A CHANGE OF HEART

Trans­plant­ing a Stuttgart en­gine into an Al­liance-flavoured body has done won­ders for Benz’s pre­mium bakkie

Car (South Africa) - - DRIVE -

GIVEN that I’ve only got three pages at my dis­posal here, I’m go­ing to be frank off the bat and ad­mit that I wasn’t at all taken with the four-cylin­der X250d man­ual we tested in May 2018. It isn’t a bad bakkie per se but, de­spite the lengths to which Daim­ler had gone to stamp its iden­tity on the X, the mod­estly pow­ered 2,3-litre four-pot tur­bod­iesel and long-throw man­ual gear­box did lit­tle to plas­ter over short­com­ings you’d hoped to find ab­sent in such a pre­mium-priced ve­hi­cle. For some­thing with that famed chrome tri­corn on its nose, it sim­ply doesn’t feel like a Mercedes-benz; the choice of powertrain and cer­tain Nis­san Navara quirks con­trasted with the re­fine­ment and per­for­mance for which the brand is known. The con­nec­tion to its work­ing­class rel­a­tives was sim­ply too close for com­fort.

On the face of it, the idea of slot­ting a Benz V6 tur­bod­iesel and an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion into the equa­tion was never go­ing to amount to a sea change in my per­cep­tion of the X-class but, put sim­ply, I was wrong.

Cer­tainly, the X350d’s ex­te­rior gives lit­tle sug­ges­tion of mean­ing­ful change; the main dif­fer­en­tia­tor is a brace of rather sub­dued chrome V6 badges on the front wings. Flag­ship Power spec­i­fi­ca­tion fea­tures such

cos­metic ex­tras as 18-inch al­loy wheels, a matte-sil­ver bash plate up front and a chrome-plated rear bumper. Other­wise it’s X-class as usual, be­ing at­ten­tion­grab­bing in the bold­ness of its front-end de­sign and badge nov­elty, but not overly bulky of frame.

It’s a sim­i­lar story in­side, where Power des­ig­na­tion sees the likes of leather-ef­fect up­hol­stery and elec­tri­cally ad­justable seats in­cluded. Un­for­tu­nately, reach ad­just­ment for the steer­ing col­umn re­mains ab­sent in the V6 but at least the seats are sup­port­ive and eas­ily po­si­tioned into a favourable driv­ing stance.

It’s down by the driver’s knee that the great­est changes are afoot. That stubby gear­lever links to a seven-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion of Mercedes-benz’s own de­sign rather than Nis­san’s unit, which is in turn cou­pled with a model-spe­cific ver­sion of Benz’s long-serv­ing 3,0-litre OM642 V6 tur­bod­iesel, which does ex­ten­sive duty in a wide va­ri­ety of the rm’s sedans, light com­mer­cials and SUVS. Here, its out­puts roughly mir­ror those of the E350d, with the ex­cep­tion of torque where the ap­pli­ca­tion of the seven-speeder, as op­posed to the sedan’s nine-gear unit, sees the torque out­put drop from 620 N.m to a still-brawny 550 N.m. Those gures put it slightly be­hind the up­com­ing, class-lead­ing 190 kw/580 N.m re­vised VW Amarok V6 (launch­ing here in 2019, too).

On a mix­ture of mo­tor­way and wind­ing ru­ral roads in Slove­nia, the X350d’s en­gine thor­oughly im­pressed. Al­though there’s plenty of low-end shove, the ap­pli­ca­tion of a vari­able-ge­om­e­try tur­bocharger means that power de­liv­ery is pleas­ingly lin­ear and prac­ti­cally lag-free.

Mercedes-benz’s Dy­namic Se­lect driv­e­train-man­age­ment sys­tem is stan­dard on the V6, serv­ing up ve pre-tai­lored throt­tle- and gearshift-map­ping op­tions. Usu­ally these sys­tems are more of a gim­mick than any­thing, with lit­tle pal­pa­ble dif­fer­ence be­tween each pre­set, but in the X350d the con­trast be­tween the de­fault com­fort mode and sport is de nitely dis­cern­able. The lat­ter set­ting bet­ter har­nesses the en­gine’s power and no­tice­ably sharp­ens throt­tle re­sponse to un­earth the shovein-the-back ur­gency that com­fort masks so well. The gearshifts are smooth and well con­sid­ered, al-

low­ing you to con­cen­trate more on how well the V6 ac­quits it­self.

Mo­tive power aside, per­haps the most im­pres­sive as­pect of the en­gine is just how re­fined it is. The OM642 unit fea­tures a counter-ro­tat­ing bal­ance shaft nes­tled be­tween the cylin­der banks that off­sets much of the in­her­ent vi­bra­tion the en­gine would other­wise gen­er­ate. The re­sult is an ab­sence of diesel throb through the steer­ing wheels and ped­als, mov­ing the pickup’s per­ceived drive qual­ity up sev­eral notches above that of the four-cylin­der.

The more en­gag­ing sec­tions of our drive re­vealed the X350d to be rea­son­ably nim­ble for a ve­hi­cle of its ilk, sel­dom feel­ing floaty or top-heavy when ne­go­ti­at­ing tight turns, and pos­sess­ing a steer­ing rack with gear­ing that strikes a good bal­ance be­tween feel and ease of use. The dou­blewish­bone-front, mul­ti­link-rear sus­pen­sion no doubt plays a part in keep­ing the X350d’s mo­tions in check yet, de­spite that ex­tra bit of kerb weight iron­ing out some of the kinks, the ride still be­comes fid­gety on bro­ken sur­faces.

Mercedes-benz re­mains some­what cagey re­gard­ing the price sticker that the X350d will wear but it’s widely be­lieved that a sub-r1 mil­lion fig­ure is the ul­ti­mate goal. We’ll see whether or not that is pos­si­ble. That’s a lot of money for any car, let alone a leisure bakkie. At least this model has the re­fine­ment and power ex­pected of MercedesBenz’s wares.

The old adage “big­ger is bet­ter” – re­gard­less of its broader con­no­ta­tions – has worn thin in an au­to­mo­tive world where im­pres­sive down­sized en­gines are be­com­ing the norm. In the case of the X350d, how­ever, that ex­tra dis­place­ment goes a long way to mak­ing it feel a proper part of the Mercedes-benz fam­ily.

clock­wise from top Seven-speed auto ‘box is a smooth op­er­a­tor; cabin is well nished but er­gonom­i­cally quirky; good ground clear­ance and tough un­der­pin­nings make it a ca­pa­ble off-roader.

With 190 kw/550 N.m on tap, there’s more than just punchy per­for­mance; the X350d shoul­ders loads of 965 kg and serves up a braked tow rat­ing of 3 500 kg, al­low­ing it to tackle pretty much ev­ery­thing a fam­ily can throw its way.

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