Europeans only recently discovered how useful a bakkie can be, which is why it’s not too late for Mercedes-Benz to enter this growing market. Will the X-Class become the most desirable bakkie on Earth? We travelled to Eastern Europe to find out.
It’s summertime in Slovenia and we’re racing through the forested foothills of the Alps. A surge of white dust billows behind our Mercedes-Benz X-Class and the mighty V6 roars as we take turn after turn. Suddenly we burst out of the woodland onto a lush green valley floor. In front of us on a grassy plain lies a hamlet called Sveti Ožbolt (population: 78). We tap the paddle shifters to reduce speed. Sveti Ožbolt is a community like hundreds of others in this mountainous region. Next to every house with its pitched roof is a gigantic stack of firewood waiting for winter. Townsfolk are making good use of the sunny weather by working in their gardens, and there’s a young girl dressed in a T-shirt and hot pants flirting with the neighbour’s son – he’s probably the only guy her age in the entire village… Everyone stops to stare as we pass by in our X-Class. With all the wood carrying, gardening and flirting happening in these parts you’d expect this to be bakkie country, but in the two days we spent exploring Slovenia in the X-Class, we encountered only three other bakkies: a VW Amarok and two Ford Rangers.
Europeans, particularly those from the former socialist Eastern Europe, are not used to bakkies. But things are rapidly changing, and in Germany, for example, bakkie sales have increased by 57% from 2014 to 2017. That’s why Mercedes-Benz has so much confidence in its X-Class, especially the V6 model.
Inside and out
On the outside there’s very little difference between the 350 d and the 250 d we reviewed in go! Drive & Camp #12. Even the alloy wheels are identical. The only way to identify a 350 d is by its chrome V6 Turbo badge on the fender panel and the discrete X 350 d insignia on the tailgate.
On the inside the differences are more difficult to spot. It’s only the ride mode button next to the infotainment interface and a different 4WD button which doesn’t offer a 2WD mode since the V6 has permanent four-wheel drive. When the V6 arrives in South Africa during the first quarter of 2019 it will be available in two trim levels: Progressive and Power. The latter boasts more lavish materials such as leather seats and aluminium trim in the cabin. It is after all the flagship in the X-Class range.
How does it fare on tar?
The difference in ride quality between the 250 d and the V6 is notable. Everything feels different thanks to Mercedes’s own powertrain – from the engine to the wheels – which don’t come from Nissan. Mercedes’s 3.0 turbodiesel delivers 550 Nm from a low 1 300 revs per minute and this torque remains unchanged right up to 3 200 rpm. The engine is a perfect match for Mercedes’s 7G-TRONIC PLUS automatic transmission, which doesn’t suffer a long pause in power delivery during gear changes. You can also change gears manually by means of two paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. There are five Dynamic Select ride modes to choose from: Comfort, Eco, Sport, Manual and Offroad. The modes change the behaviour of the transmission and engine response. When you turn the key, the ride mode is set to Comfort by default, which instructs the transmission to smoothly change gears rather than race through them. In Eco mode the transmission changes gears sooner in an effort to save fuel, and in Sport mode the gears stay engaged for longer and the engine reacts faster to accelerator inputs. In Manual mode you have full control over the transmission and you’re forced to use the paddle shifters. The pauses in power delivery during gear changes are short in any ride mode, but in Manual the gears change lighting fast. On paper, the X-Class V6 and the VW Amarok V6 sport similar figures, but in reality the Mercedes’s ride feels livelier than the Volkswagen, partly due to a stiffer suspension setup, which gives the Merc brilliant roadholding ability. >
And on dirt?
The X-Class’s 4MATIC permanent four-wheel drive uses a two-stage transfer case from the G-Class (once known as the Geländewagen) and Mercedes’s own axles. The central differential transfers the drive force in a fixed torque distribution of 40 and 60%, favouring the rear wheels. An optional diff lock on the rear axle helps when conditions become exceedingly tough.
You can switch from high to low range while driving (below 40 km/h) by turning the 4WD dial to the low-range position followed by selecting Neutral and then switching back to Drive. You can even engage low range on a steep slope because the 4MATIC four-wheeldrive system will prevent the X-Class from rolling out of control down a mountain when you select Neutral.
We put the X 350 d V6 through its paces on narrow logging trails in the Slovenian Alps and the X-Class’s traction control kept us from going off the rails (literally). The electronic traction control together with the permanent all-wheel drive forbade us from sliding the tail out and drifting sideways through corners, which was just as well.
On an obstacle course near the picturesque town of Medvode, about 20 km north of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, we turned off the nannying traction control and engaged the low-range gearing. The X-Class’s 4MATIC four-wheel-drive system enabled it to follow a G-Class over almost any obstacle. What does hold it back, though, is its relatively poor approach, departure, and breakover angles – to be fair, it’s a handicap affecting most double cab bakkies.
X-Class or Amarok: Which one is the best? Mercedes-Benz cares very little about its competitor’s attempts at creating an equally powerful and luxurious bakkie. The carmaker from Stuttgart knows that people who earn Mercedes-Benz salaries will always pick a Mercedes-Benz product above anything else. Is the X-Class the most desirable bakkie in the world? That’s a matter of personal taste, and the majority of South Africans will no doubt continue to choose either a Hilux or a Ranger. If, however, you’re lucky enough to be able to afford an X-Class, start preparing yourself for snide remarks. Amarok owners also had to endure ridicule before the bakkie finally proved itself. But you can take comfort in the fact that most bakkie enthusiasts are actually simply green with envy.
SIMPLY SMART. The interior is striking, but not in an overbearing way. All of the buttons you need are there and none of the ones that you don’t. The 360° camera is a useful optional extra, but it’s not essential. The dashboard is all plastic, but at least it’s easy to keep clean.
POWERHOUSE. There’s enough space in that engine bay for a V8. Just sayin’... Upon asking if there will ever be an X63 AMG version, we received only wry smiles and shrugs from the engineers and marketing people. Seriously though, the V6 offers more than enough power.