Most car-like bakkie is a matter of class
Lindsay Vine Smyth drove the new Mercedes X-Class in Chile to see if it is worthy of the badge
Chile is a land of contrasts: sunny skies and snow-capped mountains; skyscrapers and shacks; and where the sophistication of the capital, Santiago, juxtaposes with the simplicity of its many villages.
Fitting then that Mercedes-Benz chose this South American country as the location for the launch of its premium pick-up, the X-Class, for this is indeed a car of contrasts.
First unveiled as a concept in Sweden, in the flesh the X-Class is disappointing in comparison. From the front it is impressive, sleek and unmistakably a Mercedes, but the design department knocked off for sauerkraut and a schnitzel at that point.
Gone are the interesting lines we saw on the concept’s body panels, lending welcome funk to the otherwise boring design basis that makes up a bakkie.
It looks familiar, but the German execs are prickly at the mention of the N word. It’s no secret the newcomer is based on the Nissan Navara’s platform, but what everyone wants to know is how much three-pointed star they’re buying, or is this a case of expensive badge engineering?
Yes, the Merc has the same underpinnings as the Navara, as well as the Renault Alaskan which will arrive in SA in 2018. The trio all roll off the same right-hand drive production line in Barcelona. However, the German development team is vociferous about the fact that few Navara parts have been "untouched" to make the product known as the X-Class. Call it fettled, modified, reinvented, improved, perfected … just don’t call it a Navara.
The ladder frame basis has been retained to do duty on X, however it has been stretched to provide a longer wheelbase. It has a wider track, but Mercedes has stuck with the coil spring suspension at the rear that Nissan has been both praised and criticised for.
This is where the biggest difference between the two bakkies lies and, for that matter, any other bakkie. The X-Class is by far the most car-like workhorse I have driven and if this was Mercedes’ primary goal, it has hit the nail on the head.
On launch, we drove 500km on highways, mountain passes, dirt roads, rutted tracks and also through terrible potholes. Sound familiar?
The extensive experience behind the wheel of the X-Class tells me it will fare well on South African roads for those wanting a compliant ride that is not too soft.
The engine is quiet and refined for a diesel and the cabin is as quiet as a Mercedes should be.
The engine line-up for SA is yet to be confirmed but models available include a base 2.4l petrol engine, a duet of 2.3l diesels and a range-topping 3.0l V6 (190kW and 550Nm). There is a choice of manual or auto gearboxes and rear or four-wheel drive.
In Chile we drove the X250d 4Matic. This features the biturbo engine direct from the Navara, mated to the Japanese firm’s seven-speed automatic gearbox. Output is bang on with the Nissan at 140kW and 450Nm, but the Germans say both pieces of hardware have been tuned to Mercedes standards.
I found the engine to have plenty of pull and there was little lag on the auto box, which is frequently a problem when trying to overtake in a bakkie. Behind the wheel, it may not be up to the "best or nothing" standards, but it is certainly no Navara and I really enjoyed driving it.
Off-road too the X-Class is immensely capable. With a wading depth of 600mm and approach and departure angles of 30° and 25°respectively, it had no problem tackling the varied off-road course we drove.
Only the cars we drove offroad featured raised suspension which we will receive as standard in SA, taking the total ground clearance up by 20mm to an impressive 222mm — great on the rough stuff but it will be interesting to see how the extra height affects on-road handling.
There’s low range and an optional diff lock on the rear while the downhill speed regulation was the business — it featured none of the grating and grunting sometimes heard on steep 4x4 descents.
The X-Class boasts a payload of 1.1 tonnes and a towing ability of up to 3.5 tonnes.
Inside, it is as premium as you’d expect a Mercedes to be and as plastic as you wouldn’t. Our test vehicle featured a brushed aluminium dash that was all Merc and gave a refined feel to the interior.
Rather disappointing was the Navara’s plastic gearstick surround, which takes up the larger part of the centre console. Apart from two cup holders there is no space to put anything unless you use the folding armrest.
The Comand system and controller will make it feel more like home for Merc owners. The X-Class will also feature Mercedes Me connect, allowing it to lay claim to being the first fully connected bakkie.
The seats are cosseting and snug and the rear bench has been raised, to provide a more ergonomic seating angle. Taller passengers may find it slightly lacking in headroom but Average Joe will be comfy.
I also found it quite different from other bakkies in terms of the perception of size. Double cabs, while intentionally hulking from the exterior, can also feel rather brutish from behind the wheel. The X-Class, while wider and longer than a Navara and weighing 300kg more, feels less like a tank and not as bulky.
Mercedes needed to make this car "affordable", so it accepted more than a few Nissan bits, despite its protestations to the contrary. At the unveiling of the Concept X-Class in 2016, the head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, Volker Mornhinweg, said: "Our future X-Class will be a pick-up that knows no compromise."
Sadly, there is rather a lot of compromise and the most obvious illustration is in the key fob, a vital sign that you have arrived in Mzansi. The X-Class key is direct from the Nissan Juke parts bin. It’s appalling, but the German execs say it would have been too expensive to overhaul the ignition system for the sake of a key. I think it would have been worth it for our market.
Pricing will be the key to the X-Class’ sales success in SA and that vital information has not yet been released. An educated guess, however, would put it between R700,000 and a million bucks, depending which model you go for.
You have the option of the entry model Pure, designed for more robust use, the Progressive for better quality and comfort and the top of the range Power model, which is what we experienced and which is squarely aimed at the urban buyer. It goes without saying that all models will get extensive active and passive safety features, including seven airbags.
Christian Pohl, head of marketing and product management for X-Class, called Chile an "intersection of contrasts" and it’s a fitting description of the model. If Chile’s rich and poor can live alongside each other in harmony, skyscrapers looking down on tin shacks and bicycles mingling with Porsches, then perhaps a similar charm can be achieved in the paradox that is the X-Class.
Current Merc owners will be disappointed, but for aspirant owners from other brands, the X-Class will be the ultimate combination of prestige and practicality.