Campervans are very popular, not only as a way to move things from place to place while keeping them dry, but intrepid travellers have found all manner of ways to convert them into manageable mobile homes.
If you're looking for that versatility off the showroom floor and can do without the extra row of seats in the van, then the Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo Activity could well be worth a look.
The Marco Polo is built on Mercedes' Vito van platform and was launched earlier this year. It is my kind of van, with space for five and powered by a 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine which gets things moving along at a steady, but not blinding, pace. But then, it's so comfortable, why would you want to rush anywhere?
It comes standard with upgraded stability control system, eight airbags, crosswind assist, attention assist, light and rain sensors and active parking with front and rear park sensors, and a rear-view camera. While most of these driving assists are available standard on sedans and the like, it's nice to see them added to a more utilitarian vehicle.
This rear-wheel drive platform features independent suspension that provides a smooth ride in any conditions and absorbs the bumps and undulations of the road without a mis-step. In fact it is a pleasure to drive this camper on the highway or the twisting roads from Calga to Broke in the Hunter Valley, NSW.
The engine and gearbox are well matched and there's no hunting for gears on any stretch of road, steep hill or not. The brakes are excellent and more than capable of slowing the Marco Polo effortlessly as you approach corners.
Inside, I found the driver's seat firm, adjustable and comfortable. And adjustable steering ensures you can find a supremely comfortable seating position. There is a separate passenger front seat, also comfortable, and three across the back mounted on a track system for easy movement. It's a van I would be happy to drive to and from work.
That said, parking isn't the easiest in and around the suburbs. The Marco Polo is a reasonable large thing, over five metres long (5140mm), and a smidge under two metres wide (1928mm) and high (1980mm).
You don't buy one of these to cruise the local streets though, so we headed to Broke to spend the night camping by the Wollombi Brook. With the popularity of campervans and caravans (incidentally, the Marco Polo has a braked towing capacity of 2500kg or 750kg un-braked), these days, finding places to camp is relatively easy. Space is generally available for large buses, so we are really on the smaller side of the spectrum, so this makes us more flexible.
The Mercedes Marco Polo Activity is built to hit the road and can quite easily be driven straight from the dealership to your first destination rather than straight home. It has everything needed for quick getaways including dual batteries. This dual battery setup runs the standard-fit auxiliary heater. Sure to keep you warm on a frosty winter night. The heater can be programmed to preheat the vehicle and maintain a comfortable temperature even when stationary.
If this was my camper, I would have the wiring changed to also run power to a rear 12-volt plug from the second battery so I could also add a small fridge for convenience and not kill the cranking battery which, in standard configuration, powers the internal outlets.
It is an addition though, I would really expect to be standard in a campervan at this price point. Although being left stranded in the Marco Polo doesn't sound all that bad. A couple of solar panels should, then, be all you need for a few days away.
The design internally is sparse and allows plenty of space to move around. The front seats both spin 180 degrees to face the rear bench seat. They are a bit fiddly but as long as you remember to slide them forward first so they miss the side pillar, it isn't too hard to work out.
In between, there is a fold out and extendable table that any experienced card player would be happy with. After cards, or before, it makes a handy setting for a meal and is bathed in ample internal light. Access to this area is from both sides with automatic sliding doors providing a large entrance and easy ingress.
In term of space for packing your equipment, there is some storage under the rear mattress extension. You can slide the single back seat forward for more room and long items will fit under the seat provided they aren't too high.
As it was, we fitted everything we needed in the camper for an overnight stay. Any longer and more equipment may require greater care. You could fit roof racks to add carrying capacity and Mercedes is working on its own standard roof rack system capable of accommodating 50 kilograms.
When time comes to wind down for the night, the accommodation is excellent with the Marco Polo Activity boasting a manual pop-up roof that raises the height of the camper to 2350mm while also revealing an additional bed that can accommodate up to 200kg.
It measures 2.05m long by 1.13m wide. The manually-operated pop-up roof is made of water-resistant fabric and features zippered window flaps that can be opened to improve ventilation. It is a bit of a mission to climb up here though, so leave it for the kids who could easily calmer up and who should fit side-by-side.
Or, if your feeling adventurous, get in some practice on the monkey bars at your local park before any trip. At the wrong side of 40, I managed to climb up using the front seat to push off, but anyone with mobility problems is going to find it difficult.
Down below the rear seat also turns into a bed with dimensions 1.93m by 1.35m. You could fit three people here but unless you are really friendly, I expect two will be the most comfortable.
Setting up this bed was a disaster. We read the instructions provided numerous times – slide the table all the way forward and the rear seat, then pull the tab between the backrest and seat to lower the backrest and marry it to the mattress extension already in place. Sound confusing? Well it was, and after three separate attempts, we gave up.
It shouldn't be this hard. I'm sure there is a simple explanation but I'd definitely get a dealer to show me this before I left the showroom.
Just about the only thing lacking in the Marco Polo Activity is a kitchenette of any kind. Space has been dedicated to having an open design and maximising bedding and Mercedes has done a great job of that.
I've personally never enjoyed cooking inside a campervan, unless it's an extra large Winnebago, but this isn't. Nor is it designed to be, and setting up a smaller camp stove or Weber just outside the van under the manual awning is much nicer than being stuck inside slaving over a cook top.
The beauty is, it leaves so much more space inside the van, you almost want to be there doing other things. The internal dimensions are such, you could spend days travelling comfortably with just enough room to get out of your travelling companion's way if you had to.
There Marco Polo is an excellent option for a family looking for a high-end campervan. The appointments and finish are excellent, as you'd expect from a Mercedes-Benz, as is the drive itself.
Priced from $69,990 (plus on-road costs) the Mercedes Marco Polo Activity is aimed at the discerning traveller. It is by no means aimed at the backpacker market. It is however, one of, if not the only, straight-off-the-showroom-floor campervan with more than enough to get you started and out on the open road.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.