Once upon a time, dual-cab utes or pickups were humble tools of trade. Then they started getting quieter, comfier and safer, and started appealing to a wider group of people. The resultant arms race from ute manufacturers has forked off in all directions.
In Australia, where 4x4 utes own about 15 per cent market share, this is particularly relevant.
And so alongside the top-selling Toyota HiLux, we have big rigs like right-hand-drive-converted Ram 1500 and 2500, and Chevy Silverado. We have the Baja-ready Ford Ranger Raptor ‘sports’ ute. Even Aussie muscle car icon HSV is getting in on the act with a modded Holden Colorado.
But by far the most interesting development in this writer’s opinion has been the entry of Mercedes-Benz, with the X-Class — a product resulting from a global supply partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance. As far as toes in the water go, it’s been controversial.
It’s safe to say that things haven’t gone entirely without drama for the three-pointed star so far, since it’s been restricted to selling the lower-grade four-cylinder X220d and X250d four-cylinder models that share running gear with the cheaper Nissan Navara.
This model’s share of the 4x4 ute market in December was a meagre 1.9 per cent, and if you watch television you can’t have missed the advertisements for low-rate finance deals and ‘complimentary’ upgrades to bolster interest. Dealer discounts are evidenced by a quick glance at the classifieds.
Thankfully for Benz, though, the ‘real’ X-Class rollout begins now, in the form of the flagship X350d V6. It has more Mercedes bits, and fewer borrowed from Nissan. That’s not a poke at the Japanese brand, but merely an acknowledgement of what Mercedes-Benz buyers demand.
In summary, what the X350d brings to the table is ‘4Matic’ permanent all-wheel drive, a big V6 diesel engine with Benz gearbox, various driving modes, more cabin luxuries and an extra-aggressive exterior look. If the X250d is caught between mainstream and premium, there’s no doubt where this Big Kahuna sits on the spectrum.
There are two versions of the X-Class V6 available: the X350d Progressive ($73,270 before on-road costs), and the X350d Power ($79,415). For context, a top-of-the-range Volkswagen Amarok V6 TDI580 Ultimate wears a sticker of $72,790, while the Ranger Raptor costs $74,990.
As ever, take list pricing with a grain of salt, but we work with the numbers we have…
Mercedes-Benz loaned us the flagship X350d Power, fitted with options like the $1990 Style Pack (rear privacy glass, electric rear window, side steps, roof rails and ‘alternative’ 18-inch wheels), $1750 black leather seats, $950 white metallic paint, a $899 bed liner, a $1551 silver sports bar and a $2063 tow kit. Total price as tested equalled $88,618.
That's as much as two HiLux SRs, currently $45,990 drive-away each.
Who on earth is going to buy a 90 grand ‘designer’ ute? Well, it’s actually a potential masterstroke from Mercedes’ Vans division, because the list is long. There are a lot of huge expensive boats, caravans and floats out there, owned by people to whom money is not a problem. I was bombarded by middle-aged blokes keen to kick the tyres.
The V6 engine flagged by the badge is a version of the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel used in the Sprinter van, pumping out 190kW of power and 550Nm of torque. It's mated to a 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission and a permanent AWD system, uncommon in the ute class where part-time 4x4 remains the norm.
Mercedes claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.9 seconds which, for context, is ballpark with an entry Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. That said, it can't match the 7.3-second sprint claimed by the equally weighty 190kW/580Nm Amarok Ultimate, also fitted with permanent all-wheel drive. What did we say about arms races...?
No matter though. Like the Volkswagen engine, the X350d has a ripper of a drivetrain, with outstanding refinement for the class and plenty of pulling power, given peak torque is on tap between 1400 and 3200rpm. In other words, it's regularly in its sweet spot.
Not only did I drive the X350d unladen, I also towed a float with two horses (circa 2600kg), and separately lugged around 900kg in the tray (payload is 1010kg) before punching up some hills. Like the Amarok, it’s not just quicker than the Rangers and Colorados of the world, but more effortless too. As you’d demand.
While the seven-speed transmission has one fewer ratio than the VW, the engine’s characteristics mean you’re still getting the most out of it when needed, and the shifts were generally smooth in comfort mode and a little snappier in sports mode, in which the electronic brain also tells the ‘box to hold lower ratios longer. You also have manual-override paddle shifters for towing.
If there’s one criticism, it was an occasional jerkiness on downshifts when towing a heavy trailer. Once or twice I noticed subtle shunting, which served to spook the flighty horses on board. The drivetrain is far from peaky or tuned to the wick, but it’s something to keep in the back of your mind.
The drivetrain’s outputs are sent to all four corners through a 4Matic all-wheel drive system, with a baseline 60 per cent rear axle torque bias and constant surface-dictated variability. The 4H mode changes this ratio to 30:70. Unlike the Amarok, you also have a low-range 4L gear set with 50:50 distribution. There's also a diff locker on the rear axle to limit wheelspin for the ungrounded tyre.
If you do intend to go off the beaten path, the X-Class’s Offroad driving mode tells the gearbox to wait longer to upshift, and adjusts the throttle mapping to be a little doughier, suiting slippery surfaces better. It’s clever tech, and it works.
Fuel economy is a claimed 8.8L/100km, line-ball with the Amarok. More importantly, the petrol-fired Ram 1500 is vastly more thirsty. I averaged 9.5L/100km including some ‘dynamic’ stints. You can add at least 10-15 per cent when towing. The 80L tank promises a range of between 800 and 900km.
On that subject of towing, the braked-trailer rated capacity is the class-standard 3500kg. But what impressed me was the ride quality from the Benz-tuned double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension. Put it this way: I had one 18-hand-high horse (that’s a big nag) lose its proverbial marbles in the float over god knows what, and we barely felt body movement. Only the telltale silhouette in the mirror gave the game away.
Mum (a thoroughbred trainer) has been towing horses for decades and was glowing about the Benz’s performance in this area, which gives a good guide. If you do get out of shape, the ESP system has a trailer-sway system built in, which is essentially stability control for your trailer. That's de rigeur these days.
The general ride and handling is pretty good. The 70mm wider track over the Navara lends the ‘X’ a more planted road feel, while the steering’s weight is an ideal balance. The stronger chassis and sound-insulation stuff gives it benchmark NVH suppression and the coils soak up hits well, giving it a stable feeling when unladen. It’s one of the most SUV-like utes out there.
I would just add that our tested was fitted with rather fetching 18-inch wheels and higher-sidewall tyres compared with the standard 19s, a spec decision we imagine would have taken some of the sharper edges out of the ride.
The main complaint is squatting at the rear when carrying a heavy load. A HiLux stays much flatter with a heavy weight over the rear axles, which naturally has ramifications for the handling and braking. On that note, the X-Class’ all-round discs are generally up to scratch.
Now is the time to lay out some specs, which look a little like this:
- Payload: 1010kg
- Kerb weight: 2190kg
- Gross vehicle mass: 3250kg
- Gross combined mass: 6180kg
- Tub width between arches: 1215mm
- Wading depth: 600mm
- Ground clearance: 222mm
- Approach angle: 30-degrees
- Departure angle: 25 degrees
- Breakover angle: 22 degrees
- Max. tilt angle: 49 degrees
So, we’ve determined the X350d is super refined, comfortable and competent as heck towing, and negotiating broken surfaces with speed and stability. It also doesn’t love having a huge weight over the rear axle.
But equally important is the cabin design, the equipment, and the safety. So let’s switch gears…
At this sticker price you'd be expecting a luxury experience, something the X350d delivers in some areas and fails to in others.
Standard equipment is pretty good, but don't forget those options we flagged earlier in the piece! You get LED headlights, fake leather and suede (Artico/Dinamica) seat trim, electric seats, a tyre pressure monitor, keyless go, aluminium and black fabric cabin inserts, and a brilliant 360-degree camera that makes backing up to a trailer a cinch.
There's also a floating tablet screen controlled by Benz's Comand rotary dial, with satellite navigation, though we'd dearly like the see the swish MBUX voice controlled AI system as used in the cheaper Sprinter van and A-Class hatchback.
Safety-wise, beyond the five-star ANCAP rating (2017), there are seven airbags (including side protection in the rear seats, unlike the Amarok) and some uncommon-for-the-class electronic driving aids such as autonomous emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and park assist. We'd like to see blind-spot monitoring added, however, and adaptive cruise control.
The layout of the cabin is quite aesthetically pleasing, with a clean look and a much more premium feel than most utes. Yes, there are some hard plastics scattered about, but it's a hard balance to strike considering this is still technically a work vehicle.
Letting the cabin down are the relative lack of cabin storage, limited to shallow cupholders and a stingy console, and the relatively tight back seats compared to class leaders like the Ranger. That's something inherited from the Navara. At least it gets an opening rear window and rear vents....
Beyond the aforementioned options, Mercedes-Benz has designed a range of accessories like a hard cover, stowage box, load bed liner, load-securing rails in the bed, and an underguard.
To ownership: warranty-wise you're covered for three years and/or 200,000km, with 24/7 roadside support. Capped-price servicing plans are available, at long intervals on 12 months or 20,000km. The basic service package costs $1950 for three years if you pay upfront, about 25 per cent more than the HiLux will cost you over six services (at 10,000km/six-month intervals).
You can buy expanded packages with longer terms covering repairs and other parts, too. The 'full monty' covers all services, and wear and tear components for up to five years, and can be paid upfront or monthly. Any X350d buyer is right to expect a premium experience.
To the verdict. There's no doubt that using pure logic, it's hard to spin a $90k ute (as tested) as anything but extravagant, especially since a base V6 Amarok (albeit without any luxury features) is $50k. But what is clear is the X-Class V6 does more to justify its price tag than the X220d and X250d, with greater differentiation from its donor.
It perhaps makes sense to think of it as a luxury-ish SUV with a tray, a high-end boat or trailer-tower for that chunk of the population with money to burn, or at the very least a good accountant. The 'haters' are out there in their multitudes, and the Benz clearly isn't without flaw. But none of these things denude the appeal entirely.
Like it or lump it, utes of this sort will increasingly become part of the furniture.
CHECK OUT: What's different about the X-Class?