X-CLASS IN SLOVENIA
Meeting the new Mercedes V6 Bakkie.
The Mercedes-benz X-class bakkie is now available with a Swabian-sourced V6.
Lance Branquinho met up with the V6 double-cab version in the beguiling green Alpine valleys around Ljubljana in Slovenia.
The Slavic language is not one that is easy to master for non-native speakers; especially the habit of not stumbling over word spaces where you expect a vowel but find none.
Ljubljana, for instance: the Slovenian capital is akin to a mini Bern, with Slovenes drawing a European parallel as Slavic Swiss, but try pronounce it slickly at the first few tries. Impossible. Since the summer of 1991, when a momentous declaration of independence from the remnants of a collapsing Yugoslavia established Slovenia, the tiny Alpine nation prospered.
Fertile valleys, towering peaks, and an abundance of water make Slovenia one of the most ecologically balanced countries on Earth. A responsible and responsive administration since independence has also made it the most equal society in the world, with a thriving free market, bustling tourism sector, and the second lowest inequality coefficient of any nation. With Alpine villages joined by limestone mountain roads and huge expanses of forestry, it is also one of the few places in Europe where a pickup serves any purpose.
We are here, in Slovenia, to make the acquaintance of what can rightly be classed as a true double-cab bakkie by Mercedes-benz: the X350d. Although the X-class has been on sale for a few months, the notion of it being merely a Nissan Navara with better sound and cabin vibration insulation has not dissipated within the public consciousness.
This latest X-class is supposed to alter perception. Crucial to achieving that goal is its engine: a 3-litre V6 turbodiesel, designed in Stuttgart and built in Berlin. Logic dictates that a German double-cab bakkie should in principle be powered by a German engine, not a Japanese one – which is the case with the parallel powerplants running in all those four-cylinder Navaras and X-class bakkies.
The claims for X350d are significant. Mercedes-benz engineers whisper numbers to us, quite rightly on corroboration of the details, that this is the fastest double-cab bakkie in its class. Boosting 190 kw and 550 Nm, it runs the 0-100 km/h benchmark in 7.5 seconds and will run a 205 km/h top speed too. Considering the size and topography of
Slovenia we are unlikely to test the top speed claim, but the extreme gradients and narrow limestone surface mountain passes serve up a challenging blend of terrain to evaluate this ‘more German’ X-class.
Precious little differentiates the X350d from its four-cylinder siblings: there is V6 badging on the front quarter panel but not much else. Start it up and the clues to that engine being larger and benefitting from two additional cylinders are even less obvious.
The routing of the day will take us deep into Slovenian Alpine forest country, which mean a lot of sheer
climbing and exhaustive sequences of hairpin bends. Not ideal double-cab driving conditions if you are of the traditional South African bakkie mindset, but the events staff of Mercedes-benz are adamant that there is method to their choice of Slovenia as a venue.
Serene Alpine terrain
Rolling along everything appears a bit too serene: Heidi-like Alpine terrain, thanks to the unrivalled cabin refinement of the X-class, you feel insulated from the outside world passing you by. It also lulls one into an underwhelming sense of expectation when an opportunity does present itself, to bury the throttle and experience the potential of the V6-turbodiesel.
Married to the engine is an automatic gearbox of Mercedes-benz’s own design, and it converts the 550 Nm of the X350d to a surge of propulsion. Despite the substantial mass of the bakkie, it feels indisputably athletic. The seven-speed shift pattern algorithm is not confused by trailing throttle up steep gradients either, as we climb into the wooded wonderland that is the Upper Gradaščica valley of Slovenia.
A mere 40-minute drive from Ljubljana, the Alpine hamlets look for all the world like Switzerland, but for the curiously Slavic names, with impossibly steep and green slopes dotted with some of the most content cows you will ever encounter. At the peak of our route there is a splendid sense of isolation: you might be in one of the smallest countries in Europe, with a population density many times that of South Africa, but amidst these hidden valleys, the privacy and privileged experience of Alpine nature is at its most splendid.
The X-class is stellar too: effortlessly powerful, crushing the long climbs with its overwhelming combination of abundant torque and exceptionally broad spread of gears. The real test is a descent which now awaits, winding down a gravel road, which is only one bakkie wide at many points along the passage.
Our destination is Polhov Gradec, home to one of the most spectacular examples of Habsburg Empire architecture in all of Slovenia. Despite the additional mass, it has over its front axle with the larger V6 engine, the big ’Benz double-cab that never feels awkward on the descent. Impeccably calibrated steering makes it easy to place and soon we have glided down the pass, rounding dozens of hairpins, before entering Polhov Gradec through its magnificent arch.
On the return journey to Ljubljana we happen upon a low-volume traffic window on the highway, allowing the X350d to illustrate how adept a highspeed cruiser it is. For South African double-cab customers, who routinely set upon long journeys, the swiftness and overtaking muscle of this X-class V6 will be a major boon.
Slovenia has been a revelation too and very much in theme with the double-cab bakkie lifestyle. A winter skiing destination without rival, in summer those slopes and forests open to world-class mountain biking whilst the rivers offer unparalleled kayaking.
The towns are quaint, and that sense of differentiating Slovenian identity is proud but never anything less than hospitable. Perception alters with the benefit of experience. Slovenia is not a ‘Slavic Switzerland’. It is an Alpine destination of its own volition. Just like X350d is not a Navara V6, it is a proper Mercedes-benz double-cab, with a convincingly German engine and transmission – which has made all the difference.
No, we never managed to ask what the Slovenian word for ‘bakkie’ is, but we are sure it would be nearly unpronounceable.