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X-Class much more than Navara clone: Mercedes

X-treme: Mercedes briefly put the X-Class to the test on a 4x4 course and racetrack near Cape Town.

Mercedes execs talk up differences between X-Class and Nissan Navara donor car

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Mercedes-Benz logo21 Jul 2017

By TIM NICHOLSON in CAPE TOWN

MERCEDES-BENZ insists its all-new X-Class ute is much more than simply a badge engineering exercise with its Renault-Nissan Alliance partner, with the German prestige manufacturer confident that buyers will not be concerned about its Navara origins.

The X-Class was revealed at a media event in Cape Town, South Africa, this week ahead of its Australian launch in April 2018, and while pricing and specification is yet to be confirmed, it is likely to carry a premium over more mainstream fare such as the Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux and the Nissan Navara on which it is based.

Asked by GoAuto what percentage of the X-Class were Mercedes parts and panels, the global head of Mercedes-Benz Vans Volker Mornhinweg said he did “not count percentages” and defended the company’s decision to use the Navara as the basis for its first-ever one-tonne utility.

“We were more focused on what is the competitor set in the market for pick-ups,” he said. “The … strengths and weaknesses from our competitors. And then we said, ‘Okay, what do we have to do to achieve that description?’ And that is what we have done.

“If in some parts it makes sense to work together with our partners and take their parts, yes, why shouldn’t we do that? Because this is not a differentiation which a customer can really … feel, or see. Why should I change it? That’s stupid. You can gain much more economy of scale at the final end.

“On one hand, we are on the planet to make our customers happy. On the other hand, to be honest we have to make the money because we are in the business, because we have to make some money to invest it in new products to attract even more customers. It is a bit of a different approach.”

When pressed on whether prospective buyers would be turned off buying a premium product that was underpinned by a non-premium product, Mr Mornhinweg said consumers would make their own decision.

“The only question is, what about you? Do you see any kind of hurdle to buy this product as a Mercedes Benz? Make your own decision,” he said.

“If, for example, we had it done as a double badge (badge engineering exercise) which you also see in the LCV business, okay then maybe we have a different discussion. I fully agree though and fully understand your question. But it is hardly to say it (X-Class) is a double badge.”

The chief of Mercedes-Benz light-commercial vehicles worldwide also emphasised that it was common in the LCV segment for car companies to collaborate on products in a bid to save money.

“Partnering in the passenger car segment is not that common, but in the LCV business it is quite common. Therefore, it is a natural move,” he said.

“Also to think about this pick-up, for us we had a target that we would like to introduce our product to market with very short-term notice. Second, is that it is a global product that means you cannot only build up one facility and investment in one plant … You have to have that in different places.

“Therefore, we discussed it with Nissan, if they are keen or they have willingness to work together with us. We started these discussions some years ago. They, especially Nissan, have a long tradition in doing pick-ups and the base, from our perspective, was also useable for us.”

Mr Mornhinweg denied that there were challenges in adapting the drivetrain to suit a Mercedes-Benz product.

“To be honest, there was no challenge because we had a clear development target with a pick-up when it comes to driveability, comfort, drive, suspension, turn-in,” he said.

“We set that as a development target because as a Mercedes-Benz product, we have a different or a specific kind of philosophy of how we do that. We describe it, detail (it), then we did it. Then it was for engineering team to fulfil it.”

Mercedes-Benz Vans Australia and New Zealand managing director Diane Tarr told GoAuto that the company had done more than enough to differentiate the X-Class from the Thai-built donor vehicle.

“Clearly, there is very typical Mercedes-Benz styling,” she said. “Of course, it also fits in with the family and the profile of the range of Mercedes-Benz in terms of design. It has a totally different interior, very much in line with the Mercedes-Benz look and feel.

“The vehicle clearly has been developed in consideration with expectations of Mercedes-Benz – from the look, the design, the development, the feel, the comfort, the ride. It has to reach those typical expectations of Mercedes-Benz.

We are very comfortable there are distinct differences.”

Ms Tarr added that Mercedes had been “very conscious” to ensure that the X-Class drove like a typical Benz.

“It has got the Mercedes-Benz badge, it has to look and feel and provide all of those expected qualities of Mercedes-Benz. That was always an absolute strategy of what needed to come out of this vehicle,” she said.

GoAuto rode shotgun during a “co-drive” experience in a pre-production X-Class at a deep-dive media event in South Africa’s Stellenbosch wine region following the unveiling, with a Mercedes staffer tackling the terrain of an off-road track and a racetrack to highlight some of the engineering work that went into the X-Class.

While our time in the passenger seat was brief, it was enough to confirm that Mercedes has a real chance of shaking up Australia’s super-competitive pick-up segment.

Most importantly, there is little evidence of carryover Navara elements in the cabin. In fact, a variety of touches remind you of the badge on the front of the ute, including Mercedes’ cool circular air vents and the lovely leather-clad three-spoke steering wheel.

There is an overall air of quality to the X250d 4x4 four-cylinder Power variant we sampled. The seats offer excellent support and feel like they belong in a C-Class, not a light-commercial vehicle.

But the X-Class is much more than tradie transport.

Our driver took the X-Class for a brief squirt on a private racetrack to emphasise the work Mercedes engineers have put in to ensure car-like ride and handling characteristics.

Under the bonnet of the X250d is a 140kW/450Nm four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine, provided by Nissan, but Mercedes has made changes to the suspension to improve driveability.

The track is wider by 70mm for the front and rear, and Mercedes engineers have changed the kinematics, optimised the friction in the dampers, altered the spring rate and reinforced the frame.

On the racetrack, the X-Class picked up the pace quickly and while there was some bodyroll through bends and chicanes, it was minimal.

Over the off-road course, the X-Class held its nerve well on rocky, muddy and potholed terrain, and proved to be a capable 4x4.

While it would be difficult to measure the changes over the Navara without a back-to-back comparison, it is clear that Mercedes has done enough to make this ute its own.

We eagerly await the first international drive later this year.

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