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Vans Are Great, But Not For the Reasons Car Writers Gush About

These are versatile work vehicles, not S-Classes with extra seating configurations.

byNeal Pollack|
Culture photo


Nothing excites car writers more than vans, and Mercedes vans, everyone pretty much agrees, are the best vans. Therefore, with a collective grin, overnight bag, and chubby, the automotive journalists of America last week descended on Charleston, South Carolina, for Mercedes-Benz's annual “van program.” This was an opportunity to be Euro-style workmen, just for one day.

To go along with our motoring jollies, Mercedes offered a couple pieces of news. First, they’re offering a pared-down version of the midsize Metris work van, starting at $25,995, or just a few grand more than what Ford and Ram are offering for similar vehicles, but with a better payload and tow capacity. Second, and more important, Daimler broke ground last week on a massive new van-construction facility in a swampy suburb of Charleston. This is good news for Mercedes, because they no longer have to ship their vans over from Europe in pieces. Now, they'll have half a chance to compete against the ProMaster and Transit Connect in a crowded American market. It’s also good news for South Carolina, because there will be new jobs. As a local friend of mine said, “it’s about time they made something around here besides sandwiches."

The day before the groundbreaking, Mercedes presented us with a series of vans with the words “Master Solutions” written on them. In general, one should be wary of a “master solution” offered by a German company, but in this case "master solution" is really just shorthand for “modular work truck.” These vans are remarkably adaptable. There were resort-sized 15-passenger Sprinter models with all kinds of seating configurations. Some of the Metrixes (Metrices? Metrixi?) had rear compartments with enormous multi-temperature refrigerators, some had nifty cranks that allow you to move a ladder down the roof and back up again, and others bore adjustable shelving units that can be configured like Legos. “Is this a Metris or a Tetris?” I asked, to no one in particular. No one in particular laughed.

As we headed off into the hottest day ever recorded on this or any other planet, my colleagues were exulting about how “fun to drive” these vans were. “It handles just like a Mercedes!” one of them crowed. But I dissent. Just because something has the Tri-Cornered Hat or whatever they call the Mercedes logo on the front, doesn’t make it the Mystery Machine version of the S-Class. People love Mercedes vans for their durability and versatile usefulness, not because they take the turns smoothly. They handle fine, for vans, but they aren’t magic.

First, we lumbered to a warehouse in the former Charleston Navy Yard, to visit a company that makes high-end lighting for millionaires and billionaires. We had a sweltering tour of the facility that included viewings of many frighteningly enormous pieces of equipment, as well as a Mercedes van that they kept behind ropes like some sort of reliquary. It had been tricked up with shelving and a workbench, and gave every appearance of having recently been used by actual workpeople.

Next, we drove a Sprinter to the Port Of Charleston, where we climbed inside another Sprinter, which chauffeured us about, and then stopped so we could walk around the docks. I took selfies, wearing a hard hat, in front of shipping containers. It was so hot that I felt my brains crisping up like sweetbreads in a pan.

From there, my drive partner and I slogged a Metris van with a ladder on top over to a building under construction. By September, this marvelous edifice will be a high-end college of the building arts, but it was still a partial shell when we stopped by. We watched demonstrations of plaster casting, woodworking, iron forgery, and stone carving, performed by people who actually work for a living. My guts boiled and my clothes stuck to my skin like paper wrappers on dim-sum buns. Finally, we slogged across the city, in a Sprinter, to a small factory where they make custom mirrors. l staggered around like a school kid on the last field trip before Memorial Day.

Destroyed by heat madness, I spent the drive back to the hotel screaming at one of my partners, “DONALD TRUMP OWES HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO THE RUSSIANS! THE RUSSIANS, I TELL YOU!” He was not amused by my hysterical liberalism. The steaming workday had extracted its toll on my psyche.

Later, after a shower and three beers, I felt much more composed. As I gulped down a half-dozen oysters simultaneously, a guy from Mercedes asked me and another car guy how we thought the cars might be improved.

“Well,” said the other guy. “The rear visibility could be better. Some of those mirrors are a little concave.”

“Agreed,” I said. Actually, some of the vans don’t have a rear-view mirror at all. It’s hard to see through a truck-sized refrigerator.

“Also,” I said, “all the vans should be electric and should drive themselves.”

My colleague looked at me with disgust, like I’d just farted in his mouth. The guy from Mercedes also seemed surprised. “I’ve never heard someone suggest that before,” he said

Let me suggest it again: The point of vans is not that they’re fun to drive. It’s that they’re useful, that they can haul your stuff around and provide you with a mobile work station. The more modular, the better. The Mercedes vans are the most modular, and therefore are the best. Who needs the hassle of driving them, too? Work is stressful enough. If these are really supposed to be mobile offices, then let’s make it happen. The workdays are hot enough already.