Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - Marco Polo
Unrivalled versatility, in-cabin comfort, sweet-shifting automatic transmission, SUV-like handling
Room for improvement
Annoying interior rattles, excessive wind noise, lethargic diesel engine, thirstier than expected, archaic infotainment system
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12 Mar 2018
JUST when you thought the German car-makers couldn’t find another niche to fill, Mercedes-Benz has created the Marco Polo Activity – one of the most unique vehicles on the market today.
Is it a van, a people-mover or a camper van? Or maybe a little of everything? The answer, as we found out, is closer to the latter, with the Marco Polo providing most, if not all, of the camping necessities – bar a built-in toilet and shower.
Unfortunately, plans for a weekend camping trip that would’ve truly put the Marco Polo to test were unexpectedly cancelled at the last minute, meaning we were unable to assess it in its natural environment. Nevertheless, we attempted to make the most of its diverse feature set in an urban context.
So, how did the Marco Polo fare? Is it a case of innovation for innovation’s sake? Or has Mercedes-Benz found another niche that really did need filling? Read on to find out.
Price and equipment
Priced from $69,990 before on-road costs, the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo Activity is one of the most niche offerings available in Australia. Standard equipment includes dusk-sensing headlights, daytime running lights (DRLs), adaptive tail-lights, power heated side mirrors, dual 12V batteries, seating for five, a 4.2-inch monochrome digital instrument cluster, interior curtains, manual air-conditioning, a 5.8-inch infotainment system, Bluetooth and auxiliary connectivity, satellite navigation, an auxiliary cabin heater, a pop-up roof, a central folding table and swivelling front seats.
Our test car came with $11,650 worth of options. These included Flint Grey metallic paint ($1490), a Driving Assistance package with forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist and rain-sensing wipers ($1480) adaptive LED headlights with cornering lights ($2800), Tremolite Grey 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 245/45 tyres ($1090), power left- and ride-side sliding doors ($2490), black Lugano leather upholstery ($1550) and a side-mounted silver awning ($750). As such, the price as tested was $81,640.
Alternative options extend to a power sunroof ($1320), foglights ($340), a seven-seat configuration ($1650), black Lugano leather upholstery for seven seats ($2200), a side-mounted anthracite awning ($750), and a Lane Tracking package with blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist ($1180).
The Marco Polo is currently the only vehicle of its kind on offer in Australia.
Volkswagen is reportedly looking at introducing its California camper van to Australia, while other options include concerted vans and trucks, such as the Fiat Ducato, or dedicated motorhomes.
Many people mistake the Marco Polo for a regular van and question why you need such a thing, especially considering it only seats five (as standard). But then the party tricks begin.
If you’re looking to impress bystanders, then this vehicle’s manual pop-up roof is one way to do it. The roof lining is made from a breathable and water-resistant fabric, and features opposing zippered window flaps for ventilation. Standing height with the roof open is around 2350mm, offering plenty of head clearance.
But what’s the point? Well, it also features a roof bed which can support up to 200 kilograms and is suitable for two adults at a pinch. The roof height becomes narrower towards the rear of the Marco Polo, meaning it is best to sleep with your head towards the front.
A foam mattress is also included, backed by a spring suspension that offers reasonable comfort. More than appropriate for a weekend camping trip, we say.
However, closing the roof is a two-person job, as one will need to align the driver-side strut while the other pulls down on the interior grab handle.
So, taking a five-seat camper van on a trip when it only accommodates two sleepy heads seems pointless, right? Don’t worry, the Marco Polo has you covered. The three-seat second-row bench can be folded completely flat backwards to create a lie-down area that measures around 1930mm x 1350mm.
This space is enough to accommodate two adults or three children comfortably.
When this configuration is used, the three second-row headrests can be moved to purpose-built attachments on the backside of the bench. However, you will have to provide your own mattress, but this large space does have plenty of promise and room.
If required, the second row can be removed altogether to provide a large loading area for carrying bulky items. Needless to say, given its light-commercial van underpinnings, cargo capacity is more than generous – removalists, beware. Operation of both second-row functions is easy thanks to the seat rail system with quick-release latches. Pull a couple of levers here and there and not much physical effort is required.
While it is optional, the side-mounted awning delivers a tasty third course.
Much like the pop-up roof, this feature requires two people to operate without catastrophic consequences. Wind up the crank handle and a generous awning is exposed.
It is necessary to be aware of the extendible supports that seemingly emerge from nowhere when opening. On several occasions we had to bat these away before they hit the side of the vehicle – another reason why a second pair of hands is mandatory.
Additionally, the retractable support beams that brace the sunshade need to be properly deployed or a hot mess will ensue. Frustratingly, despite its best efforts elsewhere, Mercedes-Benz did not create a necessary storage space for the awning's crank handle.
Once you’ve had your fun with the three main party tricks, you can demonstrate the auxiliary cabin heater that can be programmed to pre-heat the Marco Polo and keep it warm when stationary.
Additionally, the vehicle also comes with a secondary battery that can be used when the engine is off to prevent the main battery from being drained.
Or perhaps the central fold-out table between the first and second rows will further impress onlookers. If not, the swivelling front seats that spin 180 degrees might do the trick. Just make sure they are fully forward, or you will be blocked by the B-pillars on your way around.
Disappointingly, the tailgate is not powered, requiring manual operation. This can be challenging given the panel’s immense size. We can’t help but think it would be a desirable option, if not standard.
Benz’s infotainment system is another disappointment. Low-resolution graphics, limited functionality and an infuriating user interface mean it is best left in the last decade. Thick A- and B-pillars that compromise visibility are also a bugbear when exiting a park.
Engine and transmission
The Marco Polo Activity is motivated by a 2.1-litre BlueTec turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that produces 120kW of power at 3800rpm and 380Nm of torque from 1400 to 2400rpm. As these outputs and engine speeds suggest, it does its best work in the lower reaches of the rev range.
This unit feels lethargic when attempting to overtake at highway speeds, meaning confidence is not assured. Bury your right foot and an increase in revolutions shouldn’t be expected to change matters.
That being said, the Marco Polo moves along nicely in city traffic, if not quickly. This is mainly owed to its unladen weight of 2380kg that inevitably dulls performance, but a braked towing capacity of 2500kg is welcome.
Drive is exclusively sent to the rear wheels via a seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic transmission that does the job nicely. Gear changes are smooth and imperceptible. The idle-stop is particularly keen, but fuel efficiency is not one of the Marco Polo’s strong suits.
Claimed fuel consumption on the combined cycle test is 6.3 litres per 100 kilometres, while carbon dioxide emissions have been tested at 166 grams per km. In our week with the Marco Polo – which was slightly skewed towards city traffic over highway driving – we averaged 9.7L/100km.
It was concerning to see how quickly the vehicle chewed through its 70L fuel tank, however thirst would be reduced on longer trips that a model of this nature lends itself to.
Ride and handling
Based on the medium-wheelbase (MWB) Valente, the Marco Polo Activity measures in at 5140mm long, 1928mm wide and 1980mm tall with a 3200mm wheelbase. The main takeaway here is its size – this vehicle will barely fit in most garages or multi-level car parks thanks to its pop-up roof, making it a strict street-parking proposition.
However, despite its size, the Marco Polo is a very capable handler that could be easily confused with a mid-size SUV. Steering is relatively direct and its 11.8-metre turning circle is commendable for a van.
Given the pop-up roof and side-mounted awning, the vehicle is top heavy, meaning it is prone to bodyroll during dynamic cornering. As mentioned, the Marco Polo does its best work at low speeds – it is certainly no speed demon.
Riding on an independent suspension consisting of McPherson struts with a stabiliser up front and coil springs with shock absorbers at the rear, the Marco Polo does okay on Australia’s B-roads, save for the usual hiccups when travelling over an unsealed surface or pothole.
However, the ride’s composure – whether good or bad – is accentuated by the number of rattles you hear in the cabin on the move. Despite the success of its unique features, the Marco Polo is undone by the looseness of some.
Specifically, the central tray table and second-row headrests (when folded flat) are the main culprits. Every bump and imperfection is felt, because they are always accompanied with a persistent racket.
Returning the second row to its upright position and placing the headrests where they are traditionally will reduce this unwanted noise, but we found no way to correct the tray table noise. These are issues found in other camper vans.
Wind noise is also pretty bad at highway speeds. The unconventional pop-up roof and side-mounted awning are great when stationery but a hindrance on the move.
This is particularly true on the driver’s side where – you guessed it – the awning is mounted.
The fact that the wind noise can penetrate the cabin and exceed the sound level of a pumping sound system is remarkable, but not in a good way. An occupational hazard, you could say.
Safety and servicing
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the Marco Polo Activity a five-star safety rating in April last year. Test results were based on the mechanically related V-Class.
It achieved 93 per cent in the Adult Occupant Protection, 87 per cent in the Child Occupant Protection, 67 per cent in the Pedestrian Protection and 85 per cent in the Safety Assist test categories.
Standard safety equipment includes the usual electronic stability and traction control systems, anti-skid brakes, electronic brake distribution, crosswind assist, driver attention monitoring, cruise control, a speed limiter, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera and six airbags (dual front, side and curtain).
Additionally, the $1480 Driving Assistance package with forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist and rain-sensing wipers was fitted to our test car.
The Marco Polo Activity comes with a three-year/200,000km factory warranty, while an optional 24-hour roadside assist and capped-price servicing package can be purchased. Service intervals are annual or every 25,000km, whichever comes first.
Most won’t know what to make of the Marco Polo Activity – it is an outlier on the Australian new-vehicle market. Short of buying a full-blown motorhome, such as a Winnebago, this unique Mercedes-Benz model offers a level of versatility that no other van-based people-mover can match.
A pop-up roof with a spring-suspended mattress, a side-mounted awning and a rear cabin that can convert from traditional seating to a large lie-down area are selling points. Add in a central fold-out table, swivelling front seats and an auxiliary cabin heater, and Mercedes-Benz has catered towards a very specific buyer.
However, the inclusion of these features goes hand in hand with a couple of issues – namely rattles and wind noise. In regards to the former, the central fold-out table and folded-flat second row are noisy companions across poorer road surfaces. Meanwhile, the latter sees the pop-up roof and side-mounted awning create an absolute ruckus at highway speeds.
Other downsides include the Marco Polo’s lethargic diesel that is surprisingly thirsty, and poor quality infotainment system. Nevertheless, the deal is sweetened by SUV-like handling and a sweet-shifting automatic transmission.
So, you’re a consistent camper that loves ‘roughing’ it? Step right up, because the Marco Polo is the vehicle for you. Just make sure you only bring four friends, because it will only accommodate five sleepers comfortably (even with its seven-seat option). That is unless someone decides to bring their own tent instead. But that’s 90 per cent of the Marco Polo’s charm – it is the Swiss Army knife of vehicles.
LDV G10 People Mover seven-seat, from $29,990 driveaway
With an impressive standard equipment list that is enhanced by sharp driveaway pricing, the LDV G10 is hard to ignore. But it, like all rivals, fails to match the Marco Polo’s diverse camper-friendly feature set.
Hyundai iMax 2.5 CRDi automatic from $47,290 before on-road costs
Similar to the G10, the iMax offers good value for money as well as vast interior space and luggage capacity, but it is an ageing offering that falls short of the newer Marco Polo that provides more modern kit.
Volkswagen Multivan TDI340 Comfortline from $52,990 before on-road costs
Perhaps the most appropriate Marco Polo rival listed here, the Multivan is backed by the Kombi van’s rich history which involves many camping sites. It is also family-orientated, but its pricetag is not budget-friendly.
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