Loads of fun making sure Mercedes-Benz vans really deliver

Mercedes-Benz Van Experience Live 2016

Mercedes-Benz Van Experience Live 2016 - Credit: Tim Andrew supplied

Vans can lead a hard working life so motoring editor Andy Russell went to Mercedes-Benz VanExperience Live 2016 for some extreme, exciting testing.

Talk about being out of your comfort zone. I was driving a rollercoaster alpine route in a large van more suited to hacking along motorways and all I could think was that this is where James Bond flipped his Aston Martin DBS.

The hill circuit at Millbrook proving ground in Bedfordshire, which doubled for the country roads of Montenegro for that spectacular stunt in 007 movie Casino Royale, was the equally spectacular venue for part of Mercedes-Benz Van Experience Live 2016.

No Aston Martins for us, instead we were putting the Sprinter van through it paces on the undulating route, complete with hairpins bends, blind summits and long sweeping corners. Given the Sprinter is more used to travelling the highways and byways, it acquitted itself well.

It was part of the Drive It section of Mercedes-Benz VanExperience Live 2016, the ultimate test drive from Mercedes-Benz Vans and the UK's largest event of its kind. The UK is the second biggest market for its products after Germany with almost 37,000 sales last year – a far cry from 1974, its debut year in the UK, when it sold nearly 1,500.

With 250 Mercedes-Benz vehicles on site, including displays of specialist variants from 42 bodybuilder and conversion exhibitors, and Citan, Vito and Sprinter vans for testing, the 10-day event was attended by some 3,000 guests and van operators, both sole traders and fleets.

The ultimate test was split in three sections.

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Drive It

The name says it all with guests driving the products back to back alongside key rivals for comparison.

The small Citan van was tested on the handling circuit to simulate urban driving with lots of stopping and starting at junctions, slow corners and roundabouts.

The mid-size Vito was taken on to Millbrook's famous two-mile banked circuit used for higher speed testing to show off its neutral steering and lane keeping. It's unnerving to set the cruise control in the 60mph lane of the high-speed bowl circuit, take your hands off the wheel and have the Vito carry on along the course, turning with the lane on the banked corners – especially with Aston Martins also using the track for testing and blasting past in the outer lane.

Sprinter proved surprisingly capable on the hill circuit for a big, high-sided van through the twists and turns.

Trust It

Mercedes-Benz takes great pride in its market-leading safety systems – the same technology used on its cars – and showed of its electronic stability program (ESP) with an instructor performing an 'elk test' – swerving round an object at 35mph without braking. As the driver takes avoiding action, ESP takes into account the load, stabilising the vehicle as needed by applying braking pressure to each wheel. You hope you'll never use it in anger but it's good to know it can cope with such extreme manoeuvres.

We also took turns to swerve vans through a water-soaked slalom course, again showing off the grip and stability.

Add in demonstrations of self-parking and other safety systems, for blindspot warnings and not straying out of lane, as well as displays about the improved Approved Used Van Scheme and Mercedes-Benz servicing, finance, accessories, insurance and genuine parts it makes you realise it's not just about playing safe but having a huge support network to keep everything running sweetly.

Test It

The highlight of the day. A chance to drive Sprinter 4x4 and 6x6 vehicles on the gruelling Millbrook off-road course. With their selectable low-range gearing the Sprinters hauled their passengers up mud-covered, slippery slopes you could barely stand upright on before plunging into a watery slalom course with drivers delicately weaving these big vans through posts aiming for a clear round without stopping or stalling.

It was great fun but it also got across the serious message of the Sprinter's extreme capability.

As Steve Bridge, managing director of Mercedes-Benz Vans, told guests: 'It is important that we, as a business, work together with the dealer network to keep your business moving.'