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March 12, 2001

Review: 2001 Mercedes-Benz MB100

Weekend getaway to Tagaytay:  long stretches of highway culminating in steep mountain roads with plenty of hairpin turns.  Fresh air and cool weather, too!

The perfect venue to drive a small convertible sports car along the lines of say, a Mazda MX-5 or a Honda S2000, right?   Well, yes, but in our case we chose a different beast altogether: A Mercedes-Benz MB100 2.9 diesel.  Mainly because nine adults and four kids in the Honda would be a little…tight.

So I climbed in, buckled up and got ready to play weekend Bus Driver.

The first time I entered the MB100, I was surprised at how high the seating position is.  The grab handle on the A-pillar isn’t just for convenience—it’s a necessity to clamber a big step up and through the narrow door opening to the driver’s chair.   Once I climbed up, we faced a carlike instrument panel, with the four basic gauges.  The steering wheel is pure G-Liner, though (well, perhaps a little more vertical), and my knees actually straddled the steering column as it plunged down between the clutch and brake pedal.   No left-foot braking for me in this conveyance.   Switches and controls were logically placed, except for the manual right hand mirror, which is quite impossible to reach from the driver’s chair.

The high position pays huge dividends in visibility, as I could see far ahead over the roofs of sedans and even AUVs.  A good thing, too, because the driver will need to plan ahead to pull off stunts like overtaking along the highway or changing lanes in heavy traffic.  The MB100 is long—it is after all a 14-seater van.  Yet it was not that difficult to drive in heavily-clogged city traffic.  Credit the very light (but lifeless) power steering and easy-to-modulate clutch.  Cars seemed to give the van a wide berth also—probably intimidated by all that slab-sided sheet metal blocking their vision.  We drove in downtown Binondo through the El Shaddai crowds on Roxas Boulevard and took the Coastal Road to Cavite.

Clear of traffic, I floored it.  The engine obliged, with abundant torque all the way to its 4500-redline.  The MB100 acceleration can embarrass a sub-1.5 liter car, and we overtook quite a few of those.  But be prepared: with the torque comes exponentially increasing noise.  Rev above 3000 rpm, necessary for climbing or full acceleration, and you’ll suddenly feel as if the rest of the world has disappeared.  It’s just you and the engine roaring there next to your right knee.  Even shouting won’t help.

When driving on level roads, I didn’t have to be that careful in choosing gears.  One too high didn’t really matter.  Add even a hint of an upward slope, though, and the engine struggles—time to downshift!  The rubbery and indistinct gearshift led to more than a few heartstopping moments when shifting from second to first on a very steep hill.  Just before the MB began to plummet backward, I found first gear and away we went again.

The van easily reached its top speed of 135 km/h on the Skyway.  Still, I didn’t want to maintain that for too long, as the van was prone to drifting in crosswinds.  You’ll feel like the captain of a sailing ship as you turn the wheel to compensate for the wind.  Unlike its sedan namesakes, this Merc felt more than a little unstable past 110 km/h.

Interior fittings were strictly hard plastic.  I would have appreciated more space to dump stuff like a phone or handheld, but the center console ended abruptly before allowing for any storage room.  The driver’s chair was narrow and lacked proper back support.  The rear passengers though were comfortable, with plenty of room for walking about and reaching for stuff, but again, not many storage spaces.  Rear headroom was compromised by the dual fluorescent lamps (!) and the aircon vents that stretched all the way to the rear.  Three-point seatbelts for the driver and navigator, two-point seatbelts for the rest.

Despite the large tri-star badges everywhere, the MB 100 is not a genuine Merc.  Its Ssangyong Istana roots are apparent from the Hanglass windows to the Kumho tires, to the not-quite-ergonomic interior and imperfect mechanicals.   The MB100’s designers tried to impart a high-tech look to their creation, with a streamlined nose and multi-reflector head/fog lamps (which were woefully inadequate).  Not bad, but then what can you do with a van—it’s a refrigerator on wheels!   If the Merc were a refrigerator, it would be a Samsung—cleanly styled, with some unique features and good value for money.


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