Sarah Wakely
Editor

See other motorhome reviews written by Sarah Wakely

With this smart, sophisticated camper, has the VW California met its match? We pack the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo and hit the road to see what it's made of

Overview

The Volkswagen California is an iconic name in motorcaravanning.

But early last year it received a new rival in the UK: the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo.

They’re both high-end campers with an almost identical layout – there are differences, however.

While the VW California is built in-house and sold via the company’s Van Centre network, the Marco Polo’s conversion is subcontracted to well-respected brand Westfalia.

The latter is also sold through franchised car retailers. The Marco Polo can offer that aspirational three-pointed-star badge on the front, too.

The Marco Polo is based on the Mercedes-Benz V-Class, which was launched in the UK early in 2015, after replacing the aging Viano MPV.

Our testers spent several days away in the Marco Polo, before reaching their full verdict.

How does it compare with the VW California, which with a similar specification costs around the same price?

How does it compare with models by smaller converters?

And how does it fare as a base for tours longer than a couple of nights?

Here’s how we got on.

Design

With the roof down, there’s little to give away that this is a camper van, as opposed to a regular long-wheelbase Mercedes-Benz V-Class – that’s until you spot the subtle Westfalia logo on the top of the tailgate.

Our test model was fitted with the silver roll-out awning (a £715 option) – an awning is standard on the California.

The Marco Polo comes in two variants: the Horizon model – which features no kitchen/wardrobe – and the regular model, which we’ve tested here.

Opt for the latter and you’ve another couple of choices: you can go for Sport or AMG Line trim (an additional £2205, which gets you different body styling as well as sports suspension), and a choice of two 2.1-litre diesel engines, the 220d and the 250d.

There’s no petrol option on the Marco Polo, unlike with the California.

Our Sport-trim test vehicle featured a number of cost options to give it a smarter look, including its Brilliant Silver metallic paintwork (a £665 option) and 19-inch five-twin-spoke alloy wheels (£615) that replace the standard 18-inch rims.

Plenty of other exterior kit comes as standard, though: the list here includes an offside sliding door that’s electrically operated, an electrically operated tailgate, mirrors that fold and dim automatically, tinted rear windows and more.

The ’van features external connections for the electric hook-up and fresh water, both on the nearside.

Emptying the waste water is a little more tricky: first, you need to site the ’van over the waste point, with the outlet hose – located in front of the nearside rear wheel – above.

Then you have to hop back inside, open the cabinet under the hob, and release the shut-off valve within it.

The control panel for most of the Marco Polo’s systems is located in the cab centre console, close to the floor.

This operates the coolbox, the auxiliary heating (which can be set on a timer), the raising of the roof and more.

It also provides information on the water levels from the on-board fresh- and waste-water tanks (38 and 40 litres respectively), the battery and the mains supply.

The unit is relatively easy to use, but does look dated in comparison with the other kit in the cab.

On the road

Our test ’van had the 250d diesel unit with an automatic gearbox (no manual version is available).

It offers 187bhp at 3800rpm and 325lb ft of torque at 1400-2400rpm, which means there’s plenty of oomph available at low revs when you put your foot down. Acceleration from 0-62mph takes 9.8 seconds.

It’s not the most refined engine we’ve encountered, sounding a little gruff when worked hard.

As you’d expect from Mercedes-Benz, the V-Class is packed with sophisticated technology.

Among the standard-fit spec list is an Adaptive Brake System (with hold function and brake drying in the wet), Collision Prevention Assist and Active Parking Assist.

Our test model featured Blind Spot Assist, Distance Pilot Distronic, Lane Keeping Assist and the Pre-Safe anticipatory safety system, an options package that costs £1745, as well as a handy 360-degree camera (£345).

There is some view out of the back from the driver’s seat if you choose not to have the latter.

Mercedes’ Direct-Steer speed-sensitive steering system is also standard fit, but our testers found it a little on the heavy side.

It certainly feels more van-like than car-like to drive, and less immediate than that of the VW California: our testers felt that the latter is more fun and nimble on the road.

That said, the cab is a pleasant place to spend time: the leather seats are comfortable and supportive, and there are four air blowers in here to keep you at the right temperature.

Merc claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 44.8mpg – on our 313-mile test we averaged 38.6mpg.

There are belts for two passengers in the back (an additional seat in the rear row is a £1075 option). They’re supportive seats and can be adjusted for both rake and cushion contour.

There are rear speakers, too.

Lounging & dining

A two-seat sofa makes up the lounge space in the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo, along with the two cab seats, both of which can be swivelled.

You’ll dine at the brown fold-out table which is hinged onto the side kitchen unit.

To erect it you simply need to lift the top and fold down the somewhat flimsy-feeling leg to support it – the table can be slid back beside the seats when it’s not in use.

The upholstery looks smart in its Black Lugano leather finish. Despite the dark colour, the lounge feels bright thanks to the excellent artificial illumination available here.

Ambient lighting can be operated via a switch on the right-hand side of the kitchenette, while small lights above the rear seats can be illuminated in three levels of brightness.

A diesel auxiliary heater is a £1385 cost option, but worth it to keep you warm during cooler weather.

It can only be run for 60 minutes, however. An overnight version (with no maximum heating period) costs £2660.

Kitchen

There’s plenty of headroom available when you’re standing in the kitchen to prepare food, because the Marco Polo’s roof rises at the front.

There is a reasonable amount of worksurface available, particularly if you flip down the heavy glass lids that cover the appliances beneath, but chances are you’ll also need to use the dining table.

As for the spec: you’ll find a Dometic gas hob with a pair of burners and electric ignition, a circular sink with a single tap that can be raised up and down, and a Westfalia fridge box, which is operated via the cab control panel.

The coolbox is reasonably roomy, at 40 litres, but it has a lift-up lid. While this saves space, you’ll need to clear the worksurface above every time you want to retrieve something – the same issue affects the California.

Operating the gas is a bit of a faff, too. First, the main gas shut-off valve needs to be opened – it’s located on the top of the gas cylinder, which can only be accessed via the vehicle’s tailgate. A secondary gas shut-off valve, underneath the fridge, then needs to be switched on.

There’s a reasonable amount of storage in the kitchen, though: there’s a cutlery drawer below the sink, and below that is another deep example ideal for pots and pans.

One further good-sized drawer sits below the hob, with a sliding-doored cupboard below that.

All drawers have positive catches, to prevent them opening in transit.

Sleeping

Raising the roof is effortless: it’s electrically operated via the control panel in the cab.

The upper bed is fixed to the roof, via hooks, to keep it out of the way during the day – to lower it you just need to release them.

A safety net is available for the roof bed to prevent occupants falling out during the night. This bed can sleep two adults up to a total weight of 200kg.

They’ll need to climb into it via the lower seats (which must be locked in position at the time). As such, it’s more suitable for children.

Reading lamps are available up here, too, on bendable stalks. Other more unwelcome illumination is let in by the light-coloured fabric of the sides of the pop-top – occupants may be woken by it at sunrise.

Making up the downstairs bed is also a reasonably straightforward process: simply slide the (rather heavy) seat unit forward using the handle by the sliding door, then drop the seatbacks electrically via the switches on the front of the unit. They can be dropped independently, too.

Once you’ve done that, additional switches allow you to electrically adjust the contours of the cushions for comfort.

Finally, you need to top it with the foam pad. It’s a couple of centimetres thick and adds quite a bit of comfort – a clever idea, but you’ll need to stash it somewhere during the day.

There are black-out blinds in the back, but the windscreen requires stick-on curtains, which also need to be stored when not in use. Fitting them is a bit of a faff, and involves employing the suction cups.

With the roof bed down, occupants of the bottom bed get approximately 90cm of headroom.

The floor to the base of the upstairs bed measures 135cm.

Washroom

The Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo doesn’t have a washroom, so there’s no rating here.

There is room to store a portable toilet in the kitchen cupboards.

Alternatively, you could carry one in the rear load bay – although you’ll need a toilet tent if you don’t want to use it in the ’van.

Storage

There’s a fair bit of storage available in the Marco Polo – most notably beneath the bed at the very back of the ’van, where there’s loads of space to store levelling ramps, hoses and so on.

To the left of the fridge is a door that opens up to reveal a small wardrobe. It’s reasonably narrow, but has a hanging rail and could certainly hold a few shirts or other items. Accessing it is a little awkward with the seats up, though.

A further shelved cupboard is available at the very back of the ’van, with additional access when the tailgate is open.

Extra storage space is provided by a drawer that slides out from beneath the rear bench seat.

Another storage locker in the roof at the very back has a door that swings down on cords: it’s ideal for storing light clothing or the cab blinds.

A panel in the base of the rear seat unit can be opened, to accommodate long items such as skis through the ’van.

Equipment

Other bits of standard kit include (as in the VW California) a camping table and chairs, this time stored in the base of the rear load bay. Also in this area is the connection for an external shower.

At the front end of the kitchen peninsula, meanwhile, behind the passenger seat, is a small unit with a switch for the kitchen lights, a USB socket, a mains-electric socket and a carbon monoxide alarm.

There’s another 12-volt socket alongside the rear seats, plus a further one in the load bay.

Technical specs

Sleeps4
Travel seats4
MTPLM3200kg
Payload760kg
Length5.14m16′10″
Width2.25m7′5″
Height1.98m6′6″
Engine (power)187
Engine (torque)325
Fresh/waste water38L / 40L
Leisure battery95 Ah
Gas tank size2.75kg
Number of gas tank compartments1
Kitchen Equipment
2-burner gas hob

Verdict

The Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo is certainly a classy piece of kit.

Everything in this ’van feels beautifully made, the beds are very comfortable, it’s great to have an onboard water tank and the level of base-vehicle specification is hugely impressive.

As an overnight vehicle, it ticks every box.

But start to spend longer in it and – as with the VW California – weaknesses show.

Having to remove everything from on top of the fridge each time you use it becomes a chore, as does needing to fit cab blinds every night.

Buy a Marco Polo with these caveats in mind, and you’ll likely be hugely impressed with your purchase.

But for longer trips away, other conversions from smaller British and Continental brands make a better buy.

Conclusion

Pros

  • The electrically operated cushion support in the rear seats means that you’ll also get a comfortable bed
  • There's a handy unit at the front of the kitchen that houses a mains socket, a USB socket, light switches and more
  • It's sophisticated, stylish, well built and loaded with cachet

Cons

  • You’ll need to use blinds in the cab at night, but they take quite a while to fit
  • The top-loading fridge can be inconvenient

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