It looked like a small, innocent stream.
The kind of stream that potters through an Andean mudflat never offending anyone, not really having much to say for itself apart from the odd languorous gurgle or quiet splash. Certainly no cause for alarm for a big, capable pickup, or its experienced and confident driver. After all, we’d just driven over part of the Andes in Chile and had managed to traverse puckeringly barrierless mountain roads, successfully run the gauntlet of the vagaries of South American driving and even crossed a small waterfall which had inelegantly bitten off part of the carriageway. Which means that when the brand new Merc X-Class flumped into the area immediately around the stream—an
area with all the properties of claybased quicksand—with the finality of the truly, not-going-anywhere, forget-about-it stuck, I was surprised.
And also pretty thoroughly bewildered. Though the word I actually uttered was shorter, and more expletive.
No phone signal, obviously, situated as we were ‘somewhere’ in the mountains, which as it turned out is a fairly useless coordinate from where to arrange rescue. No recovery gear, and a two-wheel-drive photography chase van positioned on the roadway some distance away. Engaging diff-locks and low-range brought merrily spinning wheels and movement, although in the wrong direction, because the X-Class simply burrowed deeper into the mire, until it sat on its sills with the front bumper sort-of folded back into itself.
I got out, sank to my knees in mud, and repeated to myself, “Always walk it first, always walk it first”, like a mantra of the damned. One of those situations where there’s no escape for the ego, simply because you couldn’t say this was any fault of the vehicle; conditions like this would require either a monster truck or a tank to successfully conquer, and I had attempted them in a road-biased luxury pickup on road tyres. Which, I was alarmed to note, was slowly but quite obviously… er…sinking. And this a vehicle I had promised, without caveat and only a few hours earlier, to look after and not do anything silly with. Ah. About that.
The thing about mudflats in general is that there are surprisingly few features to work with when you’re stuck. There are no grasses you can weave a traction mat from, no logs to throw under the wheels. There are a few rocks—which get slurped into the mud as soon as you position them under the wheels—and one, lonely piece of two-by-four with which to dig. But dig I did, mostly uselessly, although it did give me something to do while the chase car went off to see if they could flag down any sort of help. At some point I lost my shoes. It didn’t seem
very important at the time.
It was a few hours until we managed to get some assistance, by which time the nose of the X was definitely a decent few degrees away from the horizontal. I was covered in mud, shoeless and getting desperate. I think the lovely Chileans were some sort of roadworkers, though they could have easily been firemen, and a few short tugs with a towrope later and we were free. The bumper popped itself back out with only a slight crease, and for all intents and purposes, we then just had a very muddy X-Class to show for it. So I cleaned it in the nearest river, by the simple expedient of driving it into said river and hand washing it. Literally. Unfortunately, this had the effect of liberally scratching the paintwork in horrible washy spirals, like disfunctional tribal tattoos. This, it has to be said, was not one of my better days.
Up to this point, things had been going well. The X-Class is a new direction for MercedesBenz, a take on posh practical not seen since before the G-Wagen became an inter-urban, hundred-thousand-pound fashion tank. A pickup, done the Mercedes way. Except, not entirely, because the X-Class is a co-production between several companies, who all take the basics and then add their own flavor, which means the X is actually a Nissan Navara, and a Renault Alaskan. Hmm. This does not bode well. Still, it looks inoffensive, even lightly handsome—and yes, it looks better in the metal than it does in pictures, in my opinion. The underpinnings are modern for a pickup—with proper rear suspension instead of sturdy-butcrashy leaf springs, and there’s a proven pair of diesel engines—2.3-liter four-cylinder apiece, in 163hp (X220d) or 187hp (X250d) formats, the latter getting a twin-stage turbo instead of the mono in the former—to work with. There’s also selectable four-wheel drive on most versions, and a few toys. In fact, there are three model lines—Pure, Progressive and Power— with the X220d getting a six-speed manual in Pure or Progressive, the rest equipped with a seven-speed auto. A basic X comes in at P1,959,190 but you can spec them well into the 40s once you start slapping on one of the seven option packages and accessories. That’s a lot of money for a pickup truck, especially as they generally don’t feel very much like a proper SUV or passenger car. Ever. You put up with workhorse attitude in a workhorse, less so when you pay thoroughbred money. So this had better live up to the premium hype.
Saying that, the interior feels more elegant than the competition—though you can see where money has been saved by not reengineering the gear-selector positioning— and as soon as you pull away, the X-Class is quiet and remarkably smooth. Both things not usually associated with something with a load bed and flap tailgate. This is interesting: a pickup has to be sprung to cope with everything
‘If you want to overtake, you’d best plan, submit an application and wait’
from a bare bed to a full ton payload, and subsequently feels harsh when there’s nothing in the back. The X-Class copes admirably with no ride-settling load, and actually rides as well as some SUVs. This is good. No, it’s not a magic carpet, and you’ll still get some chassis shudder and bobble on wonky potholes and expansion joints, but it’s the best pickup for ride quality I’ve driven in a while. And it’s quiet. In fact, knocking around Santiago town, the X-Class does all the things that Mercedes says it should—it’s comfortable, classy and feels like a Mercedes. There’s a lot to be said for a bit of brand appreciation, and I can see how a company might quite like its ‘work cars’ to be Mercs —even if they are the utilitarian palletcarrying kind.
It certainly gets plenty of attention— although we’re in the top-spec version—and you can see where Mercedes is going with it. In fact, it’s not until we start to wend our way out of town that things start to get a little less happy. Pottering about, it’s easy to ignore the engine, which is actually pretty forgettable. But as we disappear off into the mountains, its lack of grunt starts to become apparent. Bluntly, the X-Class struggles with the four-cylinder engine and auto ’box. Yes, the Andes are famous for being a bit high, but even without the inherent breathlessness of altitude, the 187hp powerspec’d car (a not-inconsiderable P2,400,00) we have is woefully slow to react. If you want to overtake, you’d best plan, submit an application and wait. Seriously, kickdown accounts for a two-elephant count before anything happens, and even then you aren’t exactly subjected to forceful acceleration. It is fine when geareddown in the lower ratios as we traverse the many off-road and tricky sections, but A-road and motorway miles are…relaxed.
To be fair, in answer to this chink in the X-Class armor, we also manage a passenger ride in the forthcoming (middle of 2018) diesel V6 with 255hp and a lump more torque—the X350d. A car which answers all of these questions and more, and transforms the X-Class into a full-house ‘proper’ Merc product. If you want the all-round Mercedes experience, then there’s really only one engine option—because the four-pots make the X-Class feel compromised. It’s a decent enough pickup, quieter, and more recognizably ‘premium’ from the inside—but you need that V6 to make it feel like it costs. This all leads up to the point at which we came in, because, after establishing that the X-Class looked good and felt nicely premium, I was in the mood to find out whether that engine and transmission could actually stand up to the more agricultural side of things. Hence why I headed off into the mountains for the day, and eventually onto the fateful mudflat of doom. Indeed, after a few more hours of photography, we wrangled our favorite and brilliant Mercedes PR man, lightly threatened him until he gave up the location of a decent valeter, and went and had the X-Class polished, before taking it back. Which is how I appeared back at home base, birthed from a freshly laundered X-Class, covered in mud and shoeless, looking like I’d just been running a marathon. Or indeed just been run over.
“What happened to you?!” exclaimed the worried-looking PR lady. “Oh... er… nothing really, just… fell over.” I replied, looking anywhere but at her, and limping towards the hotel bar. “And lost your shoes?” she said, somewhat incredulously. “It was a bad fall…” I said. And with that, my deception was complete, because nobody ever found out what actually happened on that mudflat in the Andes. Until now.