Can a Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo win over a camping sceptic?

Can it cope with two adults and two kids on a 10-day adventure?

I am familiar with Mercedes passenger cars and the Marco Polo trades heavily on its connection to them. Pose value only gets you so far, though, even to someone of limited camper van knowledge.

Experience of a previous-generation V-Class-based Bilbo’s De Zine does give me some context, too. Even if that was a very different trip.

From a carefree couple on a Scottish tour to a family of four on a campsite-based French summer holiday, this was going to be a stern test of product. And possibly sanity.

The basics

First challenge? Ferry bookings! Given the subtle looks could I blag it on a car fare? No!

The bikes on the back meant I wasn’t going benefit from the ’van’s height-restrictor friendly sub-2m stature anyway. Thankfully, the premiums weren’t too hefty, both on our outward DFDS Dover-Calais and return via P&O on the Zeebrugge-Hull crossing.

Acclimatisation to the Mercedes Marco Polo wasn’t too hard, especially for someone comfortable with ‘regular’ Mercedes.

This is pitched as a premium product and you get that from the look, quality and features afforded to the driver. It’s not quite an S-Class, but this is a long, long way from a Vito.

If not exactly rapid, the Marco Polo is wonderfully refined on a cruise too, the only annoyance being the seven-speed automatic’s tendency to ‘hunt’ between sixth and seventh, with the (otherwise excellent) Distronic radar cruise control set at a péage-friendly speed. Fuel consumption suffered considerably as a result.

On the plus side, the POI function on the navigation helped us locate campsites for breaking the outbound and return journeys.

Both sites (one in Le Mans, one near Orleans) turned out to be excellent. And the ability to browse and contact potential stopovers while on the move helped keep the travelling flexible, according to the stamina of those on board.

Getting into the swing of things

But the journey is only half the story in a camper van, right? Can a family with two pre-school-age children really survive touring in a vehicle like this?

If you’d asked me on the first night, I’d have said, “no way!”

Our mid-way was Le Mans, a camping pilgrimage I’ve made in different circumstances (and less luxury) to attend the 24-hour race.

This time the beers were a token pair of Kronenbourgs, bought in high spirits on check-in from the campsite shop, then held grimly as we watched the ’van rocking on its springs like a Transit into which two fighting dogs had just been thrown.

A kindly English couple stopped on their way back from the shower block. “First night?” they asked. We nodded. “Good luck!” they said cheerfully.

My wife worried about putting the kids up top but I insisted, on the basis we’d have no living space otherwise.

Thankfully, the pop-on ‘catch net’ seemed secure enough to consider them caged in. And once we established they could each sleep across ways at opposite ends, the nights were (mainly) peaceful.

Mrs Trent complained the main bed was a little on the firm side, but I have to confess I had fewer issues.

More of a problem (until I figured out how to disable them) was the way all the interior lights would come on when going for the post-midnight walk of shame to the toilet block. The powered door was a bit noisy in these situations, too.

The practicalities

What else did I learn, other than I should probably try drinking a bit less fizzy French beer of an evening? Actually, that I’m not too bad at this kind of thing!

The purchase of a couple of large crates – one for kitchen gear and one for outdoors kit – to stow behind the sliding rear bench was a masterstroke for rapid switching between travel and campsite configurations.

For our longer stay near La Rochelle, a tent served as a useful stash space for child seats and other kit. On a sandy site the dustpan and brush got a workout, too. And the venerable Ikea bag is a godsend for bedding, towels and the like.

We even cooked a few meals along the way, though given you’re doing so in the same soft-furnished space in which you’ll be sleeping and travelling, you might want to think about an outside stove or portable/disposable barbecue before doing something smelly like bacon or sausages.

Undercover operation

The best thing about the Mercedes Marco Polo for someone like me, is less the pose value of the three-pointed star on the front and more the fact it doesn’t look too ‘camper van’ like.

Without the £695 Thule awning or Mercedes-branded bike rack (both were appreciated and much-used!) it could serve in daily life as a posh MPV quite happily, as proven by the owner I got chatting to on the ferry home, who uses it for business as a mobile office/hotel and for client transport.

And on-site with the black paint and blacked out windows, it looks amusingly more like a security detail has turned up than a rowdy family. At least until the awning comes out.

The kids loved the sense of adventure. And 10 days, three sites and 1556 miles later, the adults survived with marriage and sanity just about intact.

OK, plenty of third-party firms can sell you something that functionally does the same job.

But for those reassured by buying a factory product as a complete package the Mercedes Marco Polo has a satisfying premium feel, while being credible enough to avoid ‘glamper’ disdain from neighbouring pitches.

For its ability to preach to the (un)converted, it won me over.