The humble ute could soon slow the SUV boom – although Mercedes-Benz's first pickup, the X-Class, is shaping up to be anything but humble.
Mercedes-Benz is planning to capitalise on a forecasted 39 percent global growth of mid-sized pickups – from 2.0 million to 2.8 million - with its all-new X-Class, the first luxury ute in a segment dominated by the likes of the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger.
Due in Australia in 2018, the X-Class is the first ute from Mercedes-Benz and a car the company believes will undergo a transformation akin to SUVs over the past couple of decades.
And with more than 14 percent of the Australian market made up of utes – representing almost one in seven of 1.2 million annual sales – Australia is one of the core target markets for the X-Class.
"The pickup has changed, it is getting more passenger car-like," said Anja Kratzenstein, the marketing manager for the X-Class. "Now lifestyle and private usage is increasing in importance. This is kind of comparable to what happened in the SUV segment like 20 years ago."
Mercedes-Benz will ignore the price-focused work-only end of the ute segment that is led by Toyota in Australia. That means there will be no single cab or extra-cab body, with Benz instead focussing on the dual-cab body style that has boomed in popularity over the past decade.
Instead Mercedes will focus on the still-growing "work and leisure" and "family and lifestyle" buyers, each of which more highly values design, features, comfort, performance and safety.
Pricing hasn't been talked of yet, but expect the range to kick off somewhere around $50,000 and stretch to about $80,000.
"Quality and safety were getting more important and then Mercedes-Benz entered the segment with the M-Class and completely redefined the segment and the same thing is going to happen here," said Keatzenstein.
"We will further develop this trend towards more lifestyle and more private usage … and we will redefine the mid-sized pickup segment. Customers are getting more and more demanding, and it's those demanding customers we are going to address."
The new X-Class will have the choice of a four-cylinder petrol engine, four-cylinder turbo diesel and 3.0-litre V6.
Despite carrying a price premium, Mercedes believes the V6 version will be the top seller in Australia, although the brand is refusing to outline exact
Mercedes-Benz cars boss Dr Dieter Zetsche said that as well as filling one of the few "white spots" within the brand's broad portfolio, the addition of the X-Class ute helps shield the company from localised economic downturns.
"We are looking for ways and means for taking this very European biased business system with basically two uneven legs to stand on into a broader, more risk averse position," said Zetsche. "That's where pickup … is a very important step forward."
Underneath, the X-Class shares its basic ladder frame chassis with the Nissan Navara, but engineers say there is additional cross member bracing and changes to the rear suspension to ensure it lives up to expectations.
Mercedes-Benz has also styled its own body – with no shared panels or interior parts with the Nissan – and given it a more muscular character. Key to that is the stance, which has been improved by widening the track, or distance between the left and right wheels.
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class will be produced in the Nissan factory in Spain that also builds the Navara.
Mercedes-Benz in Germany is developing a range of accessories for the X-Class, including canopies and bullbars.
Mercedes-Benz Australia will expand on those accessories with locally developed options such as a wider range of bullbars and a snorkel.
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