X-CLASS IN SLOVE­NIA

Meet­ing the new Mer­cedes V6 Bakkie.

Road Trip - - CONTENTS - Story & Im­ages © Lance Bran­quinho

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.

Ger­man-built en­gine

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.

Des­ti­na­tion rev­e­la­tion

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.

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