Blue collar, blue chip
Now that the $60K ute is a common sight, Benz ups the ante with its high-riding, ambitious workhorse
UTE sales are about to surge in the same way SUVs have done over the past decade.
By the year 2025, there will be more than 2.8 million “compact pick-ups” sold globally each year, an increase of almost 40 per cent compared to today.
Which is why Mercedes-Benz has unveiled what it claims is the world’s first luxury ute — the X-Class.
The market is growing fast and buyers are spending big. More than half the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger utes sold in Australia cost in excess of $60,000. And still they can’t keep up with demand.
“More and more people consider pick-ups like SUVs,” Mercedes-Benz global boss Dieter Zetsche tells media at the unveiling of the new ute in Stockholm this week.
“History is repeating. What we saw 20 years ago with SUVs we are seeing today with the pick-up market.”
According to Zetsche, buyers are looking for “car-like attributes ready for landscapes and well as cityscapes” and utes that look “as much at home on a worksite as they do outside the opera house”.
Volker Mornhinweg, the man in charge of bringing the ute to market, says: “We will not only enter this segment, we will extend it. We will open up this segment to people who never considered it before.”
In Australia, utes are already the third biggest segment of the new-vehicle market after small cars and SUVs, a trend that is not lost on Mercedes market analyst Anja Kratzenstein.
“The pick-up market has changed, they are now being bought by passenger-car buyers,” she says. “To us this means the pick-up is ready to become a premium car, so we have developed the ute to more lifestyle and private usage.
“Customers are getting more demanding and we believe they want a luxury offering. A pickup today is functional and emotional.”
The new Mercedes ute has appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The brand was able to expedite the program by basing it on the current generation Nissan Navara.
The Japanese maker did the deal with Mercedes-Benz only two years ago, after the latest generation Navara had already gone on sale.
For its part, Mercedes says the X-Class is “still a Mercedes through and through”.
Mercedes-Benz pick-up expert Dr Klaus Benzinger says the X-Class is “clearly a Mercedes developed vehicle, with Mercedes technologies”.
“(But) we also have a team we are working with in Japan and we are using the production capacities of Nissan to be able to come to market and meet demand.”
Mercedes utes bound for Australia will be built in a Nissan factory in Barcelona, Spain, rather than much closer Thailand, our main source of pick-ups.
Regardless of the Nissan origins, Mercedes has given its ute a complete major makeover, with a unique body and a luxurious car-like cabin.
The flagship of the fleet will be powered by a Mercedes 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6 that will make it one of the most powerful utes in its class.
But the more affordable four-cylinder turbo diesel versions will use Navara engines and transmissions. The X-Class will be wider than the Navara and come with German suspension tuning.
Mercedes safety technology will be added, including radar cruise control and crash avoidance.
The Mercedes ute promises to be as much a workhorse as a show pony, able to carry up to 1200kg -- and tow up to 3500kg (the same as the current benchmarks) — “to deal with any condition you can imagine”.
For now, there are no plans for a basic two-door version; Mercedes is going for the cream of the crop. There are also no plans for a V8-powered AMG ute, although Mercedes executives this week said “never say never”.
Prices have yet to be confirmed, given local deliveries are so distant.
An educated guess, however, would indicate the first Mercedes-Benz ute is expected to eclipse Australia’s luxury car tax threshold (currently $63,184) when it goes on sale in early 2018.
The ute market might be there but will Mercedes-Benz price itself out of reach?