There we were, sitting in the front row of the Mercedes-Benz X-Class business/theatrical presentation. A man in a cloak saunters slowly to the makeshift stage and delivers an opening monologue about, well, uhm, we’re not really sure what he was on about.
It was something to do with expecting more from life, and doing away with copies of copies of copies. Bad words to mention at this particular launch, because the very first question from a seemingly sceptical audience regarded the X-Class’ humble underpinning. We don’t really see the point, but in case you’ve been living under a rock for two years, the X Class is (in)famously based on the Nissan Navara.
This is good news if you’re an internet troller, because it gets those creative juices flowing again. We see the remarks every time we post something about the X-Class. Our favourite, in case you were wondering, is: “Navara with Mascara.” It’s also nice for the Amarok 2.0-litre, because now the jokesters have another bakkie to make fun of.
It’s less great if you’re Mercedes. If it had gone and built a bakkie from scratch, it would have been labelled as magnificent before it had turned a wheel, but because of the Navara connection, it has a lot of explaining to do. You need to justify why a bakkie that uses the same chassis, engine and gearbox is R200 000 more expensive than its less-premium cousin.In all honesty, we get this car. Bakkies are big business, and not just here in South Africa. Our ball-tampering mates to the south-east love their utes. The best-selling car in America is a truck and even the snooty Europeans have started warming to the idea of trading their vans for something with a load-bin. In fact, why are we even surprised Mercedes went ahead and did this? The only thing that boggles our mind is the fact that neither BMW, nor Audi have announced any kind of interest in this segment.
But we digress. Let’s get this first local driving impression underway with the biggest differences between the Merc and the Nissan.
For the record, we were driving a white X250d Power, which retails as standard for R763 256. The optional extras included Comand Online, a Style Package, reversing camera, all-season tyres, black leather, a rigid towbar, trailer socket and automatic gearbox. These options took it to over R800 000.
Looks run in the family
The most obvious difference is the design. Nissan’s version of this bakkie is already a splendid looking thing, but Mercedes obviously had to implement their own design language.
It’s a fairly nice language and it works on both versions of the car. The toned-down Progressive version looks rugged and ready for some heavy-duty driving, while the Power version wouldn’t seem out of place parked outside an expensive Sandton hotel. It’s pure Mercedes SUV from the front, while the rear felt slightly generic. Most bakkies have this problem, as there are only so many design solutions when you have to take the functionality of the load bin into account.
We were surprised by the number of approved accessories already available for this car. Sliding aluminium covers for the load bin, storage solutions to keep stuff from rolling around and even an all-new RSI canopy that passed Mercedes’ stringent quality control tests. The only thing we didn’t see on the list was cattle rails, but we doubt whether any farmer is going to use his X-Class to transport sheep to the auction.
Overall, it’s a stylish thing with impressive road presence. Everywhere we went, people pointed at us, took photographs to show their mates and once or twice people even tried to coax us into a conversation at a robot. This initial interest will subside in a month or two, but for now, the Mercedes is the bakkie to be seen in.
From behind the wheel
This is the part that really counts, as the interior provided the most artistic freedom in terms of design. It looks nothing like the Navara, which is an impressive feat in itself. The steering wheel is a Mercedes item, as are the buttons and the mouse-like touchpad behind the gear lever. You also get the now familiar iPad-like interface on top of the centre console and the LCD display between the dials in the instrument cluster. If you’ve ever driven a Mercedes, the X-Class will feel familiar. There are numerous optional extras available, but the standard kit felt generous enough.
Mercedes calls it a premium bakkie and given the quality of the interior, we feel they can rightfully claim that title.
What’s it like to drive?
It’s good, both on and off-road. Our test unit was the X250d automatic in Power specification, which will likely be the big seller in the range. Like the Navara, it’s equipped with a 2.3-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder turbodiesel, developing 140kW and 450Nm of torque.
The first portion of our drive was an obstacle course, designed to demonstrate the approach, departure and break over angles. Nothing too drastic, but a fine example of what the car is capable of.
We then drove it up and down a fairly rough mountain pass, which it handled beautifully.
We can’t really comment on extreme off-road antics, as we didn’t do any. But we will say this: the X-Class already has everything it needs for proper off-roading. It has low-range and a rear differential lock, which means it’s already 90% there. Remove the side steps, and we reckon this Merc could stand toe-to-toe with the best in the business.
While the off-road section never really allowed us to explore anywhere near the limits, it did reveal another difference between it and the Navara: the Mercedes is a step above in terms of NVH levels. Close the windows and the loudest thing you’ll hear is the air-conditioner. Does it set the new standard in terms of refinement? You’d have to drive it back to back with an Amarok to make that call, but it will be a close race.
On the smoother gravel sections, we pushed it a bit harder. It’s here where the X-Class is probably at its best. It simply hammers down a gravel road without any drama whatsoever. We tried every trick in the book to get it to misbehave, but short of putting it in 2-High and driving like a loon, you’d struggle to get the X-Class to lose the plot. If you drive long distances on gravel, you really should take a long, hard look at this bakkie.
On road it’s much the same. It sits nicely at the national speed limit, is easy to drive around town and fairly easy to park thanks to all-round great visibility. Top marks in all driving categories, then.
A few niggles
The X-Class isn’t perfect. Even though our drive was limited to eight hours, we picked up on a few things that seem at odds with what is now the most expensive four-cylinder bakkie on sale in South Africa.
First is the key. Nissan owners will be familiar with it. It’s an unimpressive cut and paste job, but Mercedes provided an open and honest answer as to why that is. They had big discussions regarding the key but redesigning it would have cost thousands that it chose to rather spend in other places. We appreciate its honesty, but even the Sprinter we drove recently came equipped with the signature Mercedes-Benz key. As the owner interacts with the key more than any other piece of equipment on the car, we’re not sure Mercedes went the right route on this one. At least design a new case in which the current key’s components can be accommodated…
The second niggle regards the various cameras around the vehicle, which can give you a live feed of the front and rear wheels. We loved a similar system in the Subaru Outback, but it doesn’t work in the X-Class. Even when you’re going at 5km/h, the rocks and bushes look like they’re flying by at 100km/h. It’s an optional extra, however, and one we wouldn’t bother fitting.
The final issue is the one that nearly drove us insane. Parking sensors are a joy when parking in a tight spot in the city, but they can be deeply annoying when you drive in the bush. In every other double-cab, there’s a manual override to disengage the system or it switches itself off when you engage low range. The Mercedes also has an override button, but it reverts back to standard mode after 30 seconds. For two hours we had to listen to the car beep and bong its way over a mountain. At least it seems like it would be a quick software fix, which we hope Mercedes implements as soon as possible.
It’s a tough call with this car. Yes, it is expensive, but you do get a lot over and above the Navara in terms of badge appeal, NVH levels and driving comfort. Oddly, the Navara is equipped with more luxuries as standard. Does is feel worth R200 000 more than the Navara? The unfortunate answer is no, even if you take the extended warranty/service plan and improvement of the NVH levels into account.
But there’s another competitor to consider here. If you’re talking expensive bakkies, we can’t not consider the V6 Amarok, which is cheaper than the current top-of-the-line X-Class…
We reckon this is a good beginning, but we can’t help but feel that the X-Class, as the world’s first “premium” bakkie only really works when it’s so far removed from the rest of the competitors that there’s no need for it to justify its existence.
The model we’re talking about is the 190kW V6 350d, which will arrive here early next year. This model will use a Mercedes engine, gearbox and it will have to be beefed up underneath to cope with all that additional power.
For now, it’s easily one of the best bakkies on sale, but we were kind of hoping it would be the best.