Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - X-Class
Distinctive styling, cabin redesign, top-class refinement, ride/handling balance
Room for improvement
Four-cylinder powertrain, big turning circle, no Distronic technology
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11 Apr 2018
By TERRY MARTIN
MAKE no mistake, the arrival of the Mercedes X-Class is one of the biggest moments on the 2018 motoring calendar given it heralds the entrance of the prestige market leader into the incredibly popular 4x4 dual-cab one-tonne utility segment.
That Mercedes has also decided to get a piece of the action as quickly as possible by forging a partnership with Nissan (and Renault) for its donor vehicle – the current D23 Navara launched in 2015 and upgraded twice for the Australian market since then – also makes this a significant marker for the German luxury vehicle manufacturer, which is considered by consumers as a cut above the rest with its commercial vehicles and does not want to be seen, whether real or imagined, as having compromised its brand integrity.
The famous three-pointed star badge will alone guarantee a strong surge of X-Class sales from buyers faithful to the brand, but has Mercedes done enough to draw interest from Australians who have owned utes from other brands over many years and need a compelling argument to make the switch?
Mercedes-Benz understands that people – be they prospective customers, dealer staff or journalists – will question its decision to use the Nissan Navara as the basis for its X-Class, but is confident that seeing, feeling and driving its first-ever ute will provide an answer in its favour.
It is not uncommon for car companies to save costs by sharing commercial vehicles – Mercedes already does it with the Renault Kangoo-based Citan van sold overseas, for example, and there are various partnerships operating in this mid-size ute segment, such as the Ford Ranger/Mazda BT-50 and Holden Colorado/Isuzu D-Max.
No one, however, wants to be associated with the dirty “badge engineering” term, especially in this class where the sales potential is huge, competition intense, consumer expectations high and the customer base broad.
Mercedes says its desire to reach the market quickly ruled out developing its own ute from the ground up – as Volkswagen did with the successful Amarok – and so a deal was struck instead with the Renault-Nissan Alliance.
This has seen seen the forthcoming Renault Alaskan emerge from the same underpinnings, while Mercedes – which is quite prepared to brand the Renault as an exercise in badge engineering – has gone to great lengths to create something unique.
This is immediately apparent with the styling of the X-Class, which despite being based on the Navara’s platform is clearly wider, shares no body panels with the donor vehicle and carves out its own presence – not just when seen parked on a forecourt, but particularly on the road, when the striking front fascia and LED lamps (front and rear) are easily spotted from a distance.
Stepping into the top-spec X250d Power automatic provided for us on the launch in Tasmania this week – priced from $64,500 plus on-roads, and fitted with a $2490 ‘Style’ package – also reinforced this impression, such is the extent to which Mercedes has redesigned the cabin to make it look, feel and function as though its bloodline descends directly from its passenger vehicle stable.
We can’t say we really noticed the extra 50mm width that liberates a bit more shoulder room compared to Navara, while the absence of reach adjustment to the steering wheel does smack of compromise.
Yet in virtually every other respect the execution and attention to detail is at a level one would expect from a Mercedes commercial vehicle.
This impression is immediate with the comfortable and well-bolstered driver’s seat, the thick-rimmed steering wheel that feels just right for this application and the appealing presentation across the dash with its distinctive design, high-grade trim, unique instrument cluster (including large central display) and the Comand multimedia system with console controller and large high-mounted centre touchscreen.
It is all genuinely upmarket for this segment and soon reinforced on our first local drive by higher-tech features that come into play such as the 360-degree camera (including screen at the tow hitch point) and lane-departure warning system vibrating through the tiller, although advanced functionality like active assistance is not included.
Distronic, and all the top driver-assist tech that comes with it, is not yet available.
Hitting Hobart’s modest peak-hour traffic highlighted an extremely firm brake pedal feel at lower speeds – part of a set-up that includes rear disc brakes (uncommon for this class) and in overall terms proved effective across our drive route – and, perhaps above all else, the vehicle’s outstanding refinement.
Just as engine and road noise felt far removed from the cabin across rain-soaked city streets, higher-speed driving over a mix of wet and dry roads and various surface grades (bitumen and dirt alike) lent credence to the claim that X-Class is a class leader in this area.
Large bumps, loose gravel, broken tarmac, potholes full of rain, even Tasmania’s unique roadkill hazards failed to intrude into the X-Class cabin in terms of undue noise, vibration and harshness – a level of sophistication that was similarly felt with the fine balance Mercedes has struck with the ride comfort and handling of a such a big vehicle.
Ride quality was generally excellent in the unladen X250d Power and its dynamic performance places it among the leaders in this segment, with high levels of grip on the optional 19-inch rubber, good composure at the rear end, a notable absence of excess body movement in directional changes and no excessive intervention from the electronic handling electronics.
Playing a part here is extra strengthening conducted on the Nissan/Renault ladder-frame chassis, major suspension revisions (although the basic set-up is the same) and unique steering calibration.
On the latter, Mercedes says the X-Class has a faster gear ratio for the rack-and-pinion steering than the recently updated Navara, and although accurate enough it’s not transformative and requires plenty of work at lower speeds. There are 3.5 turns from lock to lock and the turning circle is an unwieldy 13.4m.
The least impressive aspect of the X-Class is the four-cylinder powertrain, which is lifted directly from the Navara and even in 140kW/450Nm twin-turbo guise – in concert with the seven-speed automatic transmission – leaves us feeling a little short-changed.
While the extra sound-deadening applied to the X-Class reduces engine noise, the Mercedes ute, at 2234kg, is 255kg heavier than the top-spec 4x4 ST-X dual-cab auto Navara – and feels it.
It is certainly slower from a standing start, and in tight, undulating terrain the X-Class feels at least 50Nm short of the mark – and that’s unladen.
Allow the X-Class to stretch its legs on faster-flowing roads and everything comes together in relatively seamless fashion, but we can’t help urging prospective buyers to consider that a 190kW/550Nm 3.0-litre V6 diesel is due on sale before the end of the year.
We also tackled a slippery off-road course which highlighted the dual-purpose nature of the X-Class – and its limitations.
The hill-descent control system and related electronics generally work well keeping the vehicle in check and speeds at a constant 8km/h, but the road tyres were quickly clogged with clay and keeping the rear end from stepping out proved a challenge on a slippery, muddy downhill section.
There were no clearance issues, and while centre and rear differential locks are included, the low-range gearing does allow speed to gather quickly down steep gradients when the driver least suspects it. At least manual gear selection is available on the auto for the driver to take matters into his or her own hands.
Is X-Class worthy of the Mercedes badge? Based on this first drive, in the comprehensively equipped flagship variant, it does.
But in its rush to market, there are detail points here – powertrain being the most significant – that do not place the X-Class as the undisputed leader in the all-important segment, a position many would have automatically assumed the German luxury brand would take when it decided, six years ago, that it would build a very bloody fancy you-beaut ute.
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