Mercedes-Benz knows that its first-ever dual cab ute, the 2018 X-Class, is very different from anything the company has done before. Of course most people would be familiar with the brand’s plush luxury sedans and growing range of upmarket SUVs - but few would expect to see the three-pointed star at something like the Denny Ute Muster.
With the X-Class that’s a plausible scenario though. A product of Mercedes-Benz’ commercial vehicle division, the X-Class is grouped with products like the Vito and Sprinter vans, but while those may not be full-blooded luxury products (V-Class excepted) the X-Class aims to bridge the gap between workaday practicality and more lifestyle oriented pursuits.
Of course, there is an elephant in the room, and it’s the Nissan Navara, Mercedes-Benz hasn’t gone it alone with the X-Class, instead the German company has relied on its association with the Renault-Nissan group to provide the underpinnings for its new ute.
Depending on where you stand that could help or hinder the new dual-cab’s changes, but at the unveiling of the X-Class in Cape Town, South Africa, Benz was more than happy to not only pull back the covers of its first dual-cab ute but also let the world’s motoring media ride along in pilot-build vehicles before full scale production begins.
Vehicle Style: 4x4 Dual cab ute
Engine/trans: 140kW/450Nm 2.3-litre 4cyl turbo diesel | 7sp automatic
At first glance a ute might seem an odd fit for a company that is probably better known for its limousines and sporty coupes, but the precedent is there. In 1954 Mercedes-Benz built its first ute, the 180D ‘bakkie’, in South Africa. Not only that but the G-Class is a legend in off-road circles, and the Vito and Sprinter vans have helped keep the wheels of industry turning for decades.
So, in the same way the ML helped create a segment of prestige SUVs in the 1990s, the X-Class hopes to stir up a new ‘premium pickup’ segment.
Australian buyers will be offered three engines, the X220d and X250d both feature a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine, the 120kW/403Nm X220d runs a single turbo, the 140kW/450Nm X250d features a twin turbo setup. The third option is a V6 turbo diesel which produces 190kW and 550Nm, good enough to make it the most powerful dual-cab ute in its class.
The low-output engine will be restricted to a six-speed manual only which is likely to hobble its sale success in Australia, but the X250d will offer a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed auto. Two wheel drive and selectable four wheel drive will also be available.
If the four-cylinder X-Class range has an air of familiarity about it, that’s because the drivetrains have been adapted from the Nissan Navara with only very minor changes, rather than Benz adapting its own engines or transmission to suit.
While the V6 engine and transmission from the X350d comes from the Benz parts bin, as does the X350d’s full-time four wheel drive system.
Along with the choice of engines, buyers will have a choice of equipment lines, called Pure, Progressive, and Power.
Rather than just drop Nissan’s interior into the X-Class, Mercedes-Benz has applied its signature design to the interior, and has managed to change almost every visible part and touchpoint, with only a few minor carry-overs from the donor vehicle.
Perhaps most obvious is the move to Benz’s infotainment system, with a tablet-style 7.0 inch ‘Audio 20’ display mounted in the middle of the dash, operated by a centre console controller. A larger 8.4-inch system can also be optioned bringing a more advanced controller from the C-Class and extra online functions too.
The Pure is the obvious workhorse - cloth trim, vinyl flooring, and a liberal use of matte black plastics on the door pulls and air con vents signal its hard-working intent. The horizontal dash design borrows elements like the circular detailing from the passenger car range and the wide horizontal dash panel helps make the X-Class feel big inside.
The Progressive is designed for buyers who want one vehicle to go from work to weekend, it trades the Pure’s 17-inch steel wheels for 18-inch alloys, adds body coloured bumpers, interior carpet, and an interior with more upmarket silver highlights, plus Artico and Dinamica (fake leather and microfibre) seats.
At the top of the range the Power variant goes to town with a padded and stitched upper dash and door trims, real leather interior, and a huge range of customisation options. Black and brown leather, an available black headlining, woodgrain or aluminum-look dash inserts, plus dual-zone climate control, 19-inch alloys and more chrome detailing on the outside.
Although time inside the cabin was only brief, the Mercedes-designed seats didn’t seem uncomfortable, though a few hours in the saddle would reveal more.
The interior design certainly is striking. Slowly but surely as formerly hard-working utes become more SUV-like this trend will continue, in the flash Power variant in particular, there’s little to signal that you’re in a ute though, looking every bit like a fancy SUV.
ON THE ROAD
Only one version was available to ride in, and despite my bargaining the Mercedes-Benz minder behind the wheel wouldn’t let me take the wheel, so fleeting first impressions are from the passenger seat only.
The vehicle I landed was the X250d Power, with a seven-speed auto and selectable 4Matic 4x4. The drivetrain is pure Nissan, but the rear axle is unique to Benz, the front suspension arms have been extended for a wider track, and the springs and dampers have all been selected by Mercedes, rather than Nissan.
The introductory course was part race track, part off road - perhaps a little unusual as we hopped from one to the other in quick succession, but designed to show the dual-use capabilities of the X-Class.
It’s safe to say that Mercedes-Benz aren’t kidding when they talk about the premium transformation the X-Class underwent. Where the Navara rates poorly for its refinement, sounding harsh and vibrating the cabin even at idle, the X-Class has dialed-up refinement in a big way.
Of course, some ute characteristics can’t be erased, and with an unladen tray there’s still some shimmy and bounce from the rear axle that’s sure to settle with a tub full of tools or dirt bikes.
To prove the handling prowess my “co-drive partner”, the guy that wouldn’t let me have a spin, ran the X250d through sweeping bends at up to 120km/h, and through a wide slalom at 80km/h. While most utes could probably easily do the same, the X-Class seemed to get through with no nervousness or rear axle twitch.
Of course seat-of-pants feel for the passenger is vastly different from that of the driver, and I haven’t a clue if the steering is crisp, communicative, or feels like rowing a spoon through a bowl of porridge, but it’s another area Mercedes has worked on, so there’s a good chance they’ve dialled out some of the Navara’s slowness.
On ‘off-road’ sections of the drive course the X-Class proved that it can handle ruts and rises, the selectable 4x4 system works at up to 100km/h on the fly to engage 4x4 high range, but without trawling through knee-deep mud, or scaling a precarious rock face it’s hard to say how capable it will be on hardcore scenarios.
On stats alone the X-Class manages a 600mm wading depth, the car I rode in was equipped with a Euro-spec 202mm of front axle clearance, but Aussie cars will have a higher 222mm setup. The wheelbase is the same as the Navara’s at 3150mm and the higher suspension will result in a 30.1 degree approach, 25.9 degree departure, and 22 degree ramp angle.
A full safety assessment is yet to come, but Mercedes-Benz has applied its own calibration to the stability control system, along with trailer sway control. Seven airbags will be standard, as will rear Isofix child seat mounts, and features like Active Brake Assist (forward collision warning with autonomous braking), Lane Keeping Assist and Traffic Sign Assist will be available. All variants will feature a reversing camera with the Power getting a 360 degree camera system and front and rear park sensors that will be optional on lower grades.
Will Benz have a top-seller on its hands with the X-Class? Maybe not. As a dual-cab only the X-Class won’t play for volume, and it seems that adding a single cab or extra cab version seems unlikely.
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t succeed, the coil sprung rear makes sense in a so-called premium ute more so than the Navara that suffers suspension sag long before it reaches it payload limit, and we can’t wait to see how it handles some weight in the rear.
Trade buyers will be pleased to know a cab-chassis version will be available as well, though it will stick with coil springs too. Pricing will be key, and although not announced the term “competitive but premium” was used more than once to describe the positioning, though just how premium remains to be seen.
From the passenger seat it’s too hard to definitively say what the X-Class is like. Yes, it’s different to the donor vehicle it was created from, but is it different enough? That’s hard to say.
Certainly, Mercedes-Benz Australia is pleased with early interest, having already fielded expressions of interest and deposits from potential buyers, but aren’t prepared to say if those early adopters are more likely to head to the Red Centre or their local shopping centre with the X-Class.
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