If the W168 A-Class was a poorly executed answer to a question few had posed (and nobody at all had asked Mercedes), how do we even begin to assess the Vaneo?
Lets get two things out the way here. First: The Vaneo not only was frightful, it was an inferior product that did Mercedes more reputational harm than any additional revenue or scale it garnered. Second: It clearly began life as a commercial vehicle. Let’s imagine for a moment the product planning meeting that took place when the Vaneo was greenlighted. The desperation in the room, the pinched faces. Did they have any sense of this being a Rubicon? Either way, the decision to reposition the model was clearly a vain hope of clawing back some of the huge losses the A-Class programme was incurring.
Created on a long-wheelbase version of the W168 platform and embodying the same sandwich floorpan construction, the Vaneo was mechanically identical, offering a similar range of engines – a 1.6 petrol or 1.7 litre diesel, with a 125 bhp 1.9 litre petrol unit as the top line power unit. The longer wheelbase not only improved accommodation, it provided the additional benefit of making the vehicle slightly more stable and less prone to falling over in the presence of wildlife.
Not that many were fooled, but any pretence that this was a passenger car model programme falls away when the Vaneo’s styling is subjected to the most cursory scrutiny, because despite the fact it was clearly subject to the stylist’s magic marker, the lack of flourish, recognisable character or any form of visual receipt for the outlay betrays the vehicle’s commercial origins more eloquently than its clumsy sounding name. Fun fact: The Vaneo could lay claim to the World’s tallest tail lamps… in 2001 anyway.
Delayed until then due to quality issues, Mercedes-Benz dressed the Vaneo up as a pseudo-MPV, and jacked up the price to compete with more sophisticated vehicles such as Opel’s Zafira or the sector-defining Renault Scenic. Cars such as these were not exactly fault-free, (nor indeed was the Merc), but they were immeasurably better developed, more finely honed and spectacularly better value than the Swabian interloper. UK’s What Car slammed the Vaneo’s ride, driving position, questioned its value for money, and summed up that it was overpriced for what it was. Parkers too highlighted the “hard, almost permanently uncomfortable ride” and the lack of lower back support from the front seats. They also criticised the excessive engine noise and ‘lowgrade’ plastic trim inside the cabin.
The Vaneo’s production life was mercifully short – especially by Mercedes standards, taken out and shot in 2005. It was replaced, at least in more upmarket form, by the W245 B-Class line. All of which suggests that the model was merely a stopgap, a pointless if expedient entry to grab a piece of the market until such time as better, more specific vehicles could be readied.
Now it’s all very well being reasonable, but the Vaneo was a shockingly cynical product, most especially considering the three pointed star on the nose. If the W168 represented a watershed, this vehicle provided wholehearted evidence there was no way back from Jürgen Hubbert’s cultural revolution. Combining all the A-Class’ drawbacks such as poor material quality, low-rent interiors, a punishing ride and an odd driving position, but with even less visual appeal, (and a higher asking price), a virtually cast-iron case can be made for the Vaneo as Mercedes’ nadir. Renault’s Kangoo offered a vastly superior product at a third of the price. Madness.
Ironic too, you must agree. Because mixing business with leisure was not a recipe for success or credibility and it’s one Daimler have downplayed since. But not abandoned entirely it would seem, if the current Renault Kangoo-based Citan model is anything to by. We’re well and truly through the looking glass now