First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz X-Class

First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz X-Class
 

Dare we say, the Mercedes-Benz X-Class could be the most anticipated vehicle of 2018. The product embodies two things that South African consumers love dearly. That is the ruggedness and versatility of a pick-up truck, plus the cachet of the one and only three-pointed star emblem. On paper, it looks like two ingredients that are destined to result in a successful recipe.

But there are other elements to this dish, of course – including a stock derived from oriental origins. By now, you already know that the X-Class is the result of a joint-venture with Nissan, which availed its Navara platform for the Germans’ use. At the global launch in Santiago, Chile last week, Mercedes-Benz representatives seemed tetchy when quizzed about the relationship.

And they were adamant that their rendition was a total encapsulation of that “best or nothing” brand tagline, despite sharing DNA with the Japanese firm.

My colleague and I played a little game before embarking on our test route. How many Nissan bits could we spot? Well, it starts with the exterior. The front is distinctively Mercedes-Benz. From the side, not so much: it looks like a verbatim copy of the Navara, with the same profile, door handles and mirrors.

The rear culminates into something more nondescript. Hopping inside, Mercedes-Benz owners will find a number of items that look out of place. The air-conditioning controls, for example, as well as all the switchgear in the headliner. Switches for the electronic windows and seat adjustment are also lifted from its connection in Yokohama.

And then, more curiously, is the key: the same fob you would get with a Nissan Juke – albeit with a Mercedes-Benz logo tacked on. Not really ideal, if you plan to put your keys down on the table at Newscafé on a Friday night. People from the manufacturer said it was a cost thing. But this is supposed to be a premium offering, is it not?

One has to delve a little further to identify the aspects that are authentically Mercedes-Benz. They exist under the skin, as evidenced by our driving experience, which spanned across the freeways, mountain roads and dirt tracks of Chile.

It employs the same 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel engine as the Nissan Navara. In this case is it available in two states of tune. We drove the more powerful, twin-turbocharged X250d. When we sampled the Navara earlier this year we noticed that this unit erred on the noisy side. In the case of the Mercedes-Benz, its operation is noticeably hushed – ostensibly due to a more liberal sprinkling of insulation materials. A six-speed manual transmission is on offer, but given the highbrow ambitions of this X-Class, we expect consumers would opt for the seven-speed automatic instead. It works rather well.

In addition to the X220d and X250d, there will be an entry-level X200 petrol model – but that is not likely to arrive in our market. However, the prospect of a flagship X350d V6 derivative seems rather enticing. It could land locally towards the end of 2018. We experienced a passenger ride in a pre-production version of the X350d, which felt acceptably rapid. But that could have been the overwhelming elevation changes of our closed circuit route – featuring the kind of drops and rises that cause your heart and stomach to play musical chairs.

Back to our drive. Aside from intrusive wind noise at speeds upwards of 115km/h, the levels of tranquillity in the cabin were impressive. As too were the abilities of the X-Class when it came to filtering out disturbances underfoot. It rides well – perhaps on the firm side, but not to the point of jarring occupants.

This is owed in part to the multi-link rear suspension derived from the Navara, but Mercedes-Benz obviously claimed to have done revision work too. But take these impressions with a pinch of salt, because the models destined for our market will have a different setup: the ground clearance will be greater than that of the model sold in Europe.

Although many parts of the X-Class appear to have left an ambivalent view, its technological virtues are undeniably impressive. And it will usher in a number of firsts for the pick-up truck segment. That includes electronic aids such as lane-keep assist and traffic sign recognition.

In addition, it will feature the Mercedes Me service available in the rest of the Mercedes-Benz passenger car range. This comprises a communications module with an integrated SIM card, this gives access to roadside assistance, emergency services and a function that helps a customer make bookings for maintenance visits. Certainly, these niceties can only be expected on the upper-tier X-Class versions. There will be three model grades: the basic Pure, the middle-grade Progressive and the top-level Power.

Pricing will be essential to how well the X-Class fares. There are more than a handful of bits that reveal its status as an automotive joint venture. And if people are asked to pay Mercedes-Benz money for a product that is not truly a Mercedes-Benz in some areas, we doubt the response will be favourable. – Brenwin Naidu