Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry, and I’d never want to discourage a car manufacturer from rolling the dice and having a crack.
But when it comes to automotive miscalculations, the short life of Mercedes-Benz Vans’ X-Class pickup has to rate pretty highly on the list, and serve as a lesson to others.
As revealed this week, the X-Class will be axed globally from May this year, less than three years after its global reveal and two after its introduction to the vital Australian market.
With Mercedes-Benz’s obvious knowhow in trucks and class-leading vans such as the Sprinter, and with demand for premium load-haulers growing exponentially outside of their US stronghold, there was natural room for optimism.
Back then, the company cited key markets for the vehicle as Latin America, South Africa and Europe — but also, crucially, Australia, a market that had input into the program and hosted testing.
“The Mercedes-Benz pick-up will contribute nicely to our global growth targets,” said then-chairman of the board of management at Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars division, Dieter Zetsche.
Shortly after this the company confirmed it would share parts with the NP300 Navara from technical ally Nissan, and use its plant in Spain as a production hub.
The brand had planned to produce its first dual-cab ute in Argentina, but pulled the pin on its South American plans early in 2019 because "the price expectations of the Latin American customers have not been economically viable".
The global premiere occurred in July 2017, and full local details were announced later that year. The first clear mistake was the decision to launch with Nissan’s 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, rather than its own V6.
While Mercedes strenuously denied such claims and pointed to differences in the chassis, suspension, cabin, sound-deadening and design, buyers simply considered it a pretentious and overpriced Nissan. It actually had merit as a product, but perceptions are perceptions…
Optimism grew when the circa $75k X350d V6 was detailed in August 2018 ahead of its launch exactly 12 months ago (January 30, 2019), with the Ford Ranger Raptor and Amarok V6 Ultimate in its crosshairs. But the general public interest cooled on this model too.
Precious little in this truck was recognisably Nissan. I once asked one of the global engineers for some common features and he deadpanned: “door handles, steering column and wheel screws. Every part was analysed”.
He did also say, off the record, that the X-Class was something of a toe in the water for the brand, too. Which was prescient, or knowing, or both.
Since then the truck has limped along, despite dealer discounting. A quick look at the classifieds suggests you’d get between $15,000 and $25,000 off the RRP without too many worries. Interestingly in just the last few weeks there have been billboards advertising high-end versions for $58,990 drive-away cropping up, too.
Danger signs that Mercedes was losing patience have been there for a while. In April 2019, Mercedes-Benz boss Ola Källenius told Manager Magazin the brand would "end the cooperation" with Nissan because "almost all common businesses are in the red".
Mercedes-Benz described the X-Class as a "niche product" at the time, and said in October 2019 it planned to continuously "review and analyse which further role the X-Class will play in our product portfolio”.
Locally, with just 2126 sales reported in 2019, up from 1545 in the final eight months of 2018, the X-Class owned 0.1 per cent of the 4x2 ute market in Australia and just 1.2 per cent of the lucrative 4x4 ute market. That’s a quarter of the Amarok’s and about 1/20th the volume of the Ranger and HiLux.
That was telling, since the head of Mercedes-Benz Vans in Australia, Dianne Tarr, said back in 2015 that “we have been working on this project for a number of years and Australia and New Zealand have been an integral part of the program from the very beginning”.
Mercedes-Benz of course says it will "serve the current demand" for its slow-selling ute and promised "service and warranty coverage will continue to be assured by Mercedes-Benz Vans" for existing owners.
But new buyers better get in fast. And haggle hard.
RIP X-Class. It was a failure, but a bold gambit should never be unfairly lamented.