When news broke in 2015 that Mercedes-Benz was planning to enter the booming dual cab ute market, many an eyebrow was raised.
Prevailing wisdom said that the Stuttgart-based car maker is a prestige brand and hence has no business messing about in the muddy wheel tracks of the dual cab 4x4 market.
What this view failed to acknowledge, however, is that Germany’s oldest and most famous luxury car maker has a long history of making rugged and reliable commercial vehicles. There’s a reason the Australian Defence Force use Benz G-Wagens, and it’s not because of their leather.
Image Credits: Cam Inniss and Mercedes-Benz.
Of course, the X-Class also generated headlines for other reasons as well; principally because it wasn’t an all-new model as such, but a re-engineered version of a Nissan Navara. That really got the purists fuming, but Benz’s logic was hard to fault; developing an all-new model from the ground up costs billions of dollars and takes at least five years, whereas a partnership gets a car to market sooner, and at a lower cost.
Still, with Ford’s Ranger and Toyota’s HiLux regarded as the benchmarks in the category, many wondered why Mercedes didn’t look to partner with one of those, rather than a solid and dependable mid-fielder like the Navara? The real answers are no doubt buried in reams of arcane corporate contracts and locked in a vault in Stuttgart, but suffice to say Mercedes-Benz and Nissan already had existing platform and engine-sharing partnerships in place, so the Navara may simply have represented the path of least resistance.
Perhaps just as important is the fact the top-tier, dual-cab 4x4 Navara on which the X-Class is based, is differentiated from pretty much all of its rivals by the use of a coil sprung rear end. In this category leaf springs are still very much the proven configuration for hard-working commercials, but with their traceable links to the horse and cart they’re not such a good fit for Mercedes-Benz, with its carefully-crafted image as a safety and technology leader.
As Nissan has found out, though, opting to go with more comfortable and sophisticated coils does have drawbacks when it comes to load lugging. Put simply, beefing coil springs up to give them something approaching the load-lugging ability of a leaf spring setup, often negates the ride and handling benefits that promoted their fitment in the first place. Nissan has certainly struggled to get the balance right during several iterations of the current Navara.
Meanwhile, over at Mercedes-Benz, it’s fair to say that the X-Class hasn’t exactly set the ute category on fire, either, managing a total of 16,700 global sales in 2018 in the limited number of markets where it is sold. By comparison, the Toyota Hilux, with a much wider global distribution and a nameplate that goes all the way back to 1968, sold close to over 500,000 utes in that same period.
It’s a similar story here in Australia, where the X-Class managed 1,500 sales in 2018, versus nearly 51,705 sales of the 4x4 and 4x2 HiLux. That said, X-Class sales are up by a healthy 50-odd per cent this year, so it’s possible Aussie consumers have simply taken a while to wrap their heads around the concept of a Mercedes-Benz ute.
UNDER THE HOOD
Some of the sales issues may also be attributable to the fact the X-Class launched with the Navara’s four-cylinder turbo diesel engine, rather than a ‘proper’ Benz engine.
Mercedes responded to that criticism in December 2018 with the launch of the grunty 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel we’re testing here, immediately propelling the X-Class to the top of the league table in terms of power and torque, along with VW’s Amarok.
Importantly, the V6 is a Benz designed and engineered unit, featuring all-alloy construction, DOHC 24-valve cylinder heads, common rail fuel injection, a variable geometry turbo and a single counter rotating balance shaft to iron out some diesel vibration.
The new engine comes fitted in two high-spec X-Class model, the Progressive and the Power, costing $73,240 and $79,415 respectively. If you’re thinking “wow, that’s expensive for a ute”, then you’re right, but then a top-spec Ford Ranger Raptor retails for $74,990, while a VW Amarok Ultimate 580 V6 costs $72,790, so it’s not that over the top.
AN EXTENSIVE OPTIONS LIST
You can obviously also spend a whole lot more by shopping the extensive factory options list. Our X-Class featured leather seats ($1750) and metallic paint ($950), along with a ‘’Style Pack’ ($2090). The latter includes an electric sliding rear window, rear privacy glass, side-steps, roof rails and alternative 19-inch alloy wheels.
The Style Pack also includes a full-size spare, which — along with the standard tyre-pressure warning monitor — came in handy, as we copped a puncture during testing.
In addition, the Benz box tickers also added a protective load tub liner ($899), chrome sports bar ($1551) and full towing kit ($2063). Tote that lot up and you’ll note we were rolling, extra carefully thanks, in nearly $90k worth of premium ute. Yowser!
ARE YOU SITTING DOWN?
Despite their spiralling price tags, rear seat accommodation in most dual cab utes is pretty ordinary, and the X-Class is no exception. Aside from the usual difficulties with ingress and egress into the high cab, the seats are oriented with an upright backrest and a high squab that means you sit in knees up position with headroom for tall passengers at a premium.
The driving position is comfortable and everything is well laid out, though, with an 8.4-inch multimedia screen at the centre of the dash featuring navigation and 3D maps, as well as an Around View Monitor. There’s also a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors, both of which come in handy as the 5.3-metre X-Class isn’t exactly nimble, as evidenced by its 12.8m turning circle. Bug bears include the lack of steering reach adjustment, the absence of a driver’s footrest, and minimal oddment storage in the centre console.
PLAYING IT SAFE
As you might expect from this brand the X-Class is impressively well appointed on the safety front, with four-wheel ventilated discs, and an array of electronic safety aids, including anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, brake assist, and trailer stability assist. There’s also autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and airbags seemingly everywhere.
The latter includes driver and front passenger front and side airbags, driver knee airbag, driver and front passenger side airbags, and front to rear curtain airbags.
Collectively, that lot contributes to the X-Class’s excellent five-star ANCAP safety rating.
FROM ZERO TO HERO
Out on the open road the X-Class gets along very nicely indeed, its 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel punching out a healthy 190kW and 550Nm, the latter available between 1400 and 3200rpm. For the record, the only engine that comes close in the category is VW’s Amarok V6, with figures of 165kW/550Nm.
Hitched to a smooth shifting seven-speed automatic gearbox, the V6 fires the unladen X-Class from 0-100km/h in an impressively brisk 7.9 seconds. By way of comparison, Ford’s Ranger Raptor covers the distance in a claimed 9.9 seconds, while the Amarok V6 claims an identical split.
MULTIFARIOUS DRIVING MODES
There are steering-wheel mounted paddle shifts to enable manual gear selection if desired and the auto offers no less than five different driving modes — Comfort, Eco, Sport, Manual and Off Road — via a switch on the console.
In Comfort mode there’s some turbo lag evident, which is most noticeable when you suddenly want a bit more acceleration at low speeds, such as when turning into traffic out of a side street.
Switching to Sport sharpens throttle and gearbox responses noticeably and largely negates the issue, but we found the mode a little too frenetic for everyday driving, so switched back to Comfort as soon as possible.
SHARING THE TORQUE AROUND
Unlike the Navara and most others in the category which feature selectable 4x4 systems and typically run in 2WD, driving the rear wheels until the front axle is manually engaged, the X-Class features permanent all-wheel drive via a central-differential.
In its normal 4MATIC mode the system varies torque 40:60 front to rear but can send up to 100 per cent of torque to either axle when slip occurs. There’s also the option to engage 4H at speeds up to 100km/h for a 30:70 split, or 4L which brings in the low-range gearing and splits torque 50:50. If that lot still hasn’t got you out of trouble, there’s also an electronic rear differential lock which provides a further level of traction aid.
AT THE BOWSER
Of course, the towing fraternity will be thinking that being an all-wheel drive, there’s likely to be a penalty at the bowser, and they’d be right, up to a point. The V6 ticks over at a lazy 1650rpm at 100km/h in top gear with Mercedes claiming a highway cycle figure of 8.1L/100km, while around town the figure is 10.0L/100km, and the combined cycle 8.8L/100km.
As always, these ADR figures are somewhat optimistic, and over our 700km tow route from Melbourne to Dargo and back, towing a 2020 Jayco CrossTrak 16.48-1 with a Tare weight of 1500 to 1549kg, we averaged 14.9L/100 km.
The Jayco ran with no water or gas but around 100kg of gear inside, so our final tow-weight was circa 1600 to 1700kg. Hence, with its fuel tank capacity of 80 litres, the unladen X-Class should have a combined-cycle range of around 900km, while with the Jayco in tow we’d be topping up roughly every 500km.
HOW IS IT TO TOW WITH?
Despite the coil sprung rear end, the Jayco’s moderate (about 130kg) ball weight meant the X-Class tray never sagged and the ride remained nicely compliant throughout. The steering errs on the light side and lacks a bit in terms of feedback when laden, and we noticed the steering weighting-up slightly when accelerating on loose surfaces, as the all-wheel drive system shuffled drive to the front end.
We didn’t get a chance to test the X-Class with a lot of additional weight in the tray, so can’t comment on how payload affects the ride, but it towed strongly, rode well and was impressively quiet even when under load.
Aside from the aforementioned lag when accelerating off the line, the V6 pulls strongly and smoothly, feeling very under-stressed and managing this load relatively easily. Using the adaptive cruise control system was simple and never felt unsafe, but it was best to leave the radar at full length to allow the ute more time to decelerate evenly.
In summary, Mercedes-Benz may have arrived late to the dual cab ute party and taken a short cut to get there, but the X-Class V6 is an impressive piece of kit that offers class-leading performance, impressive dynamics, a strong safety package, and the ability to get down and dirty with the best of them when the going gets rough.
It has also got the logo of one of the world’s most respected and revered car makers mounted proudly and prominently on its grille, which for some buyers will be all they need to know.
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Width 1916mm (excluding mirrors)
Ground clearance 222mm (unladen)
Kerb mass 2190kg
Gross vehicle mass 3250kg
Gross combined mass 6180kg
Towing capacity unbraked/braked 750kg/3500kg
Towball (max) 350kg
Engine 3.0L intercooled turbo diesel V6, dohc
Transmission Seven-speed automatic
Power 190kW at 3400rpm
Torque 550Nm at 1400-3200rpm
Gear ratios 1st 4.377, 2nd 2.859, 3rd 1.921, 4th 1.368, 5th 1.000, 6th 0.820, 7th 0.728; Reverse 4.041; Final Drive 3.357; High/low 1.000/2.900
Style Pack ($2090) [includes privacy glass on rear windows, electric sliding rear window, side-steps, roof rails, alternative 19-inch multi-spoke alloys with 255/55R19 tyres and full-size spare]; Leather seats ($1750); Metallic paint ($950)
Bed-liner ($899); Chrome sports bar ($1551); Full towing kit ($2063)
Fuel capacity 80L
Suspension Independent, double wishbones, coil springs (front); live axle, coil springs, multi-link (rear)
Brakes Ventilated discs (front); ventilated discs drums (rear)
Wheels 19in alloy
Warranty Three years/200,000km including 24/7 roadside assist.
Roof load 100kg
RRP $79,415 (plus dealer and ORCs)
As tested $88,718 (plus on-road costs)
CAMPER STAR RATINGS
Value for money — 7
Towing performance — 8
Solo performance — 9
Build quality — 8
Offroad ability — 8
Comforts — 9
Fuel economy — 8
Engine power — 8
Innovation — 8
X-Factor — 7