I walked up to the door of the 2018 Mercedes-Benz X-Class – the vital new dual-cab pick-up from the German brand – and slotted myself in behind the steering wheel. I got myself comfortable, and was excited to pull away from the starting point of the test loop to see what this much-anticipated new model was like.
But it was then I remembered that I wasn’t allowed to drive.
I’d come all the way to South Africa to see this all-new vehicle uncovered, to establish if the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class ute could live up to the expectations most of us have about that brand and what it knows about making quality vehicles.
I wouldn’t be getting my hands on the leather-lined tiller of the X-Class Power model I’d been assigned to. So I took my place in the front passenger’s seat.
Without sounding like a whinger, it was disappointing to not get a drive of the new Mercedes-Benz ute – not even a brief one. Like most Aussies I love utes and I wanted to drive this one because it’s been a long time coming. I remember when Benz announced it would do a pick-up way back in March 2015, and it was something I’d looked forward to driving – and sharing my impressions on – ever since.
But after my ride-along, or “co-drive” as Benz put it, here’s what I can share with you: it’s undoubtedly a Mercedes-Benz. That is to say, it is completely and entirely possible to discern that – just like Volker Mornhinweg insisted when speaking to us the night before the drive experience – it isn’t just a badge-engineered version of the Nissan Navara, the ute that is the donor to the X-Class.
Let’s start with the interior.
It is a Mercedes-Benz, so it should feel like one inside – and it does. Obviously it feels like it has commercial intent – it’s not an S-Class – but there are plenty of quality touches, particularly in the high-spec model.
The leather-lined steering wheel, fake-leather dash-top, aluminium-look trim on the doors and dash and the tablet media screen certainly give the high-spec version of this new ute the air of an SUV.
And because it has a bunch of clever Mercedes-Benz tech, like the optional Comand media controller between the front seats and the same dials and digital driver info screen as a C-Class, you can’t mistake this for anything but a proper Benz.
The air-vents are neat, but in the Power model with dual-zone climate control the display and buttons are clearly Nissan, not Benz. That sort of stuff mightn’t matter too much to you, but to anoraks like me who find beauty in design cohesion (fonts that match, for instance) it’s a gripe.
There’s quite a lot of blank space on the dash and console, too, and plenty of hard plastic around the place, but it is a purpose-oriented vehicle.
It will, however, be feature packed.
High-spec Power models will come with a surround-view camera and front and rear parking sensors, while a rear-view camera will be standard kit in all variants. Plus there’s heaps of the safety stuff you’d expect, like forward collision monitoring with auto-braking and lane keeping assistance.
And there are seven airbags – including curtain airbag coverage for those in the back seats, which the X-Class’s only German-branded rival cannot match (we’re talking about the Volkswagen Amarok!).
The space in the back row is, as you may expect, very similar to what you get in a Nissan Navara – it shares very similar dimensions and wheelbase, so no surprises there.
Taller occupants will need to watch their noggins as they get in and out, and there’s not a heap of head room for anyone over six-feet tall. But the leg and toe room on offer is decent, and shoulder room is good for two burly blokes but could be a squeeze for three abreast.
If you’re one of the many expected buyers who will more likely cart their kids around in the back rather than their apprentices, then you’ll be happy to learn there are dual ISOFIX child-seat anchor points, as well as rear air-vents standard across every model.
Nice to sit in? Fine. But what about to ride in?
Given Mercedes-Benz has injected quite a bit of time and money into this platform to make it work to their distinct parameters – the company’s engineers have widened the track, or footprint, considerably to enhance the drivability and road security on offer – it does have a different feel to some of its narrow-track Thai-built ute rivals.
They’ve also made some changes to the Navara’s troubled rear coil suspension, including new dampers and components.
But is it more planted than an Amarok? Not going by the numbers. The Amarok’s track is 1654mm wide at the front and 1658mm at the rear, where the width at the front of the X-Class is 1632mm, while at the rear it’s 1625mm. So, while it is broader than the Navara upon which it is based (1570mm front and rear), the footprint is more D than 2E.
Shoe size references aside, it certainly felt good from the passenger’s seat… well, over a purpose-built off-road track and butter-smooth race-track road loop.
There is no denying there was some body roll noticeable during direction changes in tighter corners on the track, and I also noticed my driver, Jürgen, had to do quite a bit of arm-twirling in a U-turn zone – perhaps that slow steering rack of the Nissan Navara hasn’t been improved that much.
On the rough tracks at the side of the road section, the ride was supple enough to iron out the majority of the bumpy bits. Of course, being the Power version on 19-inch wheels, it wasn’t ultra plush, but – again, from the passenger seat – I didn’t feel as though I was being jostled too much in my seat.
The thing about those seats is that they’re considerably better than the Navara – Mercedes-Benz has crafted new seats specific to the X-Class, and they’re very comfortable and very supportive.
One thing we did notice was the quietude of the cabin – under hard throttle there was little noise from the gravel surface below, and the 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder with its seven-speed automatic seemed to manage progress quite well, without droning or rattling in the cabin.
That engine is one of three drivetrains that we’ll get – two of which are sourced from the Renault-Nissan Alliance (the engine in this vehicle and a single-turbo lower-spec version), and there’ll also be a V6 from Benz added to the portfolio later in 2018.
It’s hard to say what the X-Class is like from a driving perspective, obviously. But on first impressions it seems to do what Mercedes-Benz promised it would – take the Navara and improve on it to a degree that it feels distinct enough to stand on its own four tyres in the upper end of the dual-cab ute market.
And we can’t comment on what it’s like with a load, either. We sure hope the brand puts its money where its mouth is at the international drive and shows us just how good it copes with a heavy load.
Australia will follow the global precedent in offering three model lines – the entry-level Pure, mid-range Progressive and high-spec Power I was co-driven in – and there’s no denying that it makes perfect sense for what the company is trying to achieve with the X-Class.
It’s hedging its bets on offering a workhorse version at the low end, a mid-range model with some of the niceties we’ve come to expect from the three-pointed star brand, and a flagship that will, in all likelihood, trample its competitors with more luxury than anyone in the ute segment is used to.
We can’t wait to find out what approach the company’s local arm takes in pricing the new model. It has confirmed it needs to be competitive, but at a premium level. What that means for buyers? We’ll have to wait until we know the pricing later this year.