Most car-like bakkie is a mat­ter of class

IN­TER­NA­TIONAL LAUNCH/ Lind­say Vine Smyth drove the new Mercedes X-Class in Chile to see if it is wor­thy of the badge

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

Chile is a land of con­trasts: sunny skies and snow­capped moun­tains; sky­scrapers and shacks; and where the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the cap­i­tal, San­ti­ago, jux­ta­poses with the sim­plic­ity of its many vil­lages.

Fit­ting then that MercedesBenz chose this South Amer­i­can coun­try as the lo­ca­tion for the launch of its pre­mium pick-up, the X-Class, for this is in­deed a car of con­trasts.

First un­veiled as a con­cept in Swe­den, in the flesh the X-Class is dis­ap­point­ing in com­par­i­son. From the front it is im­pres­sive, sleek and un­mis­tak­ably a Mercedes, but the de­sign de­part­ment knocked off for sauer­kraut and a schnitzel at that point.

Gone are the in­ter­est­ing lines we saw on the con­cept’s body panels, lend­ing wel­come funk to the oth­er­wise bor­ing de­sign ba­sis that makes up a bakkie.

It looks fa­mil­iar, but the Ger­man ex­ecs are prickly at the men­tion of the N word. It’s no se­cret the new­comer is based on the Nis­san Navara’s plat­form, but what ev­ery­one wants to know is how much three-pointed star they’re buy­ing, or is this a case of ex­pen­sive badge en­gi­neer­ing?

Yes, the Merc has the same un­der­pin­nings as the Navara, as well as the Re­nault Alaskan which will ar­rive in SA in 2018. The trio all roll off the same right-hand drive pro­duc­tion line in Barcelona. How­ever, the Ger­man de­vel­op­ment team is vo­cif­er­ous about the fact that few Navara parts have been “un­touched” to make the prod­uct known as the X-Class. Call it fet­tled, mod­i­fied, rein­vented, im­proved, per­fected … just don’t call it a Navara.

STRETCHED

The lad­der frame ba­sis has been re­tained to do duty on X, how­ever it has been stretched to pro­vide a longer wheel­base. It has a wider track, but Mercedes has stuck with the coil spring sus­pen­sion at the rear that Nis­san has been both praised and crit­i­cised for.

This is where the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween the two bakkies lies and, for that mat­ter, any other bakkie. The X-Class is by far the most car-like work­horse I have driven and if this was Mercedes’ pri­mary goal, it has hit the nail on the head.

On launch, we drove 500km on high­ways, moun­tain passes, dirt roads, rut­ted tracks and also through ter­ri­ble pot­holes. Sound fa­mil­iar?

The ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind the wheel of the X-Class tells me it will fare well on South African roads for those want­ing a com­pli­ant ride that is not too soft.

The en­gine is quiet and re­fined for a diesel and the cabin is as quiet as a Mercedes should be.

The en­gine line-up for SA is yet to be con­firmed but mod­els avail­able in­clude a base 2.4l petrol en­gine, a duet of 2.3l diesels and a range-top­ping 3.0l V6 (190kW and 550Nm). There is a choice of man­ual or auto gear­boxes and rear or four­wheel drive.

In Chile we drove the X250d 4Matic. This fea­tures the biturbo en­gine di­rect from the Navara, mated to the Ja­panese firm’s seven-speed au­to­matic gear­box. Out­put is bang on with the Nis­san at 140kW and 450Nm, but the Ger­mans say both pieces of hard­ware have been tuned to Mercedes stan­dards.

I found the en­gine to have plenty of pull and there was lit­tle lag on the auto box, which is fre­quently a prob­lem when try­ing to over­take in a bakkie. Be­hind the wheel, it may not be up to the “best or noth­ing” stan­dards, but it is cer­tainly no Navara and I re­ally en­joyed driv­ing it.

Off-road too the X-Class is im­mensely ca­pa­ble. With a wading depth of 600mm and ap­proach and de­par­ture an­gles of 30° and 25°re­spec­tively, it had no prob­lem tack­ling the var­ied off-road course we drove.

Only the cars we drove of­froad fea­tured raised sus­pen­sion which we will re­ceive as stan­dard in SA, tak­ing the to­tal ground clear­ance up by 20mm to an im­pres­sive 222mm — great on the rough stuff but it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the ex­tra height af­fects on-road han­dling.

There’s low range and an op­tional diff lock on the rear while the down­hill speed reg­u­la­tion was the busi­ness — it fea­tured none of the grat­ing and grunt­ing some­times heard on steep 4x4 de­scents.

The X-Class boasts a pay­load of 1.1 tonnes and a tow­ing abil­ity of up to 3.5 tonnes.

In­side, it is as pre­mium as you’d ex­pect a Mercedes to be and as plas­tic as you wouldn’t. Our test ve­hi­cle fea­tured a brushed alu­minium dash that was all Merc and gave a re­fined feel to the in­te­rior.

Rather dis­ap­point­ing was the Navara’s plas­tic gear­stick sur­round, which takes up the larger part of the cen­tre con­sole. Apart from two cup hold­ers there is no space to put any­thing un­less you use the fold­ing arm­rest.

The Co­mand sys­tem and con­troller will make it feel more like home for Merc own­ers. The X-Class will also fea­ture Mercedes Me con­nect, al­low­ing it to lay claim to be­ing the first fully con­nected bakkie.

The seats are cos­set­ing and snug and the rear bench has been raised, to pro­vide a more er­gonomic seating an­gle. Taller pas­sen­gers may find it slightly lack­ing in head­room but Av­er­age Joe will be comfy.

I also found it quite dif­fer­ent from other bakkies in terms of the per­cep­tion of size. Dou­ble cabs, while in­ten­tion­ally hulk­ing from the ex­te­rior, can also feel rather brutish from be­hind the wheel. The X-Class, while wider and longer than a Navara and weigh­ing 300kg more, feels less like a tank and not as bulky.

Mercedes needed to make this car “af­ford­able”, so it ac­cepted more than a few Nis­san bits, de­spite its protes­ta­tions to the con­trary. At the un­veil­ing of the Con­cept X-Class in 2016, the head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, Volker Morn­hin­weg, said: “Our fu­ture X-Class will be a pick-up that knows no com­pro­mise.”

Sadly, there is rather a lot of com­pro­mise and the most ob­vi­ous il­lus­tra­tion is in the key fob, a vi­tal sign that you have ar­rived in Mzansi. The X-Class key is di­rect from the Nis­san Juke parts bin. It’s ap­palling, but the Ger­man ex­ecs say it would have been too ex­pen­sive to over­haul the ig­ni­tion sys­tem for the sake of a key. I think it would have been worth it for our mar­ket.

Pric­ing will be the key to the X-Class’ sales suc­cess in SA and that vi­tal in­for­ma­tion has not yet been re­leased. An ed­u­cated guess, how­ever, would put it be­tween R700,000 and a mil­lion bucks, de­pend­ing which model you go for.

You have the op­tion of the en­try model Pure, de­signed for more ro­bust use, the Pro­gres­sive for bet­ter qual­ity and com­fort and the top of the range Power model, which is what we ex­pe­ri­enced and which is squarely aimed at the ur­ban buyer. It goes with­out say­ing that all mod­els will get ex­ten­sive ac­tive and pas­sive safety fea­tures, in­clud­ing seven airbags.

Chris­tian Pohl, head of mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment for X-Class, called Chile an “in­ter­sec­tion of con­trasts” and it’s a fit­ting de­scrip­tion of the model. If Chile’s rich and poor can live along­side each other in har­mony, sky­scrapers look­ing down on tin shacks and bi­cy­cles min­gling with Porsches, then per­haps a sim­i­lar charm can be achieved in the para­dox that is the X-Class.

Cur­rent Merc own­ers will be dis­ap­pointed, but for as­pi­rant own­ers from other brands, the X-Class will be the ul­ti­mate com­bi­na­tion of pres­tige and prac­ti­cal­ity.

Price: On sale date: Max power: Max torque: Top speed: 0-100km/h: Com­bined con­sump­tion:

April 2018 140kW 450Nm 175km/h 11.8 sec­onds 7.9l/100km

CO2 emis­sions: Star rat­ing:

207g/km

Left: One of the most dis­ap­point­ing as­pects is the Nis­san Juke key. Right: The in­te­rior has a Mercedes look but you can­not miss the many Nis­san bits. Left: There is plenty of Mercedes pres­ence and style at the front.

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