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The Mercedes Viano is a family van with a 3.5 liter V6 engine, and seats up to eight people. Andrew Henderson / The National
The Mercedes Viano is a family van with a 3.5 liter V6 engine, and seats up to eight people. Andrew Henderson / The National

Van to van: Mercedes Viano is spacious, but leaves you wanting more

Mercedes-Benz's Viano Ambiente is more than big enough for passengers, but the execution comes up a bit short for what's expected of the brand.

"How about I pick you up today? I've got a big, black Mercedes."

These are words that would normally elicit "ooohs" and "ahhhs" from friends looking for a ride. My acquaintances are well aware of the types of cars parked in my spot on various occasions; sometimes the vehicles are small compacts and completely ignored, while I'm almost forced to give circus rides in the faster, more fancy sets of wheels. And certainly, who wouldn't want a little jaunt in an expensive Mercedes-Benz luxury car down to the cafe or out for groceries?

Except, this one isn't really a car. Oh, it's black, and it certainly is big. In fact, it's much bigger than most people expected as I rolled up to pick them up. This is really nothing like anyone would expect a Mercedes to be.

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It's the Viano, the German company's large van. A van? From Mercedes? The disappointment in my passengers' eyes as they first saw it was impossible to hide. The cachet of the name is suddenly lost in the boxy shape and apartment block-like size of the vehicle. And, to be fair, it's hard not to understand their dismay; it could have been the uber-luxury S-Class, swathed in soft leather and ambiance, or a hot AMG E63 with 525 raging horsepower snorting from underneath its bonnet. But the Viano is none of that, and if you can forget about Mercedes's other products, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Forget about the high power, forget about the absolute luxury, forget about the stares of pulling up to a swanky hotel valet. Well, actually, you won't be able to forget about those; you'll have them, but for the wrong reasons. People will either wonder what this out-of-place behemoth is doing amid the Audi R8s and Rolls-Royce Ghosts, or they will be trying to step in, expecting it to be a hotel taxi.

Yes, it's tall, boxy and, I have to say, kind of ugly, especially compared with the larger sport-utes that would be its main competitors in the large passenger-transporter segment. But those SUVs can't hold a candle to the Viano's carrying capacity. Do you have passengers to move? They will fit here; it almost doesn't really matter how many. There are seven seats in this van, but it is absolutely cavernous in the back, and access with the two powered sliding doors is something an SUV owner can only dream of. It really does have the feel of more of a limousine as opposed to a passenger car or SUV. The seats slide on rails, as does the console, which folds out into a table.

You shouldn't try to compare the Viano with the rest of Mercedes's stable when it comes to power and handling either. But driving the van is an experience on its own; the tall, armchair-like seating position and the fact the Viano leans out of hard turns like a frigate turning on the high seas changes your driving demeanor; for some reason, the sense of speed is altered, and it's actually fun to drive it at 60kph - you feel like you're on the edge. The van-like position of the steering wheel reminds you that you're driving something a little different.

The 3.5L V6 is perfect for this driving style, too. Its 258hp is, shall we say, sufficient for the task. Acceleration is what you would expect from driving a giant brick, but it's smooth and perfectly fine for in town or the motorway, and its performance matches the adequate but limited handling of the van, though fuel economy drops into the low 20L/100km range under some situations. This is one vehicle I'm glad AMG doesn't offer a performance version for; I can't imagine the kind of head scratching by those boffins it would take to turn this into a solid-handling tyre-screecher.

The build quality is what you would expect of Mercedes, but there are some points where I wish the German manufacturer would have instilled just a bit more of its famous luxury, especially at this price point. For being touted as a family van, there is no DVD screen for the kids; a necessary feature for today's travelling family. The seats, while comfortable, aren't as wide or as shaped as you would expect, and they are covered in a rather rough, thick cowhide; good for durability, not so much on comfort and luxury. The interior design is higher quality than most vans but, again, with that chrome tri-star on the steering wheel, you'd expect just a bit more. I also would have preferred a console box between the two front seats; it seemed like such a waste of space. And one truly annoying bit was the reverse camera; absolutely necessary in a vehicle this size, but the radio or sat/nav has to be on already for it to show up on the screen, otherwise it stays blank.

The Viano is certainly perfect for people transit, there's no doubt about that. But is it right for a family, or just for those executives shuttling from hotel to airport? And, would you buy this van simply because it's a Mercedes, when a smaller yet still spacious minivan with more features might do a better job? Or would you rather scrimp on room altogether simply to have a Mercedes for what it should be: a luxury car?

Cachet is a valuable commodity with an automaker, but sometimes it can be a double-edged sword.

 

The Specs

Price Dh163,900 (base) / Dh211,900 (as tested)

Engine 3.5L V6

Gearbox five-speed automatic

Power 258hp @ 5,900rpm

Torque 340Nm @ 2,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 12.1L/100km

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