It looked like a small, in­no­cent stream.

Top Gear (Philippines) - - Mercedes X-class -

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.

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