Luxury car brands have been busy creating niche vehicle segments over the past decade or so, and the Mercedes-Benz X-Class essentially creates another: the global luxury ute.
Global is a key word, as America had the Lincoln Blackwood and Cadillac Escalade EXT at the start of this century – with mixed success.
Mercedes-Benz Argentina even turned a 115 series 220d sedan into a ute in the 1970s, though you only need to see the sales trend for dual-cabs – as they’ve broadened their appeal from workhorse to lifestyle vehicle – to understand why parent company Daimler has decided it shouldn’t be missing out on this segment.
After two years of announcements, concepts, reveals and passenger rides, we finally find ourselves on the opposite side of South America’s Andes mountain range, in Chile, to drive the X-Class.
It’s less weird seeing a ute wearing the three-pointed star rather than the four rings of Audi or blue and white roundel of BMW, simply because of Mercedes’ vast fleet of commercial vans and trucks.
It shouldn’t be news that this isn’t a ground-up Benz creation, with Mercedes choosing to instead borrow the underpinnings from alliance partner Nissan. (Renault’s Alaskan ute is another relative.)
Mercedes says it has made extensive modifications, including strengthening the ladder-frame chassis, tweaking the damping, and changing suspension kinematics – relocating the attachment points for Nissan’s five-point multi-link rear, for instance.
The German engineers were delighted to be working with the NP300 Navara’s coil springs rather than the leaf springs common to this breed of vehicle, though it swapped the Nissan’s rear drum brakes for ventilated versions.
Mercedes also introduced its own front and rear axles, which are still independent and solid, respectively, but are notably wider than the Nissan’s – by 62mm and 55mm, respectively.
With the X-Class featuring exclusive sheetmetal, it allowed the designers to get close to the width of the concepts that previewed the German ute – just a finger’s width either side, according to Mercedes Vans design chief Kai Sieber.
The production version has still, inevitably, lost some of those concept model’s visual impact, though our view is that it looks more effective in the metal than pictures.
If it still looks largely like any other dual-cab ute in basic profile, those prominent three-point stars front and rear will have huge visual appeal for many buyers.
Mercedes-Benz Australia is still working through its pricing strategy, but the one surety is that the X-Class will set a new benchmark for the cost of a cab-chassis or dual-cab ute in this country.
It needs to justify that beyond the brand name, and there’s a promising start when you climb aboard.
Even in the base Pure form, the X-Class’s front cabin presents a tough-but-smart design suited to the vehicle, with its expansive dash, gloss-black lower console, 7.0-inch colour display, touchpad and rotary controller, and a twin-dial binnacle like the C-Class’s.
The mid-spec Progressive adds leather for the steering wheel, gear lever and handbrake, swaps fabrics for the upholstery, replaces the Pure’s plastic floor covering with carpet, and the lower console is made from what designer Kai Sieber says is the biggest piece of steel fitted to a modern Mercedes interior.
We drove a range-topping, lifestyle-focused Power during the launch, which further lifts the perception of quality with Artico/Dynamica (artificial-leather and microfibre) seats, dual-zone climate control, and a Comand 8.4-inch infotainment screen claimed to be the biggest in the class.
(Comand also brings Wi-Fi connectivity, while digital radio is standard on Progressive and Power models. Sim-card-based Wi-Fi is also available.)
A couple of optional cabin enhancements fitted to our test car included a distinctive, Scando-inspired matt woodgrain trim for the mid dash section, plus extra artificial leather for the upper-dash, armrests and door beltlines. (Leather, top-stitched seats are also available.)
There’s still more hard plastic than you’ll find in any Mercedes passenger car, some of which it can be argued is good for cabin durability, and some not so much.
The plastic vent surrounds also look slightly tacky, and console storage is limited. There’s only one proper cupholder as the too-shallow second is more like a tray, and even that isn’t large enough to properly stash your smartphone. The console bin is wide but short, and its space further limited by a block housing USB ports.
It’s mixed news in the rear cabin. Shoulder room, as up front, benefits from the X-Class’s wide tracks, legroom and foot space is in good supply, and there are child-seat anchor points. The bench sits up higher than the front seats, though, limiting headroom, while the seatbacks are too upright.
If the Volkswagen Amarok presents the X-Class as its biggest hurdle for class honours, the X-Class’s rear cabin can at least claim to offer a curtain airbag that covers both rows.
Even with the usual caveats of testing a vehicle on unfamiliar, foreign roads, I think we can make an early call and say Mercedes isn’t going to be a game-changer in the way dual-cab utes handle.
Its wide tracks provide good cornering stability, but once roads turn from flowing to tightening, the X-Class – as with rivals – feels relatively cumbersome when compared with a similarly sized SUV.
Its steering is more surprising. Despite Mercedes applying a quicker ratio to the hydraulic rack, there are 3.5 turns lock to lock and it requires more twirling than ideal. It also feels rather remote, leaving the X-Class trailing the likes of the Amarok, Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 in a key area.
Around-town manoeuvring isn’t helped, either, by a 13.4-metre turning circle, which is a full metre wider than the Navara’s.
Ride quality has the potential to be at the pointy end of the segment. While the suspension hinted at some fidgeting during our brief run through Santiago streets and tunnels to leave a question mark against how the X-Class will handle Australia’s urban roads, the Benz’s relaxing gait on freeways and country roads impressed hugely.
The X-Class expertly blends suppleness and control, while its ability to cushion occupants across a barrage of nasty potholes frequenting Chilean roads was uncanny.
The vinyl/microfibre front seats also provide all-day comfort, even if the lack of steering wheel reach adjustment means not all drivers will find their perfect position.
Refinement is a stand-out, too. In addition to structural reinforcements, Mercedes thickened existing insulation from the Navara while also ramping up sound deadening measures in the firewall and around the transmission tunnel, and applying a door sealing concept it immodestly describes as “ingenious”.
Wind noise was notably muted during our long day driving south of Santiago and back, while the X250d’s 2.3-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel proved only mildly clattery even under heavy acceleration.
The engine is also borrowed from the Navara, with some further NVH tuning for its Benz installation but the same power and torque: 140kW and 450Nm (up 20kW and 47Nm over the single-turbo diesel powering the X220d base engine that’s another Renault-Nissan unit).
The seven-speed automatic complements the diesel’s smooth, quiet performance with well-judged shifts.
That performance is just rather leisurely. With the X-Class’s extra modifications and extra features, the X250 weighs 2.23 tonnes compared with the 1.97 tonnes of the STX Navara featuring the same engine.
So, after some initial lag at lower revs, acceleration is somewhat gradual. And that’s without any load in the tray.
European fuel consumption figures suggest the X250d (7.9L/100km) will use a bit under an extra litre of diesel every 100km compared with the STX, and about half a litre less than an Amarok 420TDI.
Mercedes quotes 11.8 seconds for the X250d 4Matic’s 0-100km/h acceleration (and 12.9sec for the X220d 4Matic). Expect that to be slashed by the Mercedes-sourced 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel due a couple of months or so after the X-Class four-cylinders reach Australia in April 2018.
Mercedes gave us a ride in an X-Class X350d featuring a prototype of the 190kW/550Nm V6, which is known from a variety of Benz vans and passenger cars but still being finalised for its ute installation.
An X350d Progressive or Power isn’t going to be cheap if you consider there will be a premium over an Amarok V6 that costs from $59,990 in mid-spec Highline or $67,990 in top-of-the-tree Ultimate, but our first impression from the passenger seat is that you will be rewarded with spirited performance from what will be the most powerful diesel in the segment.
It also comes with a Benz 7G-tronic seven-speed auto, Dynamic Select multi-vehicle mode, paddle-shift levers, engine stop-start – as well as permanent all-wheel drive, where the Renault-Nissan drivetrains are switchable four-wheel-drive systems.
The workhorse-focused Pure will also be available with rear-wheel-drive only and a six-speed manual.
A reasonably testing 4WD course proved an X-Class 4Matic is equipped with the requisite low-range gearing, hill-hold and hill-descent systems, ground clearance (222mm), and approach/departure angles to cope with challenges such as sharp gradients, steeped banking, water crossings and deeply rutted tracks – and all squeak-free.
As with the Navara, engaging a dog-clutch that creates symmetrical four-wheel drive is possible on the move up to 100km/h by turning a console dial. Changing to 4L for extra low-rev torque and crawling ability requires a push and turn of the dial while stationary. A locking rear differential is also standard.
The X-Class shares the Navara’s 3500kg braked towing capacity (3200kg 4x2) but brings a higher maximum payload of 1067kg if you compare the X250d with the Navara ST-X (941kg auto).
The X-Class also uses its increased dimensions over its donor vehicle to provide greater tray utility. An extra 8.4cm gives the Mercedes one of the longest trays in the class. And while the 1560mm tray width is identical to the Nissan’s, those wider tracks create enough space between the wheel-arches to accommodate an Australian-sized pallet.
Pure models feature four load-securing rings in the tray; Progressive and Power gain a load-securing rail system. (A load-securing floor rail system is optional on all models.)
In addition to the full suite of airbags, the X-Class also features Active Brake Assist (autonomous emergency braking), Lane Keeping Assist, and Collision Prevention Assist. Useful functions such as adaptive cruise and blind spot detection are missing, however.
Mercedes may be new to the dual-cab-ute game, but it’s clocked onto the fact that buyers love to enhance their vehicles.
The company has developed its own, comprehensive range of accessories. They include hard and soft tonneau covers, 156-litre storage box, plastic tray liner, tray divider system, stainless-steel styling bar, side bar with step in stainless steel or black paint, sports bar in any vehicle colour, and canopy.
The X-Class, then, ticks several important boxes for Mercedes-Benz’s dual-cab ute debut, though we now wait to see just what kind of premium the company will charge for its premium ute.
In some respects, it promises to be the S-Class of utes we were hoping it might be, especially in terms of its refinement and open-road ride. Yet it also has enough downsides that benchmark status is anything but guaranteed in this intensely competitive category.
A match-up with the Amarok will surely be one of the most highly anticipated head-to-heads of 2018.