Mercedes-Benz is offering van conversions out of the factory for the first time for its smaller vans, starting with model year 2016 V-Class and Citan models.
The Citan is a compact commercial van/wagon that competes against the likes of the Ford Transit Connect. Built in partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, it is produced alongside its Renault Kangoo sibling in France and is not available in North America. The larger V-Class (Vito panel van or Viano passenger van) is marketed in North America as the Metris.
The mobility solutions involve tailor-made conversions to aid driving by people with physical handicaps or age-related movement restrictions, are installed at the factory in Sindelfingen that produces the vans and are naturally covered by the full Mercedes-Benz factory warranty.
Hand controls have long been a staple of driving freedom for those with mobility restrictions, and the vans offer the latest versions of the systems. For example, a joy-stick like module (which can be located on the left or right side of the steering wheel) allows the van to be accelerated by rotating the knob and braked by nudging the stick forward. A different module controls acceleration and braking by pushing and pulling, respectively, on the control knob.
Through it all, the pedals remain active, so the van can be driven traditionally by somebody who doesn’t have the physical restrictions. The pedals can also be covered to prevent accidental engagement by a driver using the hand controls.
The left-mounted signal/cruise stalk can also be operated from the opposite side of the wheel by a system of levers, in order to prevent a left-mounted accelerator/brake module from getting in the way. Another multi-function knob puts controls for windshield wipers, horn, headlight beam control and turn indicators all in one location, again available on either the left or right of the wheel.
“We want everybody to be able to benefit from the safety, comfort and technology of a Mercedes-Benz,” said Klaus Maier, Head of Marketing and Sales at Mercedes-Benz Vans. “With our tailor-made driving and mobility aids for the V-Class and the Citan, we offer full mobility and maximum possible independence to people with physical disabilities. Thanks to their spacious interiors, our vans are also perfect for wheelchair conversions.”
All conversions fall under the Mercedes-Benz “VanSolution” umbrella and can be assembled right into the van at the factory, prior to delivery to the customer. It’s referred to as a single-invoice transaction, where all the conversions are done before the van leaves the factory and the customer just pays for the vehicle. They can also be retrofitted on vans that have already been delivered to buyers. That’s a dual-invoice transaction in that the van is bought and paid for, and then another invoice is issued to pay for the alterations.
For those who require more extensive conversions, such as making vans wheelchair accessible, there is the VanPartner program, through which Mercedes-Benz partners up with van conversion specialists, such as Germany’s Paravan, for comprehensive customizations.
Among Paravan’s conversions is a “docking station” to fix a wheelchair in place behind the wheel or in the front passenger seating position. For electronic wheelchair users, Paravan also includes a Space Drive II controller, which uses microprocessor controlled aids to allow people with further-reduced movements or strength to drive a vehicle more easily.
“We want every buyer of our vans to receive the functionally and economically best solution for his or her individual requirements,” said Maier. “Individual transport tasks often call for equally individual solutions, however. This is why specialised converters and bodybuilders are involved in the development of new system solutions at an early stage.”
Mercedes-Benz claims that 50% of all Sprinter vans sold around the world receive some kind of body or interior conversion, while the conversion rate for the smaller Vito (Metris) stands at about 25%. In Canada, Mercedes-Benz plans to work with local aftermarket companies (as it currently does with Sprinter vans) while studying the feasibility of the factory solutions.