The least expensive Mercedes is among the most versatile

Today's automakers love nothing more than the chance to target "white space" in the market. The opportunity to fill a product niche that has somehow gone unexploited by other manufacturers gives companies the chance to flex their creative design and marketing muscles, all while giving executives the opportunity to claim that their vehicle is a mold-breaker, the first of its kind.

The 2016 Mercedes-Benz Metris shown here is just such a model -- it's a tweener light commercial vehicle, sitting just below the Three-Pointed Star's popular full-size Sprinter range, yet it's larger in footprint and capability than today's small "vanlets" like the Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200 and Ram ProMaster City. With an overall length of 202 inches, a cargo volume of 186 feet and a towing capacity just shy of 5,000 pounds, it lives somewhere in the murky midwaters between established van segments. Mercedes is hoping the midsize Metris is their load-lugging Goldilocks.

If you're looking at the Metris as an upscale minivan, a premium-branded rival for the Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna (which are about the same size), you've got things a bit wrong. Mercedes tried that strategy that awhile ago with its R-Class, and things didn't go terribly well. Even in passenger-toting guise, the Spanish-built Metris' powertrain and interior still suggest it's geared more toward commercial usage, meaning things like taxi or airport ferrying services, or in panel-van spec, utilities and services like plumbing, cable companies and Internet grocery delivery companies. The Metris will still fit in normal residential garages, however.

Think of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz Metris as a junior Sprinter.

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To be clear, while this vehicle is new, it's new to North America. As the world's biggest manufacturer of commercial vehicles, Mercedes has been offering this model in Europe and other markets for some years now, albeit under the Vito moniker. It changed the van's name to Metris in the US market (a play on "metropolitan") after focus groups acknowledged the Vito nameplate's, well, "Corleonean" associations.

Now that we've got all that market positioning stuff out of the way, let's take a look at the Metris itself. This rear-wheel-drive van is powered exclusively by a 2.0-liter gasoline-fed turbocharged four-cylinder -- no diesel engine offering is on the table at present. This well-mannered powerplant puts out a middling 208 horsepower and a workmanlike 258 pound-feet of torque exclusively through a seven-speed automatic transmission. Beyond a well-behaved optional stop/start system, there's nothing particularly cutting-edge about this powertrain, but perhaps there shouldn't be -- commercial vans are all about reliability and low operating costs.

Speaking of operating costs, fuel economy ratings have not yet been released, but Mercedes admits they are expecting 23 miles per gallon combined. The Metris prefers to run on high-octane fuel, but those same reps assure it'll run just fine on 87 octane.

The Metris' boxy form prioritizes cargo and passenger room over aesthetics, an appropriate tradeoff.

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For the moment, configurability of the Metris' body is somewhat limited, at least by industry standards. There's one wheelbase, one length, one roof height, and one powertrain configuration. Passenger-ferrying buyers can choose between seven- and eight-seat interiors, and a choice of hard-wearing cloth or leatherette, a $200 option. Cargo schleppers can choose from basics like full-height plastic interior panels to protect their goods, as well as a windowed divider wall between the front seats and 2,502 pounds of payload. Regardless whether one intends to haul people or goods, rear split barn doors are standard, and a single-piece lift back is optional.

On the lilting woodland roads around Ann Arbor, Michigan, I sampled a Metris cargo van and the passenger model shown here in photos. Both proved to be remarkably easy to drive, with surprisingly brisk acceleration, exceptional maneuverability courtesy of light, accurate steering and good visibility. The turning circle is amazingly tight.

If anything, the Metris' brakes seem slightly over-servo'ed, with an initial touchiness that takes some getting used to. Perhaps that's by design in order to prepare for sudden interruptions by wayward pedestrians and red-light-cutting crosstown traffic when carrying heavy loads (my test vehicles were regrettably unladen). Either way, the Metris drives in a surprisingly cultivated manner, right down to the fact that it's much quieter than you'd think, even in cargo configuration.

Everything in the Metris' cabin is logically organized, and finishes are class-appropriate.

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This Mercedes' optional advanced safety features will be impressive to commercial customers, but less so to normal car and SUV buyers, who are traditionally willing to pay more for the latest technology. As such, now-common features like blind-spot assist, collision-prevention assist and lane-keep assist are all available on the Metris, as is a self-park feature.

A rearview camera is also available, but I found its field of view to be too low to be useful in certain situations, like parking lots. Crosswind Assist (a unique system designed to curb susceptibility to drifting in gusty conditions through strategic brake usage), is standard, as is Attention Assist, a drowsy driver monitor.

"Commercial grade" means something different when it applies to light-duty truck infotainment.

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The interior is similar to that of a scaled-down Sprinter, complete with hard plastics and a tinny-sounding, dated-looking Becker infotainment system with available navigation. At least the gauges are easy to read, and the steering wheel swiped from the C-Class is meaty. There's even available dual-zone climate controls.

It's worth noting that in the passenger version, the driver and front passenger's seats are significantly more comfortable than the second and third-row perches, as is typical for this segment. The latter seats are mounted in exposed tracks and can be relocated or removed with some effort, but they don't fold or stow in the floor like a minivan. There's also no opening rear windows and a dearth of cupholders. Again, this is a robust commercial van designed to economically move as many bodies as possible, it's not a substitute for shuttling coddled suburbanite youths.

Entry and exit to second- and third-row seats is easy thanks to available dual power sliding doors.

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As you might expect for something wearing a Mercedes badge, pricing is on the stiff side, with a base US price of $28,950 for the cargo version and $32,500 for the passenger model, both subject to a $995 destination and delivery fee. That actually makes it the least expensive Mercedes you can buy in the US, but it's somewhat costly for the commercial world. (Pricing equivalencies in the UK and Australian markets are difficult to make, as their Vito van ranges are considerably broader and come in different sizes and with different engines.)

Sometimes these white-space product bets pay off handsomely, and sometimes they're the road to nowhere, an answer to a question nobody asked. Of course, Mercedes isn't going into this Metris venture completely blind -- while the original Sprinter's gawkily tall and narrow packaging and similar premium pricing initially created some salability question marks, its low running costs and superior maneuverability eventually won enough converts to create a thriving business. These days, virtually every full-size rival is similar in construction to the Sprinter's so-called "Euro van" design, and sales are strong enough that the company has announced it will build the next-generation Sprinter in Charleston, South Carolina. Mercedes is hoping the same attributes rendered in a smaller-scale package will make the Metris attractive to those who don't need the Sprinter's capability.

In truth, calling the Metris a "white space" product may be a bit of a stretch -- while it will be the only midsize commercial van on the market when it arrives, it's not a new concept. Indeed, Mercedes spokesman Christian Bokich called the Metris' market positioning "an interesting niche, one formerly occupied by the Chevrolet Astro and the GMC Safari ." Remember them? Those General Motors twins haven't been on the market in a decade, but they still maintain a fervent following.

By that lens, the Metris isn't a new idea, but it may just be an idea whose time has come... again.

Mercedes renamed this model Metris to avoid the "Godfather" associations of its European equivalent, the Vito.

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