New Mercedes-Benz X-Class could raise the humble SA bakkie to a whole new level

Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its new X-Class bakkie at a global two-day debut in Cape Town. <i>Image: Wheels24 / Sean Parker</i>
Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its new X-Class bakkie at a global two-day debut in Cape Town. <i>Image: Wheels24 / Sean Parker</i>

The new Mercedes-Benz X-Class has made its global debut in Cape Town. Alex Parker spent some time with the new bakkie in Franschhoek.

Cape Town - The X-Class is a very big deal for Mercedes-Benz. You can tell by the PR machine and what it’s saying.

It appears that its principle concern is that people will say building a pick-up was the wrong call; that the X-Class isn’t a proper ‘Benz and that they had no business doing this anyway.

So, what gives? How did we get to the point where a premium bakkie is headed for South Africa?

GALLERY: 2017 Mercedes-Benz X-Class

A few years ago I spent an hour in the passenger seat of a new C-Class as it was driven quite expertly around Marseilles. The driver was Dieter Zetsche and he was heading to a hotel and this was my gap to talk to him. Zetsche’s ability to clip apexes was only matched by my rising car-sickness as I tried to scribble down what the Daimler AG CEO was saying. 

READ: 'My bakkie has arrived!' The internet reacts to the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class in SA

It was one of those magnificent free-wheeling conversations in which I got him to talk about as much as I could get him to. 

'We have to do everything'

But I do distinctly remember him saying that for the three-pointed star to avoid becoming a boutique manufacturer of luxury sedan cars "we have to do everything" – even, reading between the lines, things that might not feel immediately like a fit for the iconic manufacturer of the E an S Classes. He later described it as "one of the last gaps in our portfolio".

I have no idea whether the X-Class is a passion project for Mercedes-Benz or part of Zetsche’s "everything", but what’s clear is that the firm spotted a sales gap where there was not a three-pointed star and the rest is history. 

On (and off) the road

Our very brief foray onto tarmac and off-road at the magnificent Franschhoek Motor Museum (regrettably only in the passenger seat) seemed to suggest that this has all paid dividends. Diesel clatter was absolutely minimal in the X250d I rode in and roadholding seemed solid on an admittedly smooth track. On the off-road and jeep-track sections the coil-sprung rear suspension was the best I’ve ever felt in a bakkie While still undeniably a pick-up (it can carry 1.2 tonnes and haul 3.5 tonnes), the kick in the spine from the rear-axle you’re used to in a pick-up is notably absent, even with an empty load bay.

Finally, there’s the kit. Mercedes' luxury benchmarking has come in at safety standards too. So this is a bakkie that can, depending on the trim line, come with a great deal of Mercedes-Benz’s safety kit, including lane-keep assist, brake assist, distronic cruise control, trailer sway assist, hill descent control and a whole host more. Again, this is a whole new level of safety technology for the segment.

You can also pimp your X-Class, and really do it properly, because the accessories were all designed in-house by the same people who designed the bakkie. So, should you want side steps and bull bars and even a canopy, they’ll hook you up.

Excellent ride

So, without having actually driven the car, I can tell you this. The X-Class is a quiet and comfortable bakkie from the passenger seat that seems capable off-road. Its ride is excellent, its interior is the best in the business and so are its safety kit standards. At 190kW and 550Nm the X350d will also be comfortably South Africa’s most powerful bakkie and, with permanent 4x4 and a seven-speed automatic, it’ll put that massive shunt down just fine too. That means it’s all looking very much like Mercedes-Benz have aced it here.

The proof will be in the pudding, of course. The X-Class will be formally launched in October globally and in April 2018 in SA. Pricing is some way off yet (from €37 000, says Mercedes), but it’ll be pricey as bakkies go.

I’m sure this won’t matter too much for some, though. My guess, judging from initial interest and the size of the local bakkie market, is that demand will be high. Get your orders in, folks. 

Partnering with Nissan

Daimler’s people were keen to share the growth of the mid-sized pick-up (bakkie) market, which they estimate will swell 43% over the next decade. Given the well-noted change in how people use bakkies – here, in Australasia, in Europe and in South America – as lifestyle, status and family vehicles, their bet is that a percentage of that market would like a more luxury offering.

To help deliver this Daimler have turned to their technical partner of almost eight years now, Nissan. 

Not just a ‘Navara in a posh frock’

Now, let’s be clear about this. On every internet forum and no doubt blazoned across Facebook and Twitter the pub experts will tell you that the X-Class is a "Navara in a posh frock", or something similar. Mercedes-Benz expected this, even bringing a rolling chassis all the way to Franschhoek to make their point. 

The ladder frame is indeed from Nissan. With respect the folks at Benz, the chances of them building a better one off the bat was pretty limited anyway, and they probably knew it. Now, saying that this makes the X-Class “a posh Nissan” is just silly. It’s like saying "I’m the equal of Wayde Van Niekerk because I also have a skeleton". It’s absurd. Be that as it may, Mercedes have gone to great lengths to tell us that anything related to the ride, the steering, the suspension and the brakes was all pure Mercedes. The stuff, in fact, that’s the difference between Alex Parker and Wayde Van Niekerk. 

Nissan-sourced engine

That and the engine, of course, and indeed the 2.3-litre diesel unit in the X250d is Nissan-sourced, although fundamentally changed for the purposes of a Mercedes-Benz truck. But the big three-litre V6 diesel in the X350d is a Benz motor, as is the X200 turbopetrol (although they weren’t clear on this, it looks as though this won’t be making it to sunny SA).

Pure, Progressive Power

The truck is available in three trim lines; pure, progressive and power, with the former verging on being a workhorse vehicle, and the Power line enjoying a ton of bling and some lovely 19" alloys. It is, in the posher two trim lines, a really good looking truck – big and assertive and tough. It doesn’t do anything too radical but it sure as hell looks like a Mercedes - and that’s a good thing. Mercedes reckon they’ve got a truck for your lifestyle. 

Luxury cabin, for a bakkie

Inside they’ve also gone to great lengths to lift the X-Class to a level beyond anything we’ve seen in a Bakkie. If it’s fair to say that the best bakkie interior you can buy today is in the Amarok, then this is mission accomplished for Mercedes-Benz’s designers. In the smarter models the use of leather and chrome combine to make this really feel quite special. We had a very brief time inside the vehicle but first impressions suggest a level of quality and spec you wouldn’t be unhappy about in a GLC.

And that’s a critical point. I doorstopped one of the Daimler engineers and asked him how they’d benchmarked NVH (noise, vibration and harshness, an industry-wide measure of sophistication), and he said outright that while they’d noted pick-up competitors’ NVH levels they strictly benchmarked luxury SUVs for the X-Class’s NVH standards.

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