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Mercedes X-Class design challenges

Aussie watch: Mercedes carefully studied the Australian-developed Ford Ranger’s exterior design before it took to the Nissan Navara to carve out its own presence in the one-tonne utility segment with the X-Class.

Different proportions, various details separate Mercedes ute from Nissan donor

25 Oct 2017


MERCEDES-BENZ has revealed that the rear half of the X-Class one-tonne utility proved to be the most difficult part to develop, even though it was free from the usual ‘what went earlier’ constraints that normally challenge the company’s designers and engineers.

At around two-and-a-half years in gestation, Daimler’s priorities for its first-ever mid-size pick-up – which is based on the Nissan Navara – were to be better looking than the Australian-developed Ford Ranger on the outside, roomier and more inviting than the Volkswagen Amarok on the inside, and more refined than both.

According to Mercedes-Benz director of design brands and operation Kai Sieber – who oversees the design of the company’s vans and trucks (and Smart vehicles) – the X-Class project was a truly global effort, with his team working towards producing a modern, well-proportioned and distinctive pick-up with styling that is consistent with brand form – and different to the Navara.

“(Daimler management) asked me what I needed to do a really premium Mercedes pick-up, and I said what I wanted better proportions,” Mr Sieber revealed to GoAuto at the launch of the X-Class in Chile last week.

“Because it’s what people first see, how it stands on its wheels. I wanted a wide track, I wanted to give the car shoulders, and fill the wheelarches, so that the body is further in than the outside of the wheels.

“And the X-Class had to follow our corporate design philosophy, too, which is ‘sensual purity’… so the whole body should seem like it’s sculptured out of marble, really monolithic.

“Whatever you do, whether it is an S-Class limousine or a B-Class, you are always stuck with proportions, or conditions that comes from a plan, from package, from safety, from pedestrian impact.

“We never did a pick-up, so it was great, really exciting. A lot of creativity we put in. We also sketched up a lot of stuff that we ended up throwing away because a lot of it didn’t work, but we started from a completely blank sheet of paper.” With no shared body panels with Navara to hold him back, Mr Sieber said that the best opportunity to really hit the mark with the pick-up’s design was with minimal front overhang and an exaggerated rear section.

“Mercedes is well known with S-Class in having a proportion with a short overhang at the front and a long overhang in the rear,” he explained. “That’s a typical mid-size truck proportion, too, of course, but we exaggerated that by almost completely chopping away the front overhang, while the rear is completely the contrary.

“Many competitors cut with the tail-light into the side to shorten and lighten the rear overhang, but we didn’t do that, it’s completely metal (looking at it from profile). So that gives it a very special and unique proportion.”

However, attempting to create a distinctive new visual language at the back end of the ute created all sorts of problems, particularly when it came to tail-light placement and other smaller details, and Mr Sieber said it proved to be a huge learning curve for him and his team.

“Things started differently on the rear,” he said. “Nobody in the segment has any type of tail-lamps that runs into the tailgate (so that’s what we tried first) … but some people drive with the tailgate open, so we looked at putting (the tail-lights) into the bumper (HQ Holden-style).

“But if somebody wanted to load using a forklift then the bumper has to come off, so there were limitations there, and ultimately there wasn’t the freedom we thought we would have.”

Employing a narrow, vertical and non-wraparound tail-light is a visual point of differentiation both in profile as well as rear-on, exaggerating the X-Class’ size and proportions and helping create a unique styling signature for the brand, according to Mr Sieber.

“What’s important for us in the side view was extremely short overhang in the front and long in the rear … the car overall seems more massive and bigger, and that’s how it came to be at the rear,” he said.

Mr Sieber also confirmed that the door skins between the X-Class and Navara are not identical.

“Geometrically it is not the same as the Navara,” he said. “The Nissan’s is a little steeper and sharper, but it looks very much the same, I admit. The glass might be the same but the door skin is completely different, as is the rest of the body.”

Mr Sieber also revealed that the X-Class concepts from October last year were produced after the production design was frozen, meaning that Mercedes felt compelled to stay true to the finished product with the show vehicle.

“Of course, when we did the concept, the design process had already ended,” he said. “We wanted to be pretty honest, so with the overall proportion all of the surfaces were already production surfaces, as well as the interior.

“We did exaggerate the rear theme, so instead of the (vertical tail-lights) feature line we did it as a light band, because as (the production version) was still a year away, we didn’t want to reveal everything we also modified the nose with a one-bar rather than two-bar grille.

“So, theme-wise we indicated the topic but simply exaggerated it a bit for the concept … so we didn’t actually ‘take anything back’ for production.

“In fact, you could say it was the other way around. And the concept was only 20mm wider, so the final vehicle is almost as wide as that concept.”

The Mercedes design veteran added that the one of the hero colours – yellow – was a late inclusion in the palette as a result of its reception in concept form.

Mr Sieber finished off by saying that even though the X-Class was a truly international effort with proposals coming in from Brazil, the US, Turkey and Asia, it was an honour for a European to help shape the look of a vehicle that is usually associated with Americans.

“It was like a dream come true,” he said. “It’s a real thrill for a German designer to design a ute. I am very proud of that … it isn’t often a German can say he or she did a truck!”

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