Mercedes-Benz X-Class Ute

  • By Andrew Chesterton
  • 25 July 2017

If you happened to have wandered past the Sydney Fish Markets while it was still cloaked in pre-dawn darkness over the past couple of years, there's a good chance you'll have spotted some shady-looking Germans lurking in the car park, quietly watching Australia's ute owners go about their business.

The reason for all this dark skullduggery? Mercedes-Benz had decided to launch the X-Class ute. They just weren't sure exactly how.

It was unexplored territory for Mercedes, and even more so given the minuscule popularity of utes in Europe and the UK, and so the brand's German executives went undercover, flying to Australia and taking trips to the Sydney Fish Markets, or weekend trips to hardware stores and worksites across Victoria and Queensland, to see exactly who was driving these utes, and exactly how they were using them.

"One of the first experiences of our headquarter colleagues was literally waking up at 5:30am and heading to the fish markets in Sydney…or just driving around Sydney, Queensland and Melbourne. They were here for many weeks, at various times," says Mercedes-Benz Australia's managing director - vans, Diane Tarr.

"We did a lot of work ingraining in them the Australian mindset, and showing how people use their utes."

Yep, it's been teased more than a bad Rebecca Black song, but the covers have finally come off the new Mercedes X-Class ute, and what Benz is calling the "world's first premium pick-up" is now locked and loaded for an early-2018 launch in Australia.

Clearly, this is a car intended to appeal to an entirely different demographic to the one Mercedes is most used to targeting.

For an indication of just how rapid a departure the X-Class is from the norm for the world's oldest, and arguably most prestigious, automotive brand, you need look no further than the wave of blue denim that washed over the car's grand unveiling in South Africa.

There are some of the most senior executives Mercedes has to offer, people whose only likely encounter with a ute is when they have to pay the gardener, and here they were dressed-down in jeans and sneakers, strolling casually across the stage like they were hosting a backyard barbecue.

Clearly, then, this is a car intended to appeal to an entirely different demographic to the one Mercedes is most used to targeting, and the brand's executives are bending over backwards to prove it's still in touch with the common folk.

And so we now know almost everything there is to know about the German's Navara-based foray into the utility world, and there's plenty of good news there for Australians buyers.

So read on for our in-depth breakdown on what might just be the most hotly-anticipated commercial vehicle of all time.

It's easy to think the X-Class story began in October 2016, when Mercedes stunned by unveiling two buff and bulging ute-based concept cars, both called the Concept X-Class, in Sweden.

One looked ready for adventure, with bulging guards and tyres studded with thick slabs of rubber, while the other looked a little more premium, more stylish, more geared towards the lifestyle market. We didn't know then which path Mercedes would take with the final version; rugged or refined. In the end, they blended the two together.

But the X-Class story actually started much earlier, and in another place entirely. That place is Yokohama, Japan, a prefecture to the south of Tokyo. It also just so happens to be home to Nissan's headquarters, which is relevant here because the X-Class is based, very heavily, on the Japanese brand's Navara ute.

It's built out of Nissan's factories, too. And there's plenty of under-the-skin stuff (like the part-time four-wheel drive (4WD) system and the two four-cylinder diesel engines) that are identical. But critically, there are plenty of things that are different, too.

Flashback to 2015, and Daimler's board chairman, Dieter Zetsche, has just flagged the Renault-Nissan alliance as a cost-effective way for Mercedes to dive into the pick-up segment, plugging one of the few remaining gaps in the Mercedes model line-up.

"Mercedes-Benz is the fastest growing premium brand in the world," he said in a statement.

"Entering the rapidly growing segment of mid-size pick-ups is an important step in continuing our global growth path. Thanks to our well-established partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, we are able to drastically reduce the time and cost to enter this key segment.

"The Mercedes-Benz pick-up will contribute nicely to our global growth targets. We will enter this segment with our distinctive brand identity and all of the vehicle attributes that are typical of the brand with regard to safety, comfort, powertrains, and value."

A hard-to-believe two years later, and the X-Class is done. Using the key underpinnings of Nissan's NP300 Navara has shaved off years in testing and development, with Mercedes' engineers instead focusing on what it sees as the critical 'Benz' elements: the design, the ride, the technology.

Speaking via video-link at the South African launch of the X-Class, Zetsche was pumped, telling a huge media throng his new X-Class was the "super-mum or super-dad of cars."

"The segment for mid-size pick-ups is ripe for a premium vehicle. With the X-Class we will open up this segment to new customer groups, just as we redefined the off-road segment with the M-Class more than 20 years ago.

"Our pick-up convinces as a workhorse, yet also as a family and lifestyle vehicle. In short, the X-Class is the Mercedes among pick-ups."

While the Concept X-Class vehicles were aggressive - muscular, tough-looking trucks that trended closer to the American idea of a pick-up than the traditional Australian ute - the finished product has been toned down a little.

The dual cab-only X-Class was the product of an international all-in, with hundreds of sketches submitted from Mercedes' international design teams, all of which made their way to Mercedes' German HQ, forming the blueprint for the now-finished product.

The final design blends old with new, fusing Mercedes' existing SUV design language with a new rugged toughness.

Most noticeable is the smooth, uninterrupted body panels devoid of creases or meaningful styling touches.

If you're looking at the X-Class front-on, draw a horizontal line exactly through the middle of the X-Class. The top half clearly plays to the Mercedes-Benz SUV family, with the same bonnet lines and too small headlights, complete with LED 'eyebrows', while the bottom half is all ute, complete with the prerequisite plastic cladding in the cheaper models, giving way to more metal and chrome in the more expensive models.

"It's all in the genes," Mercedes-Benz head of design, Kai Sieber, told CarsGuide. "If you look at the upper part, you recognise it is pure Mercedes-Benz SUV; the grille, the central star, the daytime running lights with the eyebrows.

"But what makes it a pick-up? The lower half is really more robust. It's protective, it's wide.

"We accelerated the proportions, so the short overhang front and the long overhang rear. If you look closely, you can see we really chopped the front-overhang off. And if you look at the rear, all of the other players in the segment try to shorten the optics of the rear overhang by having the taillights blend in the rear, But that doesn't happen here. It's a really premium look."

And, believe it or not, there's more than a little E-Class Coupe in there, too. Most noticeable is the smooth, uninterrupted body panels devoid of creases or meaningful styling touches. Or what Sieber calls "pure".

"We had a long discussion about how pure we could make the car. When we developed this car, we developed the new E-Class Coupe at the same time, for which we went for a very smooth body," Sieber says.

"And so (on the X-Class) we went for the most pure side that we have in our range. But this makes it classic. It's not covered in lines to try and make it fashionable, it looks more timeless and classic.

"What I love most is the purity and proportion of the exterior. If you look at the front-three-quarter, it gives the car this wide stance. I was fighting hard to give it this width, to give it its stance."

The range will arrive in three distinct flavours. The pared-back Pure will form the workhorse variant, complete with steel wheels and plastic cladding. The mid-spec Progressive model will then up the styling and technology, forming a middle rung for buyers, while the top-tier Power is pitched as a 'lifestyle' vehicle, scoring the pick of the design and technology offerings, and destined to appeal to those who will use it as an SUV replacement.

Plenty of attention was paid to injecting much Mercedes into the interior treatment. The interior design team wanted this cabin to feel instantly recognisable as a Benz, so you get the now-familiar circular air vents, the button-covered steering wheel from the C-Class, and a screen that sits above a dash that's wrapped in man-made leather in the top-spec variants, albeit with a hard plastic base.

The controls and materials are from the Mercedes family, and there is an instant family familiarity to the cabin, and there are parts that feel decidedly premium, like the concave element that runs the length of the dash, from the passenger door to the steering wheel, and can be lined with faux woodgrain or brushed aluminium, depending on your budget.

"If you think about the segment, what really sets this apart from a regular mid-size pick-up is the materials," Sieber says. "There is no other car in the segment with a stitched dash, or with the all the options of materials, so the user interface system is a benchmark for us.

"It's the little things, too. The metal-look surfaces aren't painted, they're actual metal, so they feel cold to the touch."

The thin, vertical taillights give the rear end a vaguely American pick-up-truck style.

Some elements from the concepts have survived to make their way into the production vehicles, the standouts of which are the thin, vertical taillights that give the rear end a vaguely American pick-up-truck style, but also make the tray look significantly longer than it actually is.

"The rear was the biggest challenge. It's a functional vehicle, with a load bed area, and we were first thinking of horizontal tail lamps, but then they would have had to have been a part of the tailgate, too. So we came to the conclusion that we should go for vertical, very slim taillights," says Bertrand Janssen, senior manager design.

"We wanted to accentuate the length of the bed, because we wanted to show we can load 1.1-tonnes of material there.

"Also, we opted for a very short front overhang. You can imagine if the nose is too long it looks funny. So we want to push the bumper and headlamp area as close to the front wheel arches as possible, because a short overhang shows power."

Despite what we might like to believe, Australia's comparatively tiny new-car market holds all the weight of a helium balloon when it comes to guiding the product line-ups of the international automotive heavyweights.

Except, that is, when it comes to utes. Australia's appetite for the utility vehicle market is almost unparalleled (the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger, are often numbers one and two on our new vehicle best-seller list, for example), and so, when we talk utes, the world listens.

"It's very exciting. Australia is one of the key markets, and what's been great is that we've been involved from the start in terms of design, development and in defining the target market," Mercedes-Benz Australia's managing director - vans, Diane Tarr, told CarsGuide.

"Our input was related to the characteristics of a vehicle in the ute segment, and what it needs to complete with established players.

"We needed to make sure the message of who the potential buyers of an X-Class here are was clear, and that contributed to the deign. That it wasn't taken as Euro-centric, and that it spoke to the buyers in the core market."

Why all this effort? Because upper management knew the potential in a ute, especially one that required minimal development costs, and that will likely be sold for a sizeable premium over its Japanese donor car.

The very idea of a ute is changing. If the ute market was still dominated by genuine workhorses with metal trays, steel wheels and stripped-out cabins, Mercedes would be unlikely to enter the game.

Mercedes' own modelling shows the global mid-size utility market growing by a staggering 46 per cent over the next 10 years, adding another one million vehicles in key markets around the world, with sales tipped to soar to 3.2 million cars in 2026.

In Australia, the growth isn't quite so impressive, with Benz forecasting a six per cent increase over the next decade, lifting total sales from 207,000 to 219,000. But our numbers already eclipse those of Europe (where 143,000 utes were sold in 2016) and are just about on-par with all of Latin America, where 265,000 mid-size utes were sold in 2016.

"The mid-size pick-up is the most attractive segment for us. It has a very high growth rate, and will grow from 2.2 million units to 3.2 million in 2026. it's a worldwide segment and it offers us huge potential for Mercedes-Benz," says Mercedes global marketing manager for pick-ups, Lena Laipple.

"Of course Australia and New Zealand are very important for us. The overall segment there has doubled own the past 10 years, and we're expecting a slight increase over the next 10 years.

"The X-Class will be a game-changer in those markets."

Equally important, though, is that the very idea of a ute is changing. If the ute market was still dominated by genuine workhorses with metal trays, steel wheels and stripped-out cabins, Mercedes would be unlikely to enter the game. But people - and Australians especially - are spending more on utes than ever before, parting with big dollars for a car that is less workhorse and more lifestyle.

That's a trend Mercedes expects to continue, with utes blending into the SUV segment, bought and driven by people who will never enter a worksite.

Sound unbelievable? That's what they said about SUVs that would never go off-road...

"X-Class will redefine the pick-up into a true premium vehicle," says the global head of Mercedes-Benz vans, Volker Mornhinweg. "Look back in time and compare what has happened to SUVs. They were rough and tough vehicles and now they're family cars. The same could happen with the pick-up".

Its a sentiment echoed by Laipple and the rest of the Benz marketing division.

"The segment is undergoing a major change. A few years ago, the pick-up was mainly used only for work purposes - a pure workhorse," Laipple says.

"Now we can see the trend is going towards more comfort, more passenger car features, and more lifestyle usage. So we can say the utes are becoming more and more lifestyle vehicles.

"The time is exactly right for us to enter that segment."

While there is a lone petrol engine destined for the Middle East, Australian versions of the X-Class will be diesel only.

And it's in the two four-cylinder diesel engines that the X-Class loses some of its sparkle. It's not that either of them are bad, per say, they are both well-tested performers with shining towing capability and plenty of low-end shove.

It's more that they are entirely unchanged units ripped straight from the Nissan Navara that's currently prowling Australian roads. And there's nothing that chips away at a premium mystique like borrowing engines from a mainstream Japanese manufacturer.

The entry-level engine will find a home inside X 220d, which will be available in the Pure trim only. It can be paired only with a six-speed manual transmission. The smallest diesel will produce 120kW/403Nm, and while we're yet to actually drive it, we'd suggest the Navara would provide a fairly accurate preview of that engine's capability.

The second four-cylinder option is found in the mid-spec X 250d (which can be had in Pure, Progressive or Power trim levels), and will produce 140kW/450Nm. It can be had with the same manual gearbox as the 220d, or optioned with a seven-speed automatic.

Both will send their power to the rear wheels as standard, but can be optioned with a part-time 4WD system, complete with low range and a rear diff lock - an identical system to the one found in the Navara.

Where Mercedes is forging new ground is with its incoming diesel V6 engine, which will arrive a few months after the four-cylinder models. What will surely be the pick of the engines will live inside the X350 D (available in Progressive or Power trims), with the Mercedes-sourced 3.0-litre V6 firing 190kW/550Nm to all four wheels courtesy of a permanent 4WD system Mercedes is developing in-house, and pairs with a Benz-sourced 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic.

Not surprisingly, the level of standard safety kit will vary with your budget, but even the base-level X-Class has some commendable features.

Seven airbags are buried around the cabin, including front, side and curtain airbags, as well a knee airbag for the driver, and all models will get a reversing camera.

Cheaper versions of the X-Class will score a 7.0-inch screen.

The higher spec models get an upgraded 360-degree surround view unit, which is surprisingly good for viewing the road ahead when climbing a steep hill off road, when all you can see out the windscreen is sky.

You'll also get tyre pressure monitoring and a trailer stabilisation system embedded in the ESP program (provided you've optioned a tow pack) as standard fit, while the Benz safety systems like 'Lane Keeping Assist' and 'Active Braking Assist' will also be available.

On the technology front, cheaper versions of the X-Class will score a Benz's 'Audio 20' CD multimedia system, pairing with a 7.0-inch screen, with an upgraded Mercedes 'Comand' system, complete with bigger 8.4-inch screen, also available.

Our time on the road in the the X-Class has so far been limited. So limited, in fact, we're yet to actually climb behind the wheel.

Instead, we were treated to a super-brief passenger ride, encompassing some high-speed cornering, some sharp direction changes, and a brief run off-road that was brutal enough to reveal that Mercedes' tinkering with the X-Class doesn't appear to have hurt its off-highway chops.

The X-Class runs the same coil-sprung, solid rear axle and double wishbone front suspension layout as the Nissan Navara, but Mercedes' engineers have given their car a 7mm wider track front and rear, and completely reworked the suspension tune in the search for better dynamics and ride quality.

"We've basically changed the kinematics, we have optimised the friction in the dampers - we've changed the set-up," said one X-Class product manager. "So in total, we really have created a whole new driving experience for our vehicle."

We'll be waiting until we've spent some actual wheel time in the X-Class before we make any sort of judgment, but the brief ride was enough to reveal the new Benz offers an athleticism not often seen in the ute category, handling high-speed corners in fairly composed fashion, a little roll in the body and noise from the tyres the only real giveaway that the X-Class is heading toward its limits.
 
At a cursory glance, the cabin feels quiet, too, and the shift from tarmac to dirt hurts the X-Class not at all, with the reworked suspension soaking up serious bumps and lumps easily, and summiting and descending sharp, loose-dirt hills without issue.

The X-Class runs 5340mm in length, 1920mm in width and 1819mm in height, and sits on a 3150mm wheelbase. The bed is 1587mm long, and 1560mm wide - long enough to accommodate a standard pallet.

The X-Class will offer a 600mm wading depth.

Equally important for a ute in Australia, the X-Class will serve up a 1042kg maximum payload, as well as offering a 3.2-3.5-tonne maximum towing capacity across the range.

For the off-roaders, it will offer 202mm ground clearance and a 600mm wading depth.

It's early days, but all signs point to this X marking the spot for Mercedes in Australia. Our appetite for utes is ferocious, and, at first glance at least, the X-Class offers a clever mix of style and capability, and enough depth in the range to appeal to everyone from tradies on up.

More importantly, its Japanese origins don't overshadow the general Mercedes-ness of the experience. If the price is right, we're tipping Benz is on to a serious winner here.

In fact, they already are. Despite the fact Australian cars won't arrive until early next year, Mercedes-Benz has been flooded with customer enquiry, with Aussies who have registered their interest already numbering "in the thousands".

It might be the first premium ute, but early signs suggest it might just be one of the best, too.

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