GEORGE, Western Cape – "South Africa is a bakkie country". This statement by Nadia Trimmel, vice-president of Mercedes-Benz Vans SA, is absolutely spot on.
Here at CAR magazine, we regularly evaluate exotic cars that turn many a head. But a fresh-faced bakkie is a proper traffic-stopper, rendering any would-be dash to the supermarket virtually impossible without conversations with a dozen interested people in the car park. And this bakkie craze is set to reach even loftier heights thanks to the local launch of the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class, which is probably the most highly anticipated bakkie to enter our market in recent times. Question is, is it any good?
The elephant in the room
During the obligatory question-and-answer session at the press launch, the group of journalists jumped straight into the difficult questions, all centred on the fact that the X-Class shares a platform (developed by the Renault-Nissan Alliance, with input from Mercedes) with the Navara, as well as its 2,3-litre turbodiesel powertrain.
So, how much of the X-Class is from Nissan and how much is from Mercedes-Benz? Well, the local arm of the Stuttgart-based automaker simply said: "We are not hiding the fact that we partnered with Nissan as they have a proud history of bakkie development and helped us to get to market faster. But Mercedes has touched every component, including the shared platform and powertrain, to ensure this is a Mercedes-Benz".
And why is the X-Class key-fob a Nissan unit with a Mercedes-Benz badge affixed to it rather than a proper Mercedes key? Well, the Mercedes-Benz SA panel said that "the shared electrical architecture of the vehicles did not allow the use of a Mercedes key without major hardware changes". So, there you have it...
The X-Class wears a bold two-slat grille and an enlarged version of the famous three-pointed star. To help differentiate this Power model from lesser versions, Mercedes has applied chrome inserts to the front bumper. The wider track and flared arches (when compared with the Navara) give the bakkie plenty of on-road presence, while the tail-lamps feature a distinctive boomerang motive when lit. The options list to customise the double-cab bakkie is almost endless and includes various wheel designs and sizes, canopies (plus a multitude of other load-bay covering options), styling bars and more.
Climbing into the bakkie, it's clear that Mercedes has gone to great lengths to add familiar company items, such as the round air-vents, Comand Online multimedia system (with centrally mounted controller), three-spoke sport steering wheel and premium seats. The fit-and-finish is generally solid, but it's a bit hit-and-miss in terms of the quality of materials used in certain areas.
The driving position is good, although taller drivers will lament the lack of reach adjustment on the steering column. There are other ergonomic challenges, too, including the location of the start button and the low siting of the climate control and off-road switches, the latter requiring eyes-off-the-road to locate on the move.
We were afforded the opportunity to tackle a few off-road obstacles to demonstrate the departure (26 degrees), approach (30 degrees) and break-over angles (178 degrees) of the X-Class, as well as its ground clearance (221 mm) and hill-descent control system. Low-range in combination with the seven-speed automatic transmission made it a cinch to complete the admittedly mild course.
It was then time to take on Duiwel's Kop Pass (which is usually not open to the public) in the Outeniqua Mountains. The X-Class took the challenge in its stride, with the suspension set-up proving more comfortable than that of the Navara, pointing to the work Mercedes engineers have done on the spring-and-damper settings (it features coil springs fore and aft). This notion was confirmed on a faster stretch of gravel road.
On paved surfaces, the vehicle feels suitably refined with impressive sound-insulation at speed. Furthermore, it's simple to place on the road thanks to the accurate hydraulic steering. I found the automatic transmission better suited to the character of the bakkie than the manual version we tested for the May 2018 issue of CAR magazine. The 140 kW/450 N.m powertrain is adequate in its outputs, but certainly lacks the firepower of the 3,0-litre V6 unit doing duty in the similarly priced flagship Volkswagen Amarok. In addition, the X250d exhibits slight turbolag before the powertrain reacts to an abrupt go-faster demand.
The X-Class is a sophisticated bakkie that is clearly capable off-road and certainly proficient on-road. The main problem it faces in South Africa? The question of whether it's worth the considerable price premium over very capable opposition (with similar power outputs but sans Mercedes-Benz's brand cachet) in the R600 000-bracket, not to mention the accomplished Amarok V6 at similar money (the V6-powered X350d is due in South Africa only in the first quarter of 2019).
According to Mercedes-Benz, the X-Class is the only premium bakkie on the market, with the automaker adding that it represents an attractive option for current Benz owners who are keen to add a double-cab bakkie to their garage. Ultimately, however, the true measure of this brand loyalty will be exactly how many buyers are prepared to take the plunge. Time will tell...
Author: Nicol Louw