The new Mercedes V-Class needs to be nothing short of a miracle worker if it's to save Merc's blushes after the poor effort that was the outgoing Viano. Launched in 2004, the van-derived Viano MPV remains on sale until the V-Class arrives in early 2015, but its dashboard hasn't aged well, its four-cylinder engine is coarse, not especially powerful and the V6 produces too much CO2, while safety features are thin on the ground and the rear seats aren't especially clever. We could go on, but a What Car? rating of one star out of five says it all.
Hence the clean slate, aka the V-Class. Except it's not entirely clean because some of the underpinnings and the four-cylinder diesel engine are carried over from the Viano. The 2.1-litre unit has been tweaked to cut emissions and boost economy, which is just as well as it's the only engine available, although there are two power outputs to choose from.
Fortunately, first impressions are very good indeed. The V-Class gets the latest family face, with LED running lights incorporated within the LED headlights and a bold two-louvred grille integrating a large badge. The flanks are still rather slab-sided (there are electrically operated sliding doors on both sides) and the rear is dominated by a large window that can be opened separately from the electrically powered bootlid.
What’s the 2015 Mercedes-Benz V-Class like inside?
One thing's for sure: there's no trace of the old Viano inside. Most eye-catching is the curvaceous new dashboard. UK specs have yet to be finalised, but our V250 Bluetec Avantgarde's dash was lavishly trimmed with a high-quality leather across the dashboard and seats. We're likely to get a choice of piano black and metallic finishes, rather than the wood offered in mainland Europe.
It is a very classy interior, and other standard details such as the chrome-rimmed instrument dials and centrally positioned standard seven-inch infotainment system help to make the V-Class's dashboard one of the smartest we've seen in any MPV.
The new touch-pad controller - first seen on the new Mercedes C-Class - is very clever. If you have any experience of a touch-screen phone or laptop trackpad, you'll probably enjoy using it, although the conventional rotary-controller that's also standard is still easier to use on the move.
Visibility from the driver’s seat is good, and there are front and rear parking sensors plus four cameras that give the V-Class driver a 360-degree view of what’s going on around the vehicle.
The heated and cooled captain's chairs are comfortable and supportive, with full electric adjustment, while the adjustable armrests help to give a relaxed feel at the wheel.
As standard, UK cars will provide room for seven occupants, in a classic two-three-two layout, although there will be a six-seat option (two-two-two), where the chairs are arranged facing each other, creating a mobile lounge arrangement that could be used for meetings on the move. The V-Class can also be set up to seat eight, with a pair of three-seat benches in the back; the base is a single unit but the backs can be tilted individually.
Whichever layout you go for, the seats are located in rails in the floor, and can be slid fore and aft to suit legroom or luggage space. They don't fold into the floor, like those of many rivals, but can be removed altogether, although they're heavy and bulky. This may be a deal-breaker if you like to turn your MPV into a van from time to time.
Large families will like the fact that the third row (in the eight seat layout) can accommodate two child seats with room for a third adult occupant. That's largely because of the V-Class's extra length and width over the Viano; at 537cm, the long-wheelbase V-Class is longer than a big executive car, although Mercedes has dropped the overall height by 20cm – enough, it says, to fit into most restricted-height car parks. There's still plenty of headroom, though.
As you'd expect, Mercedes has equipped the V-Class with a reasonable amount of safety kit as standard, including Crosswind Assist (which automatically increases the steering assistance) and Attention Assist that warns when it senses the driver might be getting tired. Optional extras include kit to help prevent collisions, a speed limit reader, Lane Keeping Assist and a blind spot warning.
It should be noted, though, that the six airbags protect only the front occupants. You'll have to pay extra for 'bags for the rear passengers, which is exactly how it is on the Viano. Far from ideal, in other words.
We also tried the impressive optional Active Park Assist, which uses the parking sensors to find a suitable space before steering into it.
What’s the 2015 Mercedes-Benz V-Class like to drive?
We drove the V250 long-wheelbase model, which comes with a seven-speed automatic gearbox (an option on the V220 CDI). Mercedes says it has worked hard to improve engine refinement - even claiming that this is the 'quietest interior in the MPV segment' - but we're not convinced.
Engine noise is too evident at a standstill, let alone when you're pressing on. In fact, it's very vocal when you're accelerating down a slip road to join a fast-moving motorway. A healthy 324lb ft of torque means you won't have to work the engine too hard for too long, though, and no vibrations make their way into the cabin. The trouble is, wind noise does; you'll notice it around the windscreen and the front pillars at motorway speeds.
The automatic 7G-Tronic gearbox isn't one of the fastest-changing units we've tried, and can be outwitted at times. Gearchanges are generally slick, though, and there are steering wheel-mounted paddles, which allow the driver to take control. Agility Select provides four modes that tweak gearbox and engine settings to favour economy or performance.
Our car came with the exterior sports package, which brings a firmer suspension set-up, and replaces the 17-inch alloys with 19-inch wheels. They look good, but most ruts and drain covers thump their way into the cabin in town, and though the ride does improve at speed, you can still hear the tyres slapping over expansion joints. The speed-sensitive power steering's poor feedback doesn't inspire confidence, either.
At least body control is acceptable for such a large MPV. Sure, you have to expect some lean in corners, but composure over speed humps and motorway crests is good.
Should I buy one?
The V-Class's interior is a triumph. If you need to carry up to eight passengers in luxury and comfort on a regular basis, you're probably an airport taxi driver and won't mind that the rear seats don't fold away to free up more space for luggage, which is good enough in LWB form with all seats in place.
However, with an estimated starting price of close to £40,000, the V-Class is expensive, which is a criticism you can also level at its closest competitor, the Volkswagen Caravelle. The VW costs roughly the same in Executive trim but can't match the Merc's interior quality.
There's no getting away from the fact that too much engine and wind noise finds its way into the V-Class's cabin, which is at odds with the luxury on offer, and the ride quality suffers on large wheels. We expect the V-Class's ride quality will improve on smaller alloys and standard Comfort suspension; the optional Agility Control suspension could be even better as it employs adaptive dampers. We'll report back when we drive more models over the coming months.
What Car? says…
Mercedes-Benz V220 CDI
Engine size 2.1-litre diesel
Price from £39,100 (est)
Torque 280lb ft
0-62mph 11.8 seconds
Top speed 121mph
Fuel economy 50.0mpg
Mercedes-Benz V250 Bluetec
Engine size 2.1-litre diesel
Price from £43,000 (est)
Torque 324lb ft
0-62mph 9.1 seconds
Top speed 128mph
Fuel economy 47.0mpg