Ute beauty: The tradies’ Mercedes
X marks the spot. Mercedes-Benz aims to steer buyers out of rival one-tonne utes and into the X-Class, its take on a luxury workhorse.
Utes account for almost one in five new vehicle registrations and, says Mercedes-Benz Vans CEO Diane Tarr, more than half of these are upper-spec versions.
This gives the German brand the incentive to reproduce its success in passenger cars in the light commercial arena.
"The market is moving in this direction … buyers want the ruggedness and off-road ability of these vehicles but they also want passenger car handling and refinement," Tarr says.
"That's what the X-Class delivers and we are the only ones in this segment with autonomous emergency braking across the range."
More than 9000 prospective Australian buyers have registered interest in the X-Class, the first pick-up from a prestige brand, even though it is based on a Nissan Navara that costs $12,000 less.
To be fair, there's little of the Navara left in the X-Class that you can see or touch. The chassis has been strengthened, the track is extended 70mm to improve on-road manners and the body is 50mm wider, necessitating unique bodywork.
Throw in recalibrated suspension dampers, ventilated disc brakes all-round and a bespoke interior and it's hard to argue with Benz's assertion this is as far removed from "badge engineering" as is possible.
Opting to use a donor car, rather than develop its own from scratch, was a matter of timing for Mercedes.
"The association with Nissan saved us three years of development time," says X-Class product chief Scott Williams.
"The Navara is the third best-selling pick-up globally and we've improved it in every area from the ride to the interior refinement."
The X-Class's astonishing 13 variants range from $45,450 to $64,500. That covers cab-chassis and tub variants, all dual-cabs for now.
Later in the year, the six-cylinder diesel arrives to supplant the $74,990 Ford Ranger Raptor as the most expensive one-tonne workhorse on sale in Australia.
The X220d will be sold in rear and four-wheel drive guises, the sole transmission a six-speed manual. In base Pure trim, it is the workhorse of the range and unashamedly aimed at fleet buyers, with black front and rear bumpers, steel wheels and plastic flooring for easy cleaning.
Lifting the visual bar - at least in the top section of the dash - are elements familiar to Mercedes passenger car owners, such as the infotainment screen, steering wheel and instrument cluster with coloured digital screen between the speedo and tachometer.
To satisfy occupational health and safety requirements of fleet owners, it comes with five-star ANCAP rating, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, tyre-pressure monitoring, reversing camera on versions with a tub and lane-departure warning.
Plastics in the lower section of the dash and on the doors are less impressive - grained in texture and black in colour, they feel tough but will probably scratch over time.
It reflects the utilitarian nature of the genre and is no different to the Ranger Wildtrak and HiLux SR5 - but it may jar with Benz passenger car buyers.
The X250d is four-wheel drive only and has an optional $2900 seven-speed automatic. The Progressive trim level adds painted bumpers, alloy wheels and rear-view camera, auto wipers, satnav, carpeted floors and better quality cloth seats and audio.
The top-spec Power versions have a surround-view camera, chrome exterior bling, 18-inch alloys, LED headlights, keyless entry and start, synthetic leather seats and instrument panel binnacle, power front seats, semi-automated parking and 8.4-inch infotainment screen.
ON THE ROAD
Mercedes makes much of the noise suppression in the X-Class and there's no doubt it is the quietest in the class, at least on the road. The diesel is barely heard and there's only the faintest of wind noise off the windscreen pillars at highway speeds.
Hit decent gravel at 80km/h or above and there's plenty of pinging as rocks are flicked into the undercarriage. The upside is the suspension is superbly sorted whether on tarmac or bush tracks and the secondary bouncing and jiggling common to this class is notably absent even over repeated corrugations.
Load something in the tub and, in common with the VW Amarok, the rear end becomes even more composed … dare we say car-like.
Performance is reasonable rather than remarkable and buyers wanting the glamour of the three-pointed star with comparable get-up-and-go will need to wait for the X350d, with 190kW/550Nm V6 and permanent all-wheel drive. It will trim the 0-100km/h run from 11.8 seconds to 7.9.
The steering is appreciably faster than that in the Navara and its weighting is a decent compromise between urban driving and rock crawling. For now the only limit to the X-Class's off-road ability is the road-biased rubber. The company hasn't yet homologated an all-terrain tyre and it showed on a section of off-road driving, where the X-Class struggled for grip.
A factory bullbar and nudge bar, under development specifically for Australia, won't affect the AEB or parking sensors. Williams hopes their arrival will coincide with the six-cylinder's introduction.
The first one-tonne ute from Mercedes is a shot across the bows of its mainstream rivals. The
X-Class's arrival also will accelerate development in the segment. Toyota and Nissan utes are equipped with AEB in Europe - expect to see that feature here sooner rather than later.
WARRANTY/SERVICE3 years/unlimited km, $2350 for 3 years/60,000km (prepaid $1850)
SAFETY 5 stars, 7 airbags, auto emergency braking, lane-keep assist
ENGINE 2.3-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel, 120kW/403Nm and 140kW/450Nm
TOWING Up to 3500kg
HOPING FOR AN AMG
It doesn't officially exist but an AMG-equipped X-Class is a no-brainer, at least in Australia. And that's the problem: we're the only global market likely to want a pick-up with AMG levels of performance.
Mercedes-Benz Vans CEO Diana Tarr says she'd welcome such a vehicle - were one ever made. "There are no plans. The V6 will tell us if there is an appetite for this type of car but even then we'd have to have a business case ... we are a major AMG market (but) it wouldn't be built for Australia alone," she says. "If it did happen, I don't think it would be a 63 _ perhaps a 43 instead."
The stablemate GLC43 SUV uses a twin-turbo V6 to crank out 387kW/520Nm.
AMG chief Tobias Moers has ruled out building a high-performance X-Class, largely because of the low volumes and the pick-up's shared platform with Nissan, which would complicate the development process.