Tak­ing a spin in Merc’s much-awaited bakkie

It’s more than a Navara in a fancy mink coat, but is there enough Mercedes flavour to jus­tify the pre­mium po­si­tion­ing?

The Star Early Edition - - FIRST DRIVE - JA­SON WOOSEY

THE EA­GERLY-awaited Mercedes-Benz X-Class was re­vealed to the world, in full show­room guise, at a glitzy event at Cape Town’s har­bour last week and it was quite fit­ting that the pre­mium car­maker chose to stage its global pre­miere on lo­cal shores.

For starters, South Africans have a love af­fair with the bakkie, par­tic­u­larly the one-tonne va­ri­ety. We’re into pre­mium brands too, so it’s lit­tle sur­prise that Mercedes-Benz has iden­ti­fied South Africa as one of the key mar­kets for the world’s first pre­mium-branded prod­uct to com­pete in the mod­ern one-tonne seg­ment.

It’s not the first Mercedes bakkie ever, but that’s a story for an­other day.

And yet the new Merc’s de­but has sparked some fin­ger wag­ging, with many ac­cus­ing the X-Class of be­ing noth­ing more than a Nis­san Navara in a fancy mink coat. Sure, it does share its chas­sis, door pan­els and most of its en­gines with the afore­men­tioned Ja­panese bakkie, and it’s also built in the same Span­ish fac­tory. That is to save on the ex­or­bi­tant de­vel­op­ment costs that Mercedes would have had to fork out for a prod­uct of un­proven pop­u­lar­ity, bean coun­ters will tell you, be­fore go­ing on a long “ef­fi­ciency of scale” tan­gent.

Yet has Mercedes-Benz added enough of its own fancy flavour to jus­tify the in­evitable pre­mium po­si­tion­ing? The ex­te­rior styling is likely to strike the right chord with con­sumers, par­tic­u­larly the frontal de­sign that mim­ics Merc’s mod­ern SUV range. While the doors are ba­si­cally iden­ti­cal to Nis­san’s, the Benz does have smoother wheel arches and a unique, if some­what un­der­stated, rear end.

It’s an all-Benz af­fair in­side, with some high-end fin­ishes on the larnier-spec ver­sions and el­e­gantly stitched leather seats avail­able in a choice of colours.

The X-Class will be avail­able in three flavours: Pure, Pro­gres­sive and Power. There were no base ‘Pure’ mod­els on dis­play at the launch event and in pic­tures they look quite plain and work­man­like, but the Pro­gres­sive and Power de­riv­a­tives that I was able to climb into felt rather plush, for the most part, with ‘cooltouch’ sil­ver shadow trim­mings and var­i­ous alu­minium and wood­grain ‘ef­fect’ in­lays. The up­per dash is soft to the touch, but the large bulging lower-to-mid­dle mass of plas­tic is not ex­actly pre­mium in ap­pear­ance or feel.

For the most part, how­ever, Mercedes-Benz has de­liv­ered a classy cabin, and it’s also avail­able with the widest se­lec­tion of ma­te­ri­als and colours in its seg­ment, and a fairly glut­tonous ar­ray of giz­mos and gad­gets.

By now you’ll be itch­ing to know whether it drives bet­ter than the av­er­age bakkie. Un­for­tu­nately it’s too early to tell for sure. No jour­nal­ists will get to drive the new X-Class for at least an­other few months as it is still in the early pre-pro­duc­tion stages. How­ever, the global me­dia con­tin­gent present at the re­veal did get to ride shot­gun for a 15 minute track and off-road course.

Step­ping into the pas­sen­ger seat of a 4x4 model in range-top­ping ‘Power’ guise, and with the Nis­san-sourced 2.3-litre tur­bod­iesel en­gine idling, I was im­pressed by how quiet it was in­side once the doors were closed.

Mercedes as­sures us that it has fit­ted plenty of ad­di­tional sound-dead­en­ing ma­te­rial to the X-Class, while its en­gi­neers also toyed with the en­gine map­ping, sus­pen­sion char­ac­ter­is­tics and steer­ing ra­tio. Like the Navara, the Merc’s back end rides on coil springs rather than leaf springs, al­though it still has a live rear axle. An in­de­pen­dent dou­ble-wish­bone sus­pen­sion does ser­vice up front.

It would be un­fair to de­liver an as­sess­ment of the ride qual­ity and han­dling based on 15 min­utes in the pas­sen­ger seat, but with the nec­es­sary big dis­claimers at­tached, I can per­haps blurt “so far so good.” Driven at speed over badly pot­holed dirt tracks, it felt com­fort­able by bakkie stan­dards, al­though with an empty load bin it still felt some­what bouncier than I’d imag­ine a mod­ern car-based SUV would feel. This ma­chine still has to ac­com­mo­date heavy loads, af­ter all.

Same goes for the rac­ing cir­cuit por­tion of the short route, where my driver skill­fully pushed it through tight cor­ners and mul­ti­ple emer­gency lane change sim­u­la­tions at near-fright­en­ing pace, and though there was con­sid­er­able body roll, as you’d get in any high-rid­ing, lad­der-box-con­structed bakkie, the X-Class just held on for dear life. Based on that, and prop­erly driven, I can see it pass­ing the so-called “moose test” with fly­ing colours.

Per­for­mance im­pres­sions will have to wait un­til we ac­tu­ally get be­hind the wheel, but for the record, the afore­men­tioned 2.3 is of­fered in 140kW/450Nm twin-turbo and 120kW/403Nm sin­gle-turbo guises, mated to ei­ther a six-speed man­ual or seven-speed au­to­box. Mercedes will of­fer its own V6 tur­bod­iesel en­gine as a flag­ship op­tion from mid2018, tuned to 190kW and 550Nm and mated to a seven-speed au­to­box.

The course in­cluded some of­froad ob­sta­cles that showed the bakkie’s abil­ity to han­dle a rear wheel in the air sce­nario (where the op­tional diff-lock comes into play) as well as crawl up and down steep gra­di­ents, where the low-range gear­ing and Down­hill Speed Reg­u­la­tion showed their worth.

The 2.3-litre diesels will be of­fered with ei­ther rear-wheel drive or part­time four-wheel drive, while the V6 will come stan­dard with a per­ma­nent four-wheel drive sys­tem, al­beit still sport­ing low-range. Mercedes claims a ground clear­ance of 222mm.

All lo­cal specs and prices will be con­firmed closer to its April 2018 pro­jected on-sale date.

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