► We test X-class on road and off it
► Stiffer chassis, suspension than Navara
► Sharp on tarmac, bumpy off-piste
Mercedes has built itself a pick-up – although actually, it’s borrowed one of Nissan’s and attacked it with a development budget in the ‘hundreds of millions’ of Euros. The result is called the X-class, and we’ve just spent two days driving it in Chile.
Could this be your next SUV?
What the hell is Mercedes thinking?
Money. The pick-up segment is growing globally, and Merc reckons it’s got the jump on everyone else by being the first ‘premium’ car maker to offer one – therefore hopefully doing for pick-ups what the M-class did for SUVs.
As such, its engineering team has spent an extensive amount of time and effort trying to make a Nissan Navara look, feel and – most tricky of all – drive like a Mercedes-Benz.
Largely we think they’ve succeeded, but it’s important to add the sub-clause ‘for a pick-up’ to almost every area in order to fully understand what’s been achieved here.
Launching with a pair of four-cylinder diesel engines, it’s not quite a straight swap for a passenger SUV at this stage – though that may change with the launch of the V6 model in mid-2018.
So the X-class is the new king of the pick-ups?
Well, the VW Amarok – which now offers an exclusively 3.0-litre V6 engine line-up in the UK, having upsized from 2.0-litre four-pots late in 2016 – may still have a thing or two to say about that.
The Volkswagen badge might not quite match a three-pointed star for image, but the Amarok is a mature product now and frankly a lovely truck when equipped with 221bhp and 406lb ft. Not least because it’s impressively comfortable for a device that still uses leaf springs at the back.
The X-class – like the Navara – uses a multi-link rear axle and proper car-like coil springs – a more sophisticated set-up that we’re told was ‘a prerequisite’ for Mercedes getting involved in the project (presumably explaining why the Navara has it in the first place).
It’s also far more tuneable, and Mercedes has gone to town – changing springs, dampers, bushes and geometry to achieve a much better ride/handling balance than anything else in the pick-up sector.
Adding a wider track and reinforcing the ladder frame chassis also makes a substantial contribution to this – it most definitely does not drive like a Nissan.
The new 2018 Mercedes-Benz X-class does kind of look like the Nissan, though…
At a glance, yes. But actually, almost the entire exterior is different. We like the sleek, unfussy surfacing and total lack of any model name badging. ‘This is a pick-up and this is a Mercedes’ is the message to the world, and in a pick-up-heavy market like Chile it attracts attention like a Ferrari. No kidding.
Mercedes won’t put a percentage on the number of parts it’s changed, arguing that it’s examined all of them as part of the conversion process. Whatever. The important thing is that it does look very Mercedes on the inside, with parts taken directly from the C-class and V-class incorporated into a striking, sweeping dashboard design.
Yes, there are still Nissan bits visible if you look for them – not least the keys. Some (including BMW, who should probably shut up until it’s got its own alternative, or it just sounds like sour grapes) have also complained the material quality doesn’t go far enough while tapping away at the harder dashboard plastics.
But remember, this is a pick-up, and it is intended to be entirely capable of functioning as a working vehicle – it’ll carry over a tonne and tow up to 3.5 of them. Hence it should still be hardwearing and easy to clean, that’s part of the point.
Besides which, build quality in the cabin appears to be first rate (and we drove several different examples), and you can get some particularly fancy finishes if you’re prepared to splash the cash. There is more personalisation available here than in any rival, not to mention plenty of the latest toys – including smartphone and smart watch connectivity, another pick-up first.
Shame the steering wheel only adjusts for rake and not reach, but otherwise the ergonomics are also perfectly acceptable.
What’s the new X-class like to drive?
Massively impressive – for a pick-up.
The time spent on the suspension has delivered a truck that is stable and comfortable at speed, capable of quickly propelling itself around switchback corners while also negotiating potholes that could swallow a supermini whole.
Better still, you can do hours of behind the wheel and get out at the other end without needing a chiropractor and a darkened room. It isn’t tiring to drive at all.
Important context here: almost every other pick-up on the market is fundamentally horrible to drive compared to a proper passenger car. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
The X-class bridges that gap better than any rival, with the possible exception of the Amarok. Nasty surfaces will still set the superstructure shuddering, and really fast direction changes require careful commitment, but otherwise you – and importantly your passengers – will have few complaints.
Ok, the big question – should we wait for the V6?
Ah. Now, if there is an area that really lets the premium side down here it’s the four-cylinder engines, which are also borrowed from the Navara. We’ve only driven the more powerful 187bhp twin-turbo X 250d so far (a single-turbo 161bhp X 220d is also offered in the UK at launch), and the trouble is it’s just not fast enough.
Don’t get us wrong, Mercedes has worked some magic on the calibration for both the engine and seven-speed automatic gearbox (don’t bother with the six-speed manual), so it’s all silky smooth. Refinement is also enormously improved. But we wanted more muscle.
This will come when the X 350d arrives next year. We took a taster passenger ride, and this 254bhp, 406lb ft Mercedes V6 also gets a Mercedes automatic, a choice of driving modes, and permanent four-wheel drive. With 40:60 front:rear torque split, it seems to handle rather well…
The four-cylinder models use Nissan’s switchable four-wheel drive. Nothing wrong with this. We can’t see many X-class pick-ups heading into the hills without using tarmac, but so equipped it shrugs off moderately tricky terrain with enough aplomb to leave the driver feeling very unruffled.
A locking rear diff and 20mm ride-height increase are optional if you really want them.
Presumably all of this comes at quite a price?
The X-class comes in three trim levels: Pure, Progressive and Power.
Most UK buyers will go top-spec Power (and almost no-one will choose the basic Pure, which features unpainted bumpers and a rubber floor, but is otherwise still far posher than any other ‘working’ pick-up).
Power includes a lot of toys, 187bhp and the seven-speed auto, but you’ll also need to find £40,920 – before options.
Of course, you’ll also pay less in tax thanks to the current one-tonne pick-up loophole, and you can get the VAT back if it’s for business use. We imagine demand will outstrip supply.
For more technical details and payloads, check out the full detailed Mercedes-Benz X-class review by our sister title Parkers.co.uk
As easy to live with as an SUV? For most people, no. But the X-class unquestionably moves the pick-up game on, and represents far less of a compromise as a result – to the extent that the V6 may turn out to be a genuine alternative to a GLE and its ilk.
If you’re seriously considering a truck as your everyday transport, it’s quite simply this or an Amarok as far as we’re concerned – everything else will eventually drive you mad. Can’t wait for the AMG version.
Four stars – for a pick-up.
Check out the rest of our Mercedes reviews here