If you need to move bulk stuff, you buy a van. If you need to move bulk people, you buy a van with seats in the back.
That’s exactly what these two German models are – goods vans that have been converted to be people movers – in the form of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz Valenteand 2016 Volkswagen Caravelle.
Both the Mercedes-Benz Valente and Volkswagen Caravelle are based on the platforms of their respective van counterparts, the Vito and Transporter, and both are big on getting bodies from A to B.
Just how many bodies? Well, you can get both of these vans with nine seats if you so choose, but the Merc comes with eight as standard. The layouts are quite different, and that comes down to the fact the VW is quite a bit bigger.
For this test we used the vans as a buyer might – we took eight people (including the drivers) per van to the Hunter Valley from Sydney. Full disclosure, CarAdvice had a staff event up there, and this was as good a time as any to compare these two Teutonic trucksters.
Let’s take a look at how they stacked up.
Pricing and specifications
Obviously the dollar factor is big when you’re looking to move plenty of people. And there are cheaper options out there – you could consider a Hyundai iMax or LDV G10 People Mover if you’re on a budget.
Or, if the whole parcel-van-turned-people-mover isn’t hitting your buttons, you could go for the very impressive Kia Carnival, which sits close to these two on price, but is realistically more of a kid-friendly model that lacks a few of the benefits of these tall-bodied van models.
The more affordable of these two, though, is the Volkswagen, despite its size advantage, if bigger is better. To give you an idea, the VW spans 5304 millimetres long, 1904mm wide and 1990mm tall (so watch the roof in low car parks); the Mercedes is 5140mm long, 1928mm wide and 1890mm tall.
The Caravelle is priced from $49,990 plus on-road costs, and the only option fitted to our tester is its metallic paint ($1190).
The Mercedes is quite a bit dearer, kicking off from $58,100 plus on-road costs. Our test vehicle had quite a few options boxes ticked, including satellite navigation in the form of the Becker Map Pilot unit ($900; we’ll get to that later), electric side door sliders ($2490), tinted windows ($390), anti-theft warning ($590), and the Driving Assistance Package ($1480), which includes Collision Prevention Assist, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, rain-sensing wipers and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. All of those bits added $7340 to the price tag (total: $65,440 plus on-road costs).
As for standard equipment, there are a few items that separate these two.
Both have the essential Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, backed by colour multimedia screens – the Volkswagen’s being a 5.0-inch touch-capacitive unit; the Mercedes’ lacking touch controllability but with a slightly larger 5.8-inch screen. The VW has an eight-speaker stereo, where the Merc has 10 speakers. We’ll get to the pros and cons of those in the interior section.
Both have digital speedometers and detailed trip computers on their respective centrally mounted driver info screens – good for those using these vans as tools of the trade.
The VW has dual-zone climate control up front and a third controller for temperature and ventilation in the rear, where the Merc has only single-zone settings for the entire van.
As mentioned, the VW comes with nine seats standard where the Merc has eight – you can option a ninth seat that slots in alongside the front passenger (labelled the Comfort Front Passenger Bench) and it costs $690.
The Mercedes-Benz gets 16-inch alloy wheels where the VW has 16-inch steelies with forgiving plastic hubcaps. The Benz also betters the VW with automatic-off headlights (both have lacklustre halogens, though) and the Benz also has rain-sensing wipers.
If you’re buying a big bus like this to move people, then safety could well be high on your priority list. It’s high enough on ours to warrant its own sub-category here.
And there’s a big omission on the part of Volkswagen in that regard, and that is the lack of potentially life-saving curtain airbags. That’s right, the brand doesn’t offer curtain airbag protection for rear-seat occupants as standard, or even as an option – and that comes down to the fact the Caravelle is so damned long. The smaller (shorter-wheelbase) Multivan has curtain airbags, but the LWB model of that range – like the Caravelle – doesn’t get the goods.
Still, the VW has dual front airbags and dual front-side airbags.
The Mercedes-Benz has the full complement of crash inflatables, including dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags, and the Benz also has a more advanced electronic stability control system with a high-tech and very handy Crosswind Assist system that is designed to “reduce lateral displacement in gusty side winds”. It did exactly that – more when we get to the road manners section.
It also has Attention Assist that detects if the driver may be fatigued, and a clever semi-automated parking system that can detect and help park the van (reverse-parallel parking). And while the collision warning system is optionally available on the Benz, that tech can’t be had at cost on the VW.
Both vans come with a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors, but the Merc betters the VW with front sensors, too. And on our Caravelle the camera either wasn’t set up right, or was faulty, as it defaulted to display the sensor graphic rather than the camera monitor – if you hit the button on the screen it would show up. But it shouldn’t have been like that, and VW admits that.
Let’s talk layouts before we go any further.
The Mercedes has a three-row configuration, with two seats up front, three seats in the middle and three in the back.
The VW has a four-row layout, with two seats up front, two in the second row, two in the third row and three in the fourth row. And because of the way they can be configured you can walk from the side door to the rear through what is, for want of a better term, a hallway.
Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz Valente (top); Volkswagen Caravelle (middle and bottom)
That is, if you configure the second and third row seats to one side – which you can do, if you need to – but for balance we retained the layout that the van came in, which was the second row on the driver’s side and the third row on the kerb side. So it was kind of a snaking hallway in this instance.
But the fact you can move the seats around is a positive, and you can remove them too if you need to – just ask a mate to help. You can’t slide them fore and aft, though, so quick adjustments are non-existent. The Merc has slide adjustment for both rows, which could be great for people who have a lot of luggage but not a big physical presence.
On the topic of luggage, the fact the rear row can be easily slid forward in the Merc allows it better usable space than the VW, which has a shallower area for bags and the like. In both vans you can slide luggage under the rear row of seating, which is handy, but those seats are pretty hard to slide forward in the Merc, and they’re quite the task to remove from the VW. Officially, the VW can hold a maximum of 6700 litres of cargo with all the rear seats removed. The best the Merc can manage – because the seats slide but can’t be ditched – is 3600 litres. The VW also has hardcore luggage tie down points if you need them.
As for access to the rear seating, the Benz’s optional electric sliding doors won a few people over (especially when the drivers did the party trick of opening them using the button on the key fob). The manual sliders on the VW were easy enough to operate, and the doors light enough, too – and you can option dual side sliders if you so desire, too (at a cost of $2680, including electronically latching tailgate).
On the topic of tailgates, both are very large, and quite hard to open in confined spaces. Neither are electric, which is annoying, and the Benz’s was finicky, requiring it to be closed just so in order for it to latch properly. Short drivers may also struggle to reach the boot lids, even with the dangling grab donger (that’s the official term, yeah).
While the VW had a hallway to enable its occupants to be backseat bandits, the Benz featured a folding and flipping second-row outboard passenger seat. The second row middle and driver’s-side seats fold but don’t tilt, so access is best attempted on the kerb side. That said, the entire second row can be slid at once using the low-mounted lever at the rear.
And if you’re going to use this as a mover of little people rather than a bus for grown-ups, both models have four ISOFIX points. The VW has four top-tether points (in the second and third rows), and the Benz has six top-tether locations (all rear seats).
No matter their size or age, the rear occupants will appreciate the fact there is lighting for everyone in the back. The Benz has side-mounted lights with vents, whereas the VW has strips of lighting and ventilation outlets built in horizontally across the ceiling of the cabin.
Generally, the occupants of both vans appreciated the fact the Valente’s seats were individually sculpted, which made it feel more like they had their own spots. In the VW, the benches are quite flat, and that meant there could be some undesired leaning on one another.
And while the VW has more seating, it doesn’t necessarily offer occupants more space – the fourth row was said to be “a bit claustrophobic”. That wasn’t a complaint made in the back row of the Merc because of the sliding second row seats.
The Merc’s front seats also had some niceties that the VW’s lacked, including lumbar adjustment for both, and centre armrests, which were missed in the Caravelle on our road trip. It’s worth mentioning, too, that the Benz is much easier to slide into up front because it has a lower hip point – the VW requires you to hoist yourself up to the cockpit.
As for the design of the front cabin, the Mercedes has more dashtop storage, with three little caddies for documents and the like, where the VW has a single dashtop folder holder. Both have integrated cup-holders on top of the dash, too, and the front door pockets of both models offered excellent space for bottles and lots of other odds and ends.
Cup-holders were a sore point for those in the back of both vehicles, namely due to a lack of them. The Merc has a bottle holder on either side of the third row seat, but there aren’t any for those in the second row. And all three rear rows of the VW go without cupholders, even in the armrests that are built into the walls of the van. But that should theoretically mean fewer spillages…
The VW’s screen may be low resolution, but the fact it is touch operable is a positive when you consider the Merc’s dicky little button and joystick setup. You look at the Benz’s screen and you instantly think it will be a touch-capacitive thing: in fact, a few front-seat occupants poked it on test, only to see the dreaded liquid crystal storm cloud on the screen.
And the bad bit is that this is the best Mercedes has to offer in its van range. Even if you want to spend more on a better media system, you can’t – and we know the brand has some decent systems, because its car range is full of them.
The VW can be optioned up to a 6.3-inch unit with the brand’s App-Connect system to mirror your smartphone on the screen. This would be a great upgrade for potential purchasers, but it’s pricey at $1190 and still relies on your phone data for mapping. If you want satellite navigation built in with the App-Connect system, that’ll cost you $2190.
The VW at least offers simple phone connectivity and intuitive menu systems on the standard-fit media unit. We had zero issues connecting multiple smartphones via Bluetooth and USB.
That wasn’t the case with the Benz, which insisted that a colleague’s phone didn’t exist for a good 10 minutes. And then it refused to work with that exact same phone via the USB input, too. It was also glitchy when we did get it to connect to BT, and the sound system of the Benz offered less clarity and worse bass than the VW according to our road-trippers.
Both of these vans have four-cylinder turbo diesel engines, with the Valente’s 2.1-litre unit churning out 120kW of power and 380Nm of torque, and the Caravelle’s 2.0-litre falling a little short, with 103kW and 340Nm.
But there’s a big weight advantage to the VW, which has a kerb weight of just 1857 kilograms. The Merc is a full 403 kilograms heavier, at 2260kg, and that was noticeable in the levels of performance on test.
The VW’s front-wheel-drive underpinnings meant it wasn’t as polished in the way it went about its business. That in part comes down to its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (DSG) gearbox, too, and as a result we noticed some frantic wheelspin under both hard and mid-strength acceleration from a standstill, and there was alsothat take-off lag that we’ve come to expect from vehicles with these gearboxes, which can be exacerbated by the turbo diesel engine’s lag below about 2000rpm.
That transmission was also eager to downshift when braking, and it also has a coasting feature so the gearbox disengages when you’re cruising on the street or downhill and take your foot off the accelerator.
Those points aside, the transmission offers very smooth shifts at speed, and it proved a very good highway cruiser, with adequate – but not admirable – torque on offer with eight bodies on board. When it’s empty, the Caravelle has heaps of grunt. But the fact the VW is front-wheel-drive also meant there was some torque steer, when the steering wheel jerks to the side under throttle.
The Mercedes-Benz, with its rear-drive layout and conventional seven-speed torque-converter automatic, was smoother around town. But it wasn’t perfect, either.
The way the throttle is calibrated in the Benz may well be set up to ensure smoother progress, as it feels like it doesn’t have as much pep when you put your foot down. That could also come down to the big weight disadvantage it has, because while the engine still has some lag from a standstill it just doesn’t feel as urgent as the Volkswagen in any situation – whether you’re taking off from a set of traffic lights in the city or you’re planting your foot for a sudden overtaking move on the freeway.
Further, the Benz’s gearbox is slurry in its shifts at lower speeds, where the Volkswagen feels more precise and rapid (when you get out of first gear).
On paper, the Caravelle claims considerably higher fuel use at 7.7 litres per 100 kilometres compared to the Valente’s claim of just 6.3L/100km. On test, however, the VW used a touch less fuel at 8.7L/100km when lugging a load compared to 8.8L/100km for the Merc.
As for steering and suspension, these two were again quite distinct.
The Mercedes’ suspension was definitely set up more for comfort than absolute control, and its damping meant it felt softer over bumps and the like. We noted with eight bodies on board, though, that it could reach the end of the suspension travel over speed humps and the like. It also exhibited some front axle smack down after a sharp bump that wasn’t evident over the same bump in the VW.
The Caravelle, with its firmer damping, is seemingly focused on better body control after a bump. That meant that when it was empty it rode a bit more rigidly but with better big bump absorption, and with people on board it was notably stiffer, but not to the point of being uncomfortable.
The steering of the VW required more involvement from the driver because it was more natural feeling from the driver’s seat, but it was also a bit heavy at low speeds. The Merc lacked the level of connected feel that the VW had, making it a bit harder to judge your positioning of the vehicle on the road, but it made up for it with a light action and a much, much tighter turning circle: simple inner-city U-turns in the Benz saw the VW require a three-point turn.
The biggest advantage of the Benz during our testing, though, was that Crosswind Assist function, which subtly brakes the wheels on the side of the van that is copping the gust, which essentially helps it steer into the wind – very handy considering the slab-sidedness of these two boxes on wheels. We just so happened to have 80km/h gusts during our testing, and we might not have otherwise noticed this excellent feature.
The VW, by comparison, was hard work. Both drivers felt as though they were constantly playing at the wheel to hold a straight line of progress.
But the VW won points back with its braking performance. It offered considerably sharper response with and without human cargo, despite being a little too grabby initially. The Mercedes’ brakes were dull, wooden, and slower to respond during testing.
The VW also offered better vision from the driver’s seat, with a clearer view of the vehicle’s surroundings by way of larger front glass sections, a more upright windscreen, and its higher body made for better rear vision over the sea of smiling faces for cautionary glances backwards.
The Valente’s more sloping windscreen and larger B-pillars meant it was harder to see out in tight intersections, and while it had a low beltline allowing good over-shoulder vision (and good outward vision for those in the back), the lower roof meant it was harder to see anything in the rear-view mirror.
And while there was plenty of chatter in each of these vans during our testing, the VW was notably noisier on the open road at freeway speeds due to both wind and road noise. Oddly, though, the Merc was louder in our urban testing by a couple of decibels.
The Volkswagen comes with three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty cover, while the Mercedes-Benz is covered by that company’s van warranty program, spanning three years/200,000km.
The Volkswagen has a six-year/90,000km capped-price service program, with maintenance due every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first. That could be a problem if you do a lot of mileage, because it’s not what you’d call affordable to service – the minimum average cost over that six-year period is $605 per visit, and that’s before you include some additional filter costs and brake fluid.
Mercedes-Benz offers a pre-purchase servicing plan in three different buy-in levels: BestBasic (maintenance); SelectPlus (maintenance with repairs, not brakes or parts); and Complete, which is the whole shebang, including some wear and tear (but not tyres). The plans cover up to 30,000km per year, and the prices are: $57.36 per month for the BestBasic (three-year term); $96.18 per month for SelectPlus (four-year term); and $105.25/month for Complete (three-year term). The Benz requires maintenance every 12 months or 25,000km, which will appeal to long-haul drivers.
With eight bodies per van on our test, we asked each to vote on which they preferred overall – and the result, like the verdict in this test, was close.
The Mercedes-Benz Valente attracted eight votes. So did the Volkswagen Caravelle.
One thing our honorary judges kept coming back to was the fact the VW is so, so much more affordable than the Mercedes. If you have fifty grand, you can get the Caravelle. If you can only afford fifty grand, you can’t get into a Valente – unless you’re quite the smooth talker and want to fancy your chances at the nearest dealership.
All that said, the Valente felt the more premium offering here, and as such justifies its extra cost – to a degree. It wins on safety, it wins on drivetrain refinement, and it wins on road manners for the most part. And, as such, it wins this test.
The Caravelle, it should be said, offers a brilliant amount of people-moving real estate for the money, but feels built to a price as a result. We can’t overlook the fact it doesn’t have the aforementioned curtain airbags available, and it runs second here as a result.
Still, it was very close.