Special delivery

by Haney Louka . Jul 22 2016

There I was cruising in the latest two-seat Mercedes-Benz — thinking about how surprisingly nimble it was for such an affordable vehicle. For less than 40 grand buyers get the company’s ubiquitous longitudinally mounted turbocharged four-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive and a seven-speed automatic transmission. Though there’s no manual offered, the standard-issue paddle shifters keep driver involvement at a consistent high.

And it’s not just the powertrain that impresses: responsive steering and firm but supportive seats with aggressive bolstering make this a well rounded performer.

But, the most surprising thing of all happens when I look in the rear-view mirror and realize I’m driving a cargo van.

Meet Metris, the mid-sized commercial van from Mercedes-Benz. Available in cargo and passenger versions, the folks at Benz hope introducing the Metris in North America will give them the ability to address a previously unmet demand that exists in the marketplace — namely contractor, delivery and shuttle customers that couldn’t previously find the right fit.

The larger Sprinter has been in North America since 2001 under both the Mercedes-Benz and Dodge nameplates, but the company has been building and selling commercial vehicles internationally for several decades.

I stopped far short of implying the Metris corners like a sports car. But my impressions of its powertrain, steering and seats are genuine. And while these things are not likely at the top of customers’ lists when comparing utility vans, the folks whose job it is to pilot their mobile office day in and day out will certainly be thankful if it happens to be a Metris.

Yes, the $33,900 base price is real, and to say the Metris is little more than a shell at that price would also be accurate. While the two occupants of the van will be treated to a comfortable if austere cabin, the cargo area is literally the interior face of the exterior body panels. No liners are present, but that is by design to allow customers to fit up the van as they see fit.

Standard equipment for the Metris includes five-speaker audio with Bluetooth, air conditioning, heated windshield washers, 17-inch steel wheels, 270-degree rear doors and hill start assist.

Our tester added heated power exterior mirrors, a fixed partition between passengers and cargo, window package, a convenience package that includes cruise control and multifunction wheel, a lighting package and a cold weather package that adds heated seats and an auxiliary electric heater.

Conspicuous by its absence on the standard equipment lists of both the cargo and passenger versions of the Metris is a rear-view camera, but it is available as a stand-alone option.

There are other options to enhance the vehicle for those who spend their days on the road, such as an eco start-stop function, navigation, automatic climate control, interior panelling, leatherette for the seats, towing package, driver’s side sliding door, active parking assist, parking sensors and a “bodybuilder” connector for attaching electrical accessories.

The Metris is really a blank slate that invites customization. There are several aftermarket companies that exist to “upfit” the shell by adding shelving and storage specific to customers’ needs. Check out rangerdesign.com for just one example of such a venture.

Of course, I didn’t have a chance to upfit our tester, but I can say the Metris happily swallowed eight foot lengths of lumber with room to spare. The fixed partition limits the maximum cargo length somewhat, but the bottom of the partition extends beneath the seat bottoms to maximize the available space. The large, flat load floor and 270-degree door openings make quick work of getting gear into and out of the van. With a secure, weather-protected cargo floor measuring 1.6 metres wide by more than 2.8 m long, this is space efficiency at its best.

And don’t let that four-banger engine fool you; the Metris is also rated to tow up to 2,250 kg. Unladen, the turbocharged 1,915-kg cube is capable of sprinting up to speed in no time, and the van is easy to handle in urban traffic and while negotiating tight spaces.

This is truly a midsizer, neatly splitting the difference in size between the two sizes offered by the likes of Nissan, Ford, and Ram. It was a sizeable gap in the marketplace, and it just might be what folks are looking for.