The lightweight among commercial vehicles: The history of the Mercedes-Benz vans
Stuttgart
Mar 31, 2010
New Vito instead of the MB 100 D with a past
  • Transverse engine and front-wheel drive
  • Commercial vehicle and van in one
  • Bestseller among light vans
The MB 100 D, too, was sent off into retirement just a little later than the T1. It was replaced by the new Vito, under whose short bonnet a transversely installed engine drives the front wheels.
The Vito started out like the Sprinter in 1995 (market launch in Germany: spring 1996) and did its part to make that year go down in the annals as the great van year. In autumn 1995 the company presented the van, which caused quite a stir in the compact
2.8-tonner segment. The Vito – and the V-Class passenger car variant derived from it – had a design feature that was unique at the company in the mid-1990s: transverse engine and front-wheel drive. There wasn't anything like it even among the cars; technically, the Vito was truly one of a kind. Behind this all is an exciting and complicated story, several decades old, thematically and geographically situated on the fringes of the Group and concerning three German motor vehicle manufacturers.
The Vito comes from Spain, or to be more precise, from Vitoria in the Basque country, about an hour away from Bilbao. In Vitoria a group of entrepreneurs decided to establish a vehicle production facility. They founded a company called Industrias del Moto S.A. (Imosa) and won over Auto Union as partner. At the time the former company from Saxony in eastern Germany was in the process of putting down roots in western Germany with new factories. Needing all the support it could get, Auto Union granted Imosa the licence to construct the DKW F 89 L van and in turn took a 50 percent interest in Imosa. Production commenced in 1954. Typical DKW features of the van were: a two-cylinder two-stroke engine up front in the COE cab, front-wheel drive, and as load-bearing platform a tubular frame. Four metres long, the DKW had to make do with
0.7 litres displacement and 16 kW.
In 1958 the then Daimler-Benz AG took over Auto Union. In so doing, Daimler-Benz AG not only acquired ownership of the Düsseldorf plant of Auto Union, today the main Daimler van plant in Germany and home of the Sprinter, but also Auto Union's shares in Imosa and thus in the Vitoria plant. In 1963 a new model, the F 1000 L, was launched there, which continued to have the typical DKW features and boasted an exciting (by the standards of those days) body designed by the Italian bodybuilder Fissore. The influence of Daimler-Benz AG is shown, for example, in the F 1000 D, the diesel version produced starting in 1964, featuring the OM 636 with 1.8 litre displacement. This engine was based on a licensed Spanish design built by an affiliated company (Emasa).
In 1965 Daimler-Benz AG handed Auto Union over to VW, retaining the plant in Düsseldorf, but not the stake in Imosa, which was 25 percent at the time. VW in turn soon increased its stake in Imosa to 75 percent. Neither Imosa (VW) nor Emasa (Daimler-Benz) turned out to be models of individual success, however. And so the two candidates tried their hand at it together, merging the individual companies into a new business called Mevosa. Written out, the name was long: “Compania Hispano Alemana de Productos Mercedes-Benz y Volkswagen S.A.” As early as 1976, however, VW got out of the company, and during the next few years Daimler-Benz AG became majority owner of the Spanish company in several stages.
In the meantime, for several years Vitoria had been producing the large T2 vans called “Düsseldorfer”; from 1975 it built the N 1000/N 1300 vans – with the exception of the Brazilian trucks the first vehicles from Mercedes-Benz with the three-pointed star to originate outside Germany. The two-stroke engine belonged to the past, but the basic design – front-mounted engine in the cab, front-wheel drive and tubular frame – could be traced directly back to DKW.
The successor series, the first generation of the MB 90 to MB 180, featured the same basics. Outside Spain this model series was largely unknown, but that was to change with the next generation in 1986: the new series MB 100 through MB 180 D was offered in Germany (as MB 100 D in two wheelbases) and other countries. Maximum
3.5 tonnes GVW, pre-chamber diesel engine with 2.4 litres displacement and 53 kW – known in the car sector as the legendary, indestructible “taxi diesel” from the 240 D – these were the hallmarks of the new series. The engine was positioned, unchanged, up front in the COE cab, and front-wheel drive and tubular frame were the other familiar parameters.
Modern short-nosed body
But then a new era began in autumn 1995 with the Vito. The only thing it inherited from this eventful history was the front-wheel drive powered by transversely installed engines. The engineers now put an up-to-date body on top of this with a short bonnet, a dynamic swage line along the sides and a strong suggestion of a wedge shape, with a wide track and a broad-shouldered look. With a height of distinctly less than two metres it fit into the usual garages, multi-storey car parks and car washes. The gross weight of the 4.66 metre long van came to 2.6 tonnes.
The engines were not quite as up-to-date as the exterior of the Vito suggested: it started out with pre-chamber diesel engines, 2.3 litres displacement, 58 or 72 kW, the corresponding model designations being Vito 108 D and Vito 110 D. The petrol-engined Vito 113 played a rather minor role in the range; its two-litre four-cylinder developed 95 kW. The chassis was dynamically designed with MacPherson struts at the front, independent suspension with semi-trailing arms and coil springs at the back, disc brakes on all wheels, ABS as standard – much effort went into the construction of the Vito. Distinctive details of the van included its dashboard, featuring a large middle section with a short gearshift knob growing out of it in the form of a joystick. From the passenger cars of the brand the developers adopted the foot-operated parking brake. The result was that the cab afforded broad through-cab access and an open passage to the rear.
Another characteristic is that the new Vito was limited to a single body. Marketing experts found out that most buyers of a van in the up to 2.8 tonne GVW category choose a variant with flat roof, short wheelbase, a sliding door on the co-driver's side only, and a tailgate. And so the body offering was restricted to precisely this variant, complemented by an optional driver's-side sliding door. The limitations were also due to limited production possibilities in Spain: a high-roof variant simply would not fit through the production line. As the years went on, the only addition to the Vito line was a body variant with hinged rear doors.
V-Class a fusion of van and passenger car
As a derivative of the Vito a new vehicle soon appeared. Designated the V-Class, its arrival in 1996 enabled Mercedes-Benz to interlock the van and the passenger car. At first the model name Viano was planned (it would be used in the next generation from 2003 on), but the term V-Class was supposed to underscore the new vehicle's membership in the range of cars with the star. Excellently equipped and technically upgraded by an air-sprung rear axle, the V-Class also wanted to lure car drivers to whom an estate did not appear spacious enough. But the V-Class only managed that to a limited extent. Derived from the commercial vehicle Vito, it only partly met the wishes of demanding car buyers and could only partly fill the role intended for it – unlike the Vito, which was regarded as the benchmark in its class in important markets and opened up the light van market to Mercedes-Benz.
The overall demand was big enough though, so that the Vitoria plant was working in three shifts beginning in spring 1997 and its capacities were fully stretched. In the peak year 2000, Vito and V-Class combined for an annual output of just under 90,000 units. The Vito was helped in this by an extension of the range beyond practical panel vans and crewbuses. There was the Vito L, for example, a well equipped crewbus for upmarket requirements, or the Vito F, an attractive recreational vehicle with a folding bench seat, or the compact Marco Polo camper van, a product of cooperation with Westfalia.
A thorough upgrading in 1999 literally gave the Vito additional impetus. Ultramodern CDI diesel engines arrived. The 2.15 litre four-cylinder was available in three output categories up to 90 kW. Common-rail injection, four valves per cylinder, electronic engine control – the three letters CDI stand for state-of-the-art engine technology. CDI not only resulted in remarkable output, but great pulling power as well: in the most powerful version, the 112 CDI, the Vito obtained maximum torque of 300 Newton metres across a broad engine speed range from 1800 to 2500 rpm – no one had more to offer. Redesigned instruments and fine touches to the seats and gearshift completed the refinements to the Vito and made it fit for the second half of its life.
The new Vito gets a live rear axle
After more than half a million units of the Vito and V-Class had been sold, the new double series Vito and Viano premiered in summer 2003. With swept swage lines on the flanks, the design clearly took up elements of the predecessor, but was given an appreciably softer touch with almond-shaped headlamps and an almost oval radiator grille as well as arch-shaped side windows.
Under the attractively designed outer skin, which despite tremendous functionality had so very little in common with a conventional panel van, everything had changed. Longitudinally installed engines and rear-wheel drive meant, first of all, better driving dynamics and, secondly, the possibility of falling back on the modular components of the group. With this type of drive, Vito and Viano had now shaken off all the traditions of Vitoria history. The 2.15 litre (unchanged) CDI engines developed a full 110 kW; their power was transferred by six-speed manual transmissions. Bullish V6 engines with at least 140 kW allowed the petrol-powered models to speed to the fore. With these a five-speed automatic transmission with torque converter came as standard and was an optional extra for the diesel models.
The comprehensive standard-fit safety equipment included, along with hard-grabbing disc brakes on all wheels, an anti-lock braking system ABS, acceleration skid control ASR, and to top it off, an Electronic Stability Program ESP® – unique in this class.
Unique range of bodies
The same can be said for the offered body versions: two wheelbases, three lengths, two roof heights – who offered more? The version with flat roof retained its roof line of less than two metres. The gross vehicle weights were 2.8 and 2.9 tonnes, and the load rating could be increased by 150 kilograms as an optional extra. The Viano now put its face forward as a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). Likewise available in all three lengths, with the design and equipment lines Trend, Fun and Ambiente it offered a broad selection of equipment, again being supplemented by a compact camper van called Marco Polo, with an interior finished by Westfalia. Inside, the Vito impressed with great spaciousness and with a dashboard elegant enough to grace a car.
This duo of Vito and Viano was a big hit from the start: in the first full year of production, 2004, they set a new record with 94,000 units. As before, they were being manufactured in Vitoria in Spain's Basque country. But the factory was completely changed, its area doubled, and the production processes brought up to state-of-the-art levels. Vito and Viano come off the assembly line together, manufactured to the quality standards of the group's car production. On the plant premises are located important suppliers who deliver complete just-in-time components in the exact sequence in which vehicles are produced. The production logistics are such a model that they earned the Spanish plant an award for best European logistics project.
New thrust delivered by CDI engines
A full year after their premiere, the Vito and Viano received a further push. The diesel fuel injection of the up-to-date CDI engines with common-rail technology was made even more efficient by piezo-electronic injectors. The response time of piezo elements is only about a third that of solenoid valves. Together with the new injection technology a number of power and torque figures increased. The new range of four-cylinder diesel engines now extended from 70 kW and 250 Nm torque to 110 kW output and 330 Nm torque. With the introduction of piezo technology, the fuel consumption figures at all output levels declined versus the previous units in the EU 4/III emission category. Cleanliness was integral to the range anyway: in Germany all Viano models with diesel engine feature a particulate filter as standard; in the Vito models, as an optional extra.
As the new top-of-the-range diesel engine for the Viano and now also the Vito, the
V6 CDI already featured piezo injection technology. And a few other highlights besides: the duo Vito 120 CDI and Viano CDI 3.0 set new standards for engineering, performance and smooth running. The V6 diesel power plant with 3.0 litres displacement set records for diesel engines in the MPV category both with its output of 150 kW and its maximum torque of 440 Nm. The result was effortlessly superior performance. From a standing start the Viano CDI 3.0 accelerated to 100 km/h in just 9.2 seconds and attained a top speed of 198 km/h.
The basis for this was the outstanding engineering of the ultramodern V6 (OM 642) with aluminium crankcase, balancer shaft, four-valve-per-cylinder technology, a total of four overhead camshafts driven by duplex chain, turbocharger with variable nozzle turbine, and the latest-generation common-rail injection. Power is transferred by a five-speed automatic transmission.
All-wheel drive for Vito and Viano
Likewise new were the Vito 4x4 and Viano 4Matic with all-wheel drive. In normal operation the driving power was transmitted to the front and rear axles in a 35:65 split. The all-wheel drive worked together with the Electronic Traction System 4ETS: if one or more wheels lost traction on slippery ground, 4ETS automatically braked the spinning wheels with short pulses, increasing the drive torque at the wheels with good traction by the same degree.
Since autumn 2006 a new instrument cluster in two variants has also upgraded the cockpits of the Vito and Viano. The basis of each are large, clearly arranged dial-type gauges for road speed and engine speed indication. Depending on equipment line, the two are separated by an LCD display or two pixel-matrix displays. These tell the driver the mileage, the coolant temperature, the time, the outdoor temperature and the fuel level (matrix-type instrument: separate indicator for fuel supply). Large lettering and bright illumination ensure best readability.
 
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