Taking Mercedes-Benz into uncharted territory, does the X-Class live up to the hype? We tested the X250d and brought along a Volkswagen Amarok to find out...

In the automotive sphere, the “X” prefix has sometimes proved to be an ominous portent; the best known being Jaguar’s X-Type, the narrative of which was a sort of rags-to-riches story without the happy ending. Touted as a riposte to the fast-selling midsize sedans from the German Big Three, the X-Type was spun off the platform – albeit a reworked version – of Ford’s venerable European rep-mobile, the Mondeo. It simply didn’t matter that what followed was actually a good car; that Mondeo-shaped birthmark cheapened its image and ultimately that particular cat slunk away with its tail tucked firmly between its legs.

Now one of the most eagerly awaited cars in recent years and Mercedes’ first foray into the leisure-bakkie fold has landed and the auspices – an X prefix and DNA shared with more “working class” relatives in the Nissan Navara and Renault Alaskan – look unnervingly similar. Will the promise of model-specific tailoring and the sheer pulling power of that chromed roundel on its nose ensure that the ominous X mark won’t stand in the way of its success?

Although there’s no denying the presence of Navara DNA coursing through its veins, Mercedes-Benz has gone to great lengths to ensure that the X-Class isn’t just a re-skinned Alliance product. While its cab-structure is closely related to that of its peers, the X’s body panels are unique. Aside from the prominent and handsomely styled nose, the changes are very subtle, comprising squared-off wheelarches in lieu of the Nissan’s curved items, a marginally more angled sheet metal “kick” towards the C-pillar on the rear doors and a series of gentle creases and character lines unique to the Mercedes-Benz. It’s a handsome design that’s lither than the chunky, imposing likes of the Ford Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok, but some may feel that Mercedes’ softly-softly approach won’t distance the X enough from its lesser-badged relatives.

Benz has been less coy with interior changes, though. The bold swathe of dashboard studded with tactile eyeball air vents in the centre is pleasingly far-removed from the other Alliance bakkies and we’re pleased to report, in terms of build quality, it feels solid throughout and is pretty much up there with the Amarok’s cabin in that regard.

It’s not perfect, though. Possibly owing to the expediency of fitting a radically transformed design over another model’s cabin architecture, the X’s ergonomics came in for some serious criticism. The centre round which most of these issues revolve is the surprising omission of reach adjustment for the steering column, making it difficult to find an ideal driving position. As is often the case with double-cab bakkies, the X’s rear seats don’t offer a huge amount of legroom, but at 680 mm it’s marginally more spacious than the Amarok and Ranger.

It’s a similar story out back, with the X’s load bed measuring 1 587 mm in length and 1 560 mm wide, making it marginally longer and roughly as wide as those of the Ford and VW. The X is also capable of hauling a lot of gear thanks to a 1 067 kg payload, a 3 200 kg braked tow rating (750 kg unbraked).

The placement of some ancillaries are less than ergonomically ideal, especially the tucked-away starter button; the isolated, low-sited button for the neat electrically sliding rear window, and an air-con panel that sits down by your left shin. But our biggest issue has to be the placement of the gearshifter. Sited fairly far back and a stretch to the driver’s left, it often saw us making contact with the infotainment system’s touch controller, with the resultant changes of radio station or media track proving irksome. That said, we don’t anticipate that manual models will form the backbone of X-Class sales on our market, so it shouldn’t be a wide-ranging issue.

The mechanically similar Navara that we tested in our 2017 bakkie shootout was criticised for a harder-than-anticipated ride given its much-vaunted coil-spring rear suspension setup. Mercedes-Benz was in no doubt aware that such ride characteristics simply wouldn’t do in its bakkie and, consequently, its engineers have tailored the spring and damper rates specifically for the X. The ride damping is a palpable improvement over the Nissan’s but it’s still very stiff, showing a tendency to quiver and never quite settle, even on smooth roads. It’s worth noting that SA models come in “off-road” suspension spec with a higher ride height. As noted by our deputy editor, Terence Steenkamp, who was on the international launch, models fitted with the “on-road” suspension spec feel more composed.

It must be mentioned, too, that the off-road setup is stiffer. A positive upshot of this suspension tuning, allied with a 70 mm wider track and hydraulically assisted steering that’s nicely weighted and bereft of the dead-centre slack that affects most bakkies, is that it makes the X feel fairly nimble. Combine this with more compact proportions and the X is easier to manoeuvre than the hulking, somewhat heavy-helmed Amarok. Sharing its AWD system and diff-lock with the Navara, not to mention 222 mm of ground clearance, means that the X is a similarly capable performer off the blacktop.

The Alliance-sourced 2,3-litre turbodiesel’s 140 kW and 450 N.m outputs feel more sufficient than scintillating, and the X cannot be deemed nippy by any measure. Thankfully, it never feels like it’s labouring and is mechanically refined, sending little in the way of vibration through the steering wheel and pedals. This impression of refinement is furthered by Mercedes’ extensive use of sound-deadening materials in the X’s construction, with only some notable wind noise around the wing mirrors detracting from what’s otherwise a quiet cabin.

The engine is also pleasingly frugal, returning 8,3 L/100 km on our fuel run. The gearbox, however, isn’t quite as resolved. Its long-throw action cannot be rushed through the gate and, although the clutch is easily modulated, it’s not a setup that lends itself to smooth, rhythmic progress. There is an auto version of the X250d Power but, unfortunately, there was not one in the press fleet for us to test. Again, as noted by Terence following his drive of the automatic X250d on that international launch (and since by technical editor Nicol Louw, who attended the local launch), the self-shifter represents a considerable improvement on the manual in terms of refinement and ease of use. Lastly, we recorded similarly below-par average braking times as with the Navara.



TEST SUMMARY

This particular X may have dethroned the halo Amarok as the most expensive bakkie in our market but, outside the massive pulling power of that Mercedes badge and the considerable hype that it's garnered, it doesn't really trouble the similarly priced Volkswagen in many respects.

Although the changes on paper over the Navara are numerous, in practice such concessions as the Mercedes-branded Nissan key fob are a disappointment. But the most difficult aspect to digest is the cost. Specced with optional features such as a reverse camera, tow hitch and styling package, the unit we tested weighed in at more than R800 000. While the six-year/100 000 km maintenance plan is a boon, it doesn't offset the relative paucity of standard specification when compared with its most expensive rivals.

No doubt, Mercedes-Benz's decision to venture into the cutthroat leisure-bakkie segment is a bold, laudable one. Yet we can't help but feel that something wearing the Mercedes-Benz badge should be a bit more special and further removed from its mechanically related peers. That said, it's an engaging drive for a double cab, more comfortable than the Navara and should prove robust and capable off-road thanks to a proven mechanical framework. Hopefully the X's virtues will ensure that there isn't a repeat of the cautionary tale of the

X mark...

The next best thing...

We've long held the Amarok in high regard, especially when equipped with that thumping V6 TDI engine. The Double Cab Extreme 4Motion's R784 400 price may have raised eyebrows but now it looks like great value by comparison; especially when you account for such niceties as an automatic transmission, a comprehensive sat-nav-equipped infotainment system, leather seats and all-round PDC with rear-view camera.

*From the May 2018 issue of CAR magazine