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Five things we learned from riding in the Mercedes-Benz X-class pickup

CAR logo CAR 02/08/2017 CARMagazine

Five things we learned from riding in the Mercedes-Benz X-class pickup

Five things we learned from riding in the Mercedes-Benz X-class pickup
© Bauer Media 2017

► We sample the X-class on track and off-road

► Stiffer chassis and suspension than Navara

► Sharp on tarmac but bumpy off-piste

Mercedes-Benz is building a pickup – but will the X-class really tempt lifestyle buyers out of their SUVs?

With the full driving launch not taking place until October 2017, we grabbed a quick passenger ride during the international reveal event in South Africa to get an early feel for what’s likely to be the world’s poshest truck.

Providing you can get over the fact it’s also a Nissan Navara in disguise…

Related: 2018 Mercedes-Benz X-Class First Look (Caradvice)

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1) Wait. It is more than a Nissan Navara in disguise

Mercedes could have just slapped on a couple of new bumpers and a three-pointed star, and still sold X-class by the shed-load. But it’s much more apparent in the metal than it is in the pictures that the firm hasn’t done this.

The surfacing is smoother following cues from the latest Mercedes coupe design language (no, seriously…), the lights are sleeker and, contrary to initial impressions, even the side windows and doors skins are different to the Nissan.

Mercedes claims just five exterior parts are the same.

More than this however, Mercedes has had at the Navara’s underlying ladder-frame chassis. Yes, this is old-school tech, abandoned by most SUVs aeons ago, but it’s good for towing strength and is still the universal norm for mid-size pickups.

The X-class, however, gets additional strengthening in anticipation of the 254bhp, 406lb ft 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel Mercedes will be dropping into the X350d in 2018.

That’s considerably more muscle than the 187bhp/332lb ft max that Nissan offers in the Navara, though Mercedes will offer this four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine as the X250d, as well as the lesser 161bhp/297lb ft single-turbo four badged X220d.

The four-pots get the same chassis mods, though, including the extended outer axle elements to widen the track as well as a complete overhaul of the springs, dampers and bushes.

The demo vehicle for the ride-along was an X250d with the seven-speed automatic.

2) The X-class is surprisingly at home on track

Exact details of what’s been done to overhaul the suspension are still secret at this stage. But an engineer did confirm Mercedes has concentrated on making the X-class stiffer and sharpening the steering, in order to counter what he described as the Navara’s ‘typical Japanese softness.’

Keen to demonstrate this, Mercedes arranged for part of the passenger ride to take place on a private racing circuit. Not exactly a typical pickup truck environment, this was clever for two reasons.

Firstly, it genuinely did allow the X-class to show off what appears to be unprecedented amounts of grip and composure for a pickup.

Our driver was measured but quick, happily executing high-speed direction changes that would have sent other trucks skittering across the tarmac in clumsy pirouettes.

There’s more roll than you’d get in a conventional car – but perhaps not much more than an SUV. It leans in a controlled manner rather than lurching or flopping onto its bump stops, and doesn’t dive much under hard braking, either.

Starting with the Navara’s coil-sprung, multilink rear suspension is part of the secret here (most pickups use leaf springs, like a cart), but even versus the Nissan the X-class does appear far more tightly restrained when pressing on.

However, the second clever thing about using a racing circuit is that it ensures smooth surfaces. Pickups generally suffer with appalling ride quality – suspension engineered to cope with carrying upwards of a tonne will tend to become a little over-excitable without any mass in the back.

So while Mercedes says the X-class will offer unprecedented comfort levels, too, we’ll need to try it on some proper roads to see how this actually pans out. The off-road sections of the test ride do, however, give us a clue…

3) Heading off-road in your X-class? Maybe pack a cushion

We should probably point out that our driver wasn’t hanging about. Officially, the test route was supposed to take 12-15 minutes; he reckoned 11. By the time we hit the off-road area we’d caught the X-class that set off ahead of us.

Still, hard not to notice over just mildly rough terrain that the Mercedes is a bumpy experience, emphasising the claims about the firmer suspension.

Kudos for the strength of the structure, though, which hardly shudders at all. And frankly, if they test them like this all the time, the result is going to be one hell of a tough pickup.

Actual off-road capability is everything you’d expect. Even with the optional off-road suspension package, the X-class is a little lower than the Navara, so doesn’t have quite the same obstacle clearance – but it’ll handle moderate off-set bumps, 600mm of wading, vicious hill starts and side-slopes nearly 50 degrees from upright.

Four-cylinder models use the same selectable four-wheel drive as the Nissan, with a choice of high and low four-wheel drive modes as well as rear-wheel drive only for the road.

The X350d gets permanent four-wheel drive. Neither is system is likely to struggle.

A proper locking rear diff option and an available underside protection package made from 2-3mm stainless steel plates confirm that a bit of rugged action isn’t going to phase this Mercedes.

If you want to climb a mountain, a G-class is still a better bet, but for casual cross-country use with a couple of hay bales in the back the X-class should do just fine.

4) The interior sets new standards – for a pickup

Spot the difference is a wash out, so fancy a game of spot the Nissan part in the X-class’s interior? You’ll be there for quite some time, we reckon. Possibly the electric seat switches, and maybe the lower area of the door cards – but even this last looks like a different part in the Mercedes.

In the pickup realm, the Navara is amongst the best for interior quality in the current crop, but the X-class moves the game on considerably.

The design, borrowing parts from the C-Class and V-Class, instantly distinguishes the premium brand, and the quality of everything you touch is vastly superior to every current rival – including the Volkswagen Amarok.

As classy as a Mercedes SUV? Maybe not. But there’s a good selection of material choices, including distinction between the three X-class trim levels (the slightly cringe-worthy Pure, Progressive and Power), and you can option a lot of kit that other pickups can only dream of.

This includes connected services that enable smartphone and smartwatch app access.

Pickup, meet 2017; 2017, meet pickup.

5) It’s going to be expensive

No official UK pricing has been announced yet, but if you think the Amarok’s pricey you aren’t even going to want to look. We’re talking £1,000s more than an equivalent Navara here.

But then, would Mercedes buyers expect anything less? And although we’re still holding out for first-hand experience from behind the wheel, everything else about the X-class suggests it might just have enough extra finesse to justify the cost.

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