X marks the spot
Not much can usually be gleaned from a brief passenger lap in a new vehicle, but two things stood out from our ride in the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class pick-up truck.
Firstly, this is going to be the most luxurious pick-up on the market and therefore the most aspirational model to tradesman and lifestyle buyers alike, but secondly, that it’s not your run of the mill badge swap as many had wrongly predicted.
When the X-Class was revealed as a concept in 2016 we were told it would be a joint-engineered product based on the Nissan Navara. While that is strictly true – the X-Class conforms closely to the Navara using its chassis and production line – Mercedes has actually gone a long way to differentiate it from not only the Navara, but the rest of the market.
Initially power comes from a Renault-built 2.3-litre diesel engine with either single or twin turbos. This is the same lump used in the Nissan Navara and also in the forthcoming Renault Alaskan pick-up truck. As a result other components in the driveline are from the Renault-Nissan stable. This is where, it could be said, the badge-engineering claims ring true; Mercedes has borrowed a chassis, powertrain and driveline from Nissan and Renault and claimed it as its own. However, next year Mercedes will put its own 3-litre V6 engine, producing 258hp and 550Nm of torque into the X-Class, with a 7-speed automatic transmission replacing the six-speed manual.
Such is the way with pick-up trucks, the majority of buyers will soon forget about the 2.3-litre engine models and the X-Class will have its own, very different, powertrain and permanent four-wheel-drive system, rather than the launch model’s selectable all-wheel-drive drivelines.
The performance of the X-Class will then be anything but a copy of the Navara - but what about the way it drives? Pick-up trucks are not known for their dynamism, but the Navara is an incredibly comfortable and accomplished truck. The steering is precise and engaging, while the ride is supple and relaxing thanks to its multilink coil sprung rear. The X-Class also has a multilink rear axle with coil springs front and rear, but like the driveline it is not a copy of the Nissan either.
Mercedes has increased the track of the wheels at both ends, with a wider stance, as well as lowering the ride height by 10mm. The suspension setup has been changed including stiffer dampers, while the steering has been sharpened up to help give the feel and engagement drivers expect of a Mercedes product.
In isolation, onlookers could say the design of the X-Class is a copy of the Navara, but park the Mercedes next to the Nissan and it bears as much resemblance as it does to a Mitsubishi or Isuzu in that it is a pick-up truck of a similar shape and size appealing to a certain audience wanting a macho machine. In the cold light of day it looks nothing like a Navara – except for a few styling hints vaguely perceptible in the side profile view. From the front it is a Mercedes, and from the back (traditionally an area where little can either be done because it compromises loadspace or simply does not happen because of costs) the X-Class looks different again to the Navara. Whereas the Renault Alaskan will have a different front and only gets its tailgate replaced, Mercedes has redesigned almost all of the body panels of the X-Class, making it look distinctive and almost unrecognisable.
Engine, transmission, suspension, chassis and bodywork have all been changed then. But what does that mean for potential X-Class owners – more than 600 of who have already put down a £1,000 deposit on the new truck.
We were given the chance of a brief passenger lap in the more powerful version of the 2.3-litre engine X-Class. The twin-turbo X250 develops 190hp, compared to 163hp in the single turbo X220, and is likely to be the top seller at launch. Three trim levels – Pure, Progressive and Power – cover the spectrum of equipment and accessories, taking the X-Class from premium workhorse to luxury barge. Our passenger vehicle was naturally a top-spec Power variant that gets smart black leather seats with white contrast stitching and a matte plastic console with leather topped dash. Sitting on the right-hand side of the cab, but sadly not behind the wheel, the forward view is commanding, but rather dominated by the central floating 8.4in screen and four chunky air vents on the dash. The configuration is a familiar sight in Mercedes passenger cars and sets the X-Class apart from the Navara straight from the off.
Our driver fires up the engine, and a low thrum resonates from the front. It’s a quiet start. The interior is well isolated from the noise and as we pull out onto an asphalt circuit the lack of noise as the engine revs climb is a noticeable contrast to other pick-ups in the sector.
Over the next few minutes the X250 flies around the track, leans into corners with a large but not unsettling amount of body roll, and pitches forward under strong and assured braking. The hydraulic steering looks effortless and the direction changes are swift as we flick through the corners. Acceleration seems fair for such a large vehicle, but owners looking for real performance will undoubtedly crave the power the V6 will afford. What power there is, is being driven exclusively to the rear wheels on this selectable four-wheel-drive driveline, yet there is no sign of the rear breaking traction. We veer off the circuit and onto a loose and bumpy gravel track.
The X-Class immediately settles on the pitted surface. The rotating dial that switches between drive settings is put into 4H (four-wheel drive) and the X-Class is once again comfortably changing direction at speed over the new surface. The lack of noise and the ride quality at speed are the two standout points from the passenger ride, but with axle twists and a steep incline and descent all tackled capably by the X-Class, it is fair to say it coped adequately with off-roading, albeit in an environment very much designed to highlight its abilities rather than any shortcomings.
Mercedes is definitely upping the stakes in the pick-up sector with a smart and sophisticated cab, providing more room and greater comfort. It ticks all the boxes required of a working vehicle with a 1.1-tonne payload capacity and a 3.5 tonne towing ability, but it is the refinement and equipment levels that will likely win it customers. Although the starting price of around £28,000 (UK pricing and specification will arrive closer to the November launch) places the entry-level X-Class near the top-spec models from Ford and Nissan, the X-Class is ultimately squaring up against the Volkswagen Amarok V6.
For £30,500 you can buy a top of the range VW Amarok V6 Highline, while top spec Mercedes X-Class Power pick-ups are likely to be at least 10% dearer. Will that deter buyers? No. Nor should they be concerned at paying a premium for a rebadged Nissan Navara, as the Mercedes X-Class is shaping up to be in a class of its own, and not at all a copy of its relations.