I never thought I would see the day when a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson stood in front a group of media to compare the brand’s latest product to the long dead Chevrolet Astro. For those who don’t recall the Astro, it and its GMC-badged twin the Safari, were rear-wheel-drive midsize vans built from 1985 to 2005. Since the end of the Astro’s production run, no manufacturer has offered a similarly sized van in the U.S. market, until now. Starting in the first week of October, roughly 270 Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner dealers will begin selling the Metris which has been available in Europe as the Vito.
Here in the U.S. most drivers only associate the Mercedes-Benz brand with luxury sedans, coupes, SUVs and sports cars. In the rest of the world, Mercedes-Benz sedans are commonly used as taxis and the three-pointed star adorns approximately 800,000 commercial vehicles annually including buses, heavy trucks and vans of various sizes. The best known of those is the full-size Sprinter which ushered in the era of the Euro-style van here in North America. Since arriving here in 2001 badged as a Freightliner, the Sprinter has been sold as a Dodge and now under its original branding and inspired Ford and Fiat Chrysler to bring their own Eurovans to this market.
Whether the new Metris ultimately has the same impact as the Sprinter remains to be seen, but at the very least, Mercedes-Benz vans product manager Mathias Geisen’s prediction that the Metris will have 100 percent of the midsize van market one year from now is likely to be true. Since the 2005 demise of the Astro, no similarly sized van has been offered here and no other automaker has expressed their intention to do so.
Before we went out for a drive on the roads north and west of Ann Arbor in the Metris, Geisen provided some background on Mercedes’ history with vans. Daimler AG has a long history of firsts in the auto industry starting with the 1886 Benz Motorwagen. In 1896, Gottlieb Daimler built the first motorized truck and the same year, Karl Benz added a box to one of his chassis to create the precursor of the van.
In Europe the Vito is available in multiple configurations including front, rear or all-wheel-drive with two wheelbase and three body lengths. Power over there comes from a range of diesel engines. For its American introduction, Mercedes-Benz has opted to keep things a bit simpler with only one body size, rear-wheel-drive and a turbocharged 2.0-liter gasoline-fueled four-cylinder backed by a seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes is offering a bit of variety by making the Metris available as either a windowless, two-seat cargo van or a full-window passenger van with up to eight seats.
In the last few years, the full-size van hasn’t been the only segment invaded by Euro-style vans. For many applications big vans like the Sprinter and Transit are simply too large, especially in urban areas. Small vans like the Ford Transit Connect and Nissan NV200 have become increasingly popular. While Mercedes has a similarly sized van called the Citan but opted to offer the larger Metris for those customers that needed something a bit larger. The Metris is just over a foot longer than the long-wheelbase Transit Connect and the cargo version has a 900-pound payload and 60 cubic-feet storage advantage.
We had an opportunity to drive both variants and I came away impressed with both. From a design perspective, the Metris is nothing particular to write home about, it is after all a van first and foremost. Not that there is anything wrong with that. A van after all is a functional vehicle designed meant to carry people or cargo. The design flourishes are largely limited to the front fascia which is clearly a Mercedes-Benz.
Inside, the fit of panels was up to the levels expected of a Mercedes-Benz but in keeping with its primary role as a commercial vehicle where durability is called for more than luxury, the dashboard is covered in hard plastics rather than soft-touch materials. The steering wheel is adjustable for height, but unfortunately not reach. Both the cargo and passenger vans get the same dashboard layout and front seats although our cargo van had cloth upholstery rather than the leatherette in the passenger van. The cargo van featured a partition directly behind the seats which limited seat travel but probably also contributed to the quiet environment up front despite the empty cavern behind.
The passenger van is fully trimmed out with three rows of seats and the middle row is available in two or three seat configurations. Both vans can be outfitted with either side-hinged, vertical-split rear doors or a top-hinged tailgate. However, only the cargo van is offered with 270-degree opening doors that fold up against the sides for easy access to loading docks.
We drove both vans unloaded so the performance is obviously not representative of what you’ll experience in most normal use with these vehicles. That said, the performance from the 208-horsepower four-cylinder felt more than ample in both iterations. With the maximum 2,500-pound payload in the cargo van, this won’t be the sort of vehicle you want to take the drag strip except to haul parts, but that’s just fine. The engine is quiet and refined on the road and the transmission shifts smoothly and quickly. Even the automatic stop-start system works with minimal fuss which should be appreciated by commercial users operating the Metris in crowded urban environments.
Even unloaded, the Metris cargo van provided surprisingly good ride quality over a wide variety of road surfaces. This is obviously no sports car but it remained totally composed through some of the twistier rural roads in this area. So far Mercedes-Benz is seeing about a 50-50 order split from dealers between the cargo and passenger versions. The primary expected use for the passenger version will be as a shuttle or livery vehicle. Livery services that have been dissatisfied with the Lincoln MKT since the death of the Town Car will probably be a lot happier with the Metris. Even with all three rows of seats in place, the passenger van still has 38 cubic feet of cargo space in the back.
The Metris is available with an array of driver assist features including blindspot indicator, lane keeping, collision prevention assist and active parking assist that can steer the van into a space just 30 percent longer than the body length. The cargo van starts at $29,945 delivered while the passenger van starts at $33,495. The EPA estimated fuel economy is 22 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined for the cargo version and 20/23/22 mpg for the passenger van. It’s been a long time since I drove a Chevy Astro, but I do recall that it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. While the Metris is close in size to the Astro, any other comparison severely undersells the new midsize Mercedes van.