When news broke in 2015 that Mercedes-Benz was planning to enter the booming dual cab ute market, many an eyebrow was raised. Prevailing wisdom said that the Stuttgart-based car maker is a prestige brand and hence has no business messing about in the muddy wheel tracks of the dual cab 4x4 market.
What this view failed to acknowledge, however, is that Germany’s oldest and most famous luxury car maker has a long history of making rugged and reliable commercial vehicles. There’s a reason the Australian Defence Force use Benz G-Wagens, and it’s not because of their leather.
Of course, the X-Class also generated headlines for other reasons as well; principally because it wasn’t an all-new model as such, but a re-engineered version of a Nissan Navara. That really got the purists fuming, but Benz’s logic was hard to fault; a ground-up development of an all-new model costs billions of dollars and takes at least five years, where a partnership gets a car to market sooner, and at a lower cost.
Still, with Ford’s Ranger and Toyota’s HiLux regarded as the benchmarks in the category, many wondered why Mercedes didn’t look to partner with one of those, rather than a solid and dependable mid-fielder like the Navara? The real answers are no doubt buried in reams of arcane corporate contracts and locked in a vault in Stuttgart, but suffice to say Mercedes-Benz and Nissan already had existing platform and engine-sharing partnerships in place, so the Navara may simply have represented the path of least resistance.
Perhaps just as importantly is the fact the top-tier, dual-cab 4x4 Navara on which the X-Class is based, is differentiated from pretty much all of its rivals by the use of a coil sprung rear end. In this category, leaf springs are still very much the proven configuration for hard-working commercials, but with their traceable links to the horse and cart they’re not such a good fit for Mercedes-Benz, with its carefully-crafted image as a safety and technology leader.
As Nissan has found out, though, opting to go with more comfortable and sophisticated coils does have drawbacks when it comes to load lugging. Put simply, beefing coil springs up to give them something approaching the load-lugging ability of a leaf spring setup often negates the ride and handling benefits that promoted their fitment in the first place. Nissan has certainly struggled to get the balance right during several iterations of the current Navara.
Meanwhile over at Mercedes-Benz, it’s fair to say that the X-Class hasn’t exactly set the ute category on fire, either, managing a total of 16,700 global sales in 2018 in the limited number of markets where it is sold.
By comparison, the Toyota HiLux, with a much wider global distribution and a nameplate that goes all the way back to 1968, sold close to 500,000 utes in that same period. It’s a similar story here in Australia, where the X-Class managed 1500 sales in 2018, versus nearly 51,705 sales of 4x4 and 4x2 HiLux. That said, X-Class sales are up by a healthy 50-odd per cent so far this year, so it’s possible Aussie consumers have simply taken a while to wrap their heads around the concept of a Mercedes-Benz ute.
GRUNT AND GROWN
Some of the sales issues may also be attributable to the fact the X-Class launched with the Navara’s four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, rather than a ‘proper’ Benz engine. Mercedes responded to that criticism in December 2018 with the launch of the grunty 3L V6 turbodiesel we’re testing here, immediately propelling the X-Class to the top of the league table in terms of power and torque, along with VW’s Amarok.
Importantly, the V6 is a Benz designed and engineered unit, featuring all-alloy construction, DOHC 24-valve cylinder heads, common rail fuel injection, a variable geometry turbo and a single counter rotating balance shaft to iron out some diesel vibration.
The new engine comes fitted in two high-spec X-Class models, the Progressive and the Power, costing $73,240 and $79,415 respectively. If you’re thinking ‘wow, that’s expensive for a ute!’, then you’re right, but then a top-spec Ford Ranger Raptor retails for $74,990, while a VW Amarok Ultimate 580 V6 costs $72,790, so it’s not that over the top.
You can obviously also spend a whole lot more by shopping the extensive factory options list and our X-Class featured leather seats ($1750) and metallic paint ($950), along with a ‘Style Pack’ ($2090). The latter includes an electric sliding rear window, rear privacy glass, side-steps, roof rails and alternative 19in alloy wheels. The Style Pack also includes a full-size spare which, along with the standard tyre-pressure warning monitor, came in handy as we copped a puncture during testing.
In addition, the Benz box tickers also added a protective load tub liner ($899), chrome sports bar ($1551) and full towing kit ($2063). Tote that lot up and you’ll note we were rolling — extra carefully thanks — in nearly $90k worth of premium ute. Yowser!
INTO THE HOT SEAT
Despite their spiraling price tags, rear seat accommodation in most dual cab utes is pretty ordinary, and the X-Class is no exception. Aside from the usual difficulties with ingress and egress into the high cab, the seats are oriented with an upright backrest and a high squab that means you sit in knees-up position with headroom for tall passengers at a premium.
The driving position is comfortable and everything is well laid out, with an 8.4in multimedia screen at the centre of the dash featuring navigation and 3D maps, as well as Around View Monitor.
There’s also a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors, both of which come in handy as the 5.3m X-Class isn’t exactly nimble, as evidenced by its 12.8m turning circle. Bug bears include the lack of steering reach adjustment, the absence of a driver’s footrest, and minimal oddment storage in the centre console.
As you might expect from this brand the X-Class is impressively well appointed on the safety front, with four-wheel ventilated discs, and an array of electronic safety aids, including anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, brake assist, and trailer stability assist. There’s also autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and airbags seemingly everywhere. The latter includes driver and front passenger front and side airbags, driver knee airbag, driver and front passenger side airbags, and front to rear curtain airbags. Collectively, that lot contributes to the X-Class’s excellent five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Out on the open road the X-Class gets along very nicely indeed, its 3L V6 turbodiesel punching out a healthy 190kW and 550Nm, the latter available between 1400 and 3200rpm. For the record, the only engine that comes close in the category is VW’s Amarok V6, with figures of 165kW/550Nm. Hitched to a smooth shifting seven-speed automatic gearbox, the V6 fires the unladen X-Class from 0-100km/h in an impressively brisk 7.9 seconds. By way of comparison, Ford’s Ranger Raptor covers the distance in a claimed 9.9 seconds, while the Amarok V6 claims an identical split.
There are steering-wheel mounted paddle shifts to enable manual gear selection if desired and the auto offers no less than five different driving modes — Comfort, Eco, Sport, Manual and Off Road — via a switch on the console. In Comfort mode there’s some turbo lag evident, which is most noticeable when you suddenly want a bit more acceleration at low speeds, such as when turning into traffic out of a side street.
Switching to Sport sharpens throttle and gearbox responses noticeably and largely negates the issue, but we found the mode a little too frenetic for everyday driving, so switched back to Comfort as soon as possible.
Unlike the Navara and most others in the category which feature selectable 4x4 systems and typically run in 2WD, driving the rear wheels up until the point where the front axle is manually engaged, the X-Class features permanent all-wheel drive via a central-differential.
In its normal 4MATIC mode the system varies torque 40:60 front to rear but can send up to 100 per cent of torque to either axle when slip occurs. There’s also the option to engage 4H at speeds up to 100km/h for a 30:70 split, or 4L which brings in the low-range gearing and splits torque 50:50. If that lot still hasn’t got you out of trouble, there’s also an electronic rear differential lock which provides a further level of traction aid.
Of course, the towing fraternity will be thinking that, being an all-wheel drive, there’s likely to be a penalty at the bowser, and they’d be right up to a point.
The V6 ticks over at a lazy 1650rpm at 100km/h in top gear with Mercedes claiming a highway cycle figure of 8.1L/100km, while around town the figure is 10.0L/100km, and the combined cycle 8.8L/100km. As always, these ADR figures are somewhat optimistic, and over our 700km tow route from Melbourne to Dargo and back, towing a 2020 Jayco CrossTrak 16.48-1 with a Tare weight of 1500-1549kg, we averaged 14.9L/100 km.
For the record, the Jayco ran with no water or gas but around 100kg of gear inside, so our final tow-weight was circa 1600-1700kg. Hence, with its fuel tank capacity of 80L, the unladen X-Class should have a combined-cycle range of around 900km, while with the Jayco in tow we’d topping up roughly every 500km.
Despite the coil sprung rear end the Jayco’s moderate (130kg) ball weight meant the X-Class tray never sagged and the ride remained nicely compliant throughout. The steering errs on the light side and lacks a bit in terms of feedback when laden, and we noticed the steering weighting-up slightly when accelerating on loose surfaces, as the all-wheel drive system shuffled drive to the front end. We didn't get a chance to test the X-Class with a lot of additional weight in the tray, so can’t comment on how payload affects the ride but it towed strongly, rode well and was impressively quiet even when under load.
Aside from the aforementioned lag when accelerating off the line, the V6 pulls strongly and smoothly, feeling very under-stressed and managing this load relatively easily. Using the adaptive cruise control system was simple and never felt unsafe, but it was best to leave the radar at full length to allow the ute more time to decelerate evenly.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In summary, Mercedes-Benz may have arrived late to the dual cab ute party and taken a short cut to get there, but the X-Class V6 is an impressive piece of kit that offers class-leading performance, impressive dynamics, a strong safety package, and the ability to get down and dirty with the best of them when the going gets rough.
It has also got the logo of one of the world’s most respected and revered car makers mounted proudly and prominently on its grille, which for some buyers will be all they need to know.
X-CLASS SOON TO BE EX-CLASS
Weeks after I had penned this review for Caravan World, Mercedes-Benz confirmed the widely circulated rumour that its X-Class mid-size pickup would cease production from the end of May 2020.
After years of building anticipation and bold announcements about the impact the luxury brand could have in this new workhorse segment, in the end the X-Class will be remembered as a short-lived one-trick pony from the world’s oldest car maker.
In an official global statement released on January 31, Mercedes-Benz confirmed that the model’s demise came as a result of the decision, taken in early 2019, to not proceed with production of the ute in Argentina. The X-Class is manufactured at a Nissan plant in Spain and there were plans to extend manufacturing to Argentina but “the price expectations of the Latin American customers have not been economically viable,” the statement said.
Mercedes-Benz Vans Australia confirmed that its last X-Class order was placed in January and it would not order any further stock. A spokesperson said there was enough stock in the system to satisfy current demand, which is running at around 180 units per month. The spokesperson added that ongoing service and warranty coverage will continue to be provided by the approximately 52 Mercedes-Benz Vans Australia dealerships that stock or have previously sold the X-Class.
In the end Benz’s flirtation with the dual cab ute market was surprisingly brief, with owners left to ponder what the end of production will do for their residuals. No doubt it won’t be positive, but for anyone who has always wanted a ute with the iconic three-pointed star on the bonnet, you now have more dealership bargaining power than ever.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Width (excluding mirrors) 1916mm
Ground clearance (unladen) 222mm
Kerb mass 2190kg
Gross Vehicle Mass 3250kg
Gross Combined Mass 6180kg
Towing capacity unbraked/braked 750kg/3500kg
Towball (max) 350kg
Engine 3.0L intercooled turbodiesel V6, DOHC
Transmission Seven-speed automatic
Power 190kW at 3400rpm
Torque 550Nm at 1400-3200rpm
Gear ratios 1st 4.377, 2nd 2.859, 3rd 1.921, 4th 1.368, 5th 1.000, 6th 0.820, 7th 0.728
Final drive 3.357
Fuel capacity 80L
Suspension Independent, double wishbones, coil springs (fr); live axle, coil springs, multi-link (rr)
Brakes Ventilated discs (fr); ventilated discs drums (rr)
Wheels 19in alloy
Warranty Three years/200,000km including 24/7 roadside assist.
Roof load 100kg
Style Pack including privacy glass on rear windows, electric sliding rear window, side-steps, roof rails, alternative 19-inch multi-spoke alloys with 255/55R19 tyres and full-size spare ($2090); leather seats ($1750); metallic paint ($950)
Bed-liner ($899); chrome sports bar ($1551); full towing kit ($2063)
PRICE AS TESTED $88,718 plus on-road costs
PRICED FROM $79,415 plus dealer and on-road costs
Please visit www.mercedes-benz.com.au/vans