the driver compartment with an optional wall, and fitted with refrigeration units, useful for companies transporting food, fruit or other things that must be kept chilled.
The side doors on both the cargo and passenger vans slide open to create very easy access from both sides, and are available as power doors as an option.
The passenger vans are spacious people movers, seating almost a whole baseball team in the three rows behind the driver. The seats are comfortable, though not adjustable, and unlike some more modular vehicles (such as the Chrysler Pacifica reviewed here recently), they don't fold down or tuck away.
They also don't leave a lot of room for luggage. You could scoop up a big crew from the airport, though you might struggle to find room for their bags.
Thanks to the carpeting and seat upholstery, not present in the cargo version, the passenger van rides even more quietly.
I can easily imagine buying one and becoming a sort of an uber Uber or Lyft driver, only picking up large groups of people -- with small suitcases.
The Metris has an advertised curb weight of about 4,500 pounds for the vans, with a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds and a maximum payload of 2,500 pounds.
Mercedes claims the Metris is shorter and has a lower roofline than the Chevy Express, but has a greater payload. At only 13 inches longer, Mercedes says, the Metris has 50% more payload and 45% more power than the Transit Connect.
The payload pales in comparison with something like the ProMaster, which is about the same overall size but can carry about 2,000 more pounds -- when powered by the standard 3.6-liter engine. The ProMaster offers considerably more storage capacity, too.
But Mercedes' general manager for van marketing, Mathias Geisen, said the company isn't going after that heavyweight, heavy-duty customer anyway, for whom things such as ease of parking and fuel economy might not be so crucial. (A Chevy Express with a V-8 engine might get about half the miles per gallon of the four-cylinder Metris.)
"The mid-size van brings some of the capabilities of the large van, but it has better handling, and is the better fit for us in this market," Geisen said.
The starting MSRP for the cargo van is $29,945, and for the passenger van it's $33,495. Those figures compare favorably with similar vehicles offered by Ford and Chevy.
This being a Mercedes, though, the higher-end Metris trim lines include a lot of safety features found in high-end Mercedes sedans and sports cars, such as collision avoidance, lane keeping and blind spot assist systems.
Even the entry level Metris offers some nice technology, including the Crosswind Assist, which will adjust the suspension to account for the vehicle leaning over in a stiff breeze, and something called Attention Assist, which notices the driver is weaving and asks if he or she needs a little break -- with a steaming cup-of-coffee icon on the dash, along with the words "Drowsiness Detected."
For some reason, though, the rearview camera, essential for the limited visibility in the cargo version, does not come as standard equipment. To the van's credit, it does come with an actual spare tire and jack -- an increasing rarity on new vehicles.
But, as the least expensive Mercedes machine, it feels a little like a bargain basement German car. The plastic dashboard and components, and the fabric seats -- though a leather trim interior is available as an option -- feel like they belong in a lesser vehicle, and like they might not stand the test of time and miles.
Mercedes has already penetrated the U.S. large-style van market, up to a point. Of about 300,000 units sold last year, Geisen said, Mercedes' Sprinter accounted for about 10%.
Geisen expects the cargo van to far outsell the passenger van. He also said Mercedes could introduce variants in the future beyond those two models.
In Europe, customers can buy the same van in an all-wheel drive, front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive versions, or as a camper van, and in several different lengths.
"If there is a demand for a 4x4 in the U.S., we already have it," Geisen said.
What America won't get is the European version with the European name. Over there, the Metris (Geisen said it's just a made-up name, meaning nothing) is called the Vito.
When it came time to introduce Vito to the U.S., Geisen said, "We thought because of 'The Godfather' we should not call it that. Vito Corleone was not a good association."
2016 Mercedes-Benz Metris Van
Times' take: European elan for U.S. workers
Highs: Spacious vans that drive like sedans
Lows: Least expensive Mercedes feels cheap
Vehicle type: Five-door passenger and cargo vans
Base price: $33,495 / $29,945
Price as tested: $44,750 / $38,290
Powertrain: 2-liter, 4-cylinder gas engine, FWD
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Torque: 258 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 20 mpg city/23 highway/22 combined
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