At the launch of the Mercedes-Benz X-Class ute concepts in Sweden this week, there was constant talk of the fact the three-pointed star brand is the first premium brand to enter the pick-up space.
There is a logical competitor waiting in the wings: an Audi Amarok. Well, of course that’s not what it would be called, but it would seem a simple enough process to upgrade the Volkswagen Amarok’s interior and safety systems to a level that could compete with an X-Class.
We know the Amarok is the most passenger-friendly ute on sale at the moment (lack of rear airbag protection aside, that is) and it’s the most refined of the bunch on the road, too.
The brand is already pushing the envelope in the segment, with a new V6-powered model due to arrive soon with an array of new interior features and finishes (but still no rear airbags!) and a class-leading powertrain for grunt numbers (3.0-litre V6: 165kW of power and 550Nm of torque).
It’s not precisely clear whether the V6 AWD version of the X-Class that has been touted as the flagship model will eclipse those figures – early indications are that the Benz’s 3.0-litre V6 could have as much as 175kW of power and 620Nm of torque, as it does in some applications in Europe.
But it will most certainly have the VW bettered for interior accommodation, if the show cars are anything to go by. Supple leather trim, startlingly high quality finishes and the requisite safety gear all sing the right tune for “active lifestyle” buyers.
So what does Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz Cars and chairman of the board of Daimler, think will happen in the premium ute segment?
“I just don’t know – for BMW I would consider it not very likely,” he said.
“Audi would have easy access to the first step in this regard,” he said of the four-ring brand’s ability to access the Volkswagen Amarok as a starting point for any potential new ute.
“I don’t know any plans,” Zetsche said. “I’m not allowed to know!”
Well, outgoing Audi Australia boss Andrew Doyle suggested at a recent launch that an Audi utility vehicle could be a potential hit for the Audi brand.
“It depends if there is really a market there for a premium utility model like that. What I can say is that the brand has proven that as much as we stretch into different areas and different segments, we can have success,” Doyle said in September 2016.
“If the formula is there to ensure its premium quality and premium performance, we’d have to do a global case study to see if that would be the case. It certainly would be an interesting addition to the Australian fleet.”
So, such a ute might not seem like such a crazy idea, after all. But, Zetsche said that Mercedes-Benz also owns another segment of the market that the other two big German premium brands don't yet compete in - vans.
Again, this is a space where Audi could – if it wanted to – potentially offer a more luxurious version of the Volkswagen Multivan. It’s worth noting that the Multivan is the most expensive Volkswagen model to be sold in the world, and it’s also believed to be quite profitable – so a seven-seat van from Audi could potentially do quite well.
Mercedes-Benz currently owns that end of the van market with the V-Class, which has the luxury elements to get plenty of hire car companies interested. Indeed, CarAdvice has learnt that in Australia the wait time for V-Class models is out to March next year, such is the demand.
Zetsche indicated that he thought the van arena would be somewhere the other competitors would probably want to try first.
“I have not seen a V-Class from BMW or from Audi,” he said. “I guess that might be their first step if they wish to do anything like that.”