Blue col­lar, blue chip

Now that the $60K ute is a com­mon sight, Benz ups the ante with its high-rid­ing, am­bi­tious work­horse

Mt Druitt - St Mary's Standard (East) - - CARSGUIDE - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING ED­I­TOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au

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?

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