Until recently, the Amarok V6 was SA’s brawniest lifestyle bakkie … then the 190 kW X350d landed and kicked up a froth at braais across the country.
If you’re a devoted reader, you’d know this comparative test has been a long time coming. We first promised to include it in the March issue, then April, then May… Eventually, it seemed an X350d test unit would never materialise in Cape Town, so popular were the press units among the motoring-journalist corps in Gauteng. Just as we had given up nagging and begging, we received the call an X350d would be dropped off at CAR’s offices for a two-week assessment.
That preceded a scramble to find an appropriate Amarok V6 to square off against the Benz. While the flagship Extreme would have been a closer match for the X350d Power in terms of price (although still a hefty R150k adrift) and standard features, we were simply relieved when Volkswagen SA confirmed it could send us a sparkling-new Highline model at short notice. With a difference of exactly R235 488 splitting the two German bakkies, this comparative test doesn’t adhere to our policy of matching vehicles priced within 10 percent of each other. Still, those are the price points the carmakers have chosen and, in nearly all other respects, they couldn’t be more direct rivals, starting with their powertrains.
Under the bonnets
Underwhelming in Nissan Navara-powered X250d guise, the X-Class is transformed by the addition of Mercedes-Benz’s own 3,0-litre V6 turbodiesel powertrain and seven-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, sending power to all four wheels through an intelligent, permanent all-wheel-drive system.
Offering 190 kW, the X350d is South Africa’s most powerful bakkie. Its 550 N.m of torque dwarfs the figures produced by traditional four-cylinder rivals, too, and is delivered in an indulgently elastic band stretching from 1 400 to 3 200 r/min. On paper, we’re firmly in sophisticated, premium terrain here.
The Amarok, meanwhile, offers 165 kW and an identical 550 N.m. It has a trick up its arches, however: for 10 seconds on overboost, these outputs swell to 180 kW and 580 N.m, affording a much-needed kick when a quick overtaking manoeuvre is required.
Both units are notably hushed, especially compared to four-pot options – the Amarok’s engine is a touch grumblier on cold-morning starts, but soon settles into an appealingly gruff timbre – and, in terms of mid-range accelerative capacities, there’s little disparity. The X350d has the slight advantage across all 20 km/h increments, and rushes from 60 to 120 km/h 0,23 seconds quicker.
This ranking swaps in standing-start sprints (watch the two bakkies take part in a drag race), where the Mercedes-Benz is hobbled by an additional 174 kg, failing to dip beneath eight seconds for the benchmark three-figure run. The Amarok, meanwhile, needs just 7,82 seconds to reach the same velocity. Overall, though, choosing a better drivetrain is impossible; the Volkswagen scores half a point here, the Benz inches ahead there. Then the Amarok starts building momentum that doesn’t stop…
The Power specification on the X350d includes such must-haves as electrically adjustable front seats, keyless entry and start, LED headlamps and a reverse-view camera. The Amarok Highline has none of those features – nor can most of them be optioned for this model – but it does at least copy the Benz’s climate control and PDC sensors (the Extreme matches the X350d’s spec closely, while the X350d Progressive is nearer this Highline).
Benz offers a number of packages and accessories for the X-Class – some at eye-watering prices, including R28 827 for the load-bay hard cover that wouldn’t latch properly on this test unit – and it’s our opinion some items such as sat-nav and a 360-degree camera system should be standard.
Perceived build quality in both is somewhat of a mixed bag. While the X350’d leatherette-covered dashboard and door tops look smart and hint strongly at Mercedes-Benz’s pricier sedans, the shared components below the beltline have no place in a R1 million vehicle (nor, arguably, in a vehicle adorned with the Three-pointed Star). The row of switches controlling the all-wheel-drive system and diff locks is particularly out of place.
While the Volkswagen has an appealing uniformity to its finishes and ancillary controls, hard plastics throughout and mere slivers of padding on the doors knock the premium impression. Still, our test unit exhibited fewer squeaks from its plastic panels and the load bay than this older X-Class example.
In all other respects, though, the Amarok is leagues ahead. Its facia couldn’t be more logically arranged; the controls are chunky and sited where you’d expect to find them; there’s storage aplenty; finding a suitable driving position is a doddle thanks to rake and reach adjustment for the steering column, plus a driver’s seat with generous adjustability; and sightlines aren’t severely impeded by thick pillars. It also happens to offer lots of headroom for passengers, plus a rear bench that doesn’t force adults to hike their knees to their ears.
Unlike the Benz, that is. Saddled with what’s likely the least comfortable rear quarters in the leisure-bakkie market, the X-Class simply does not have enough room for four adults of, say, 1,8 metres and taller. Legroom is compromised, so too is headroom, and the bench is placed low, putting strain on passengers’ knees.
Up front, the news doesn’t improve. “Haphazard” perfectly describes the control layout of the Mercedes’ facia. While the brand’s own previous-generation infotainment system remains simple to master, the climate controls are sited too low; the starter button hides somewhere ahead of your right knee; the lack of reach adjustment on the steering column is unforgivable; and the electrically sliding rear window is adjusted via a shy little button relegated to the bottom left of the steering column shroud.
But even more annoying is that there’s nowhere to put your phone, keys and wallet; the transmission tunnel makes provision for two tiny cupholders and a cramped armrest-topped cubby … and that’s it. Would it have been so expensive to design a storage space into that blank expanse of plastic between the infotainment system and climate controls? At least the front seats are cossetting and the instruments typically Mercedes-Benz classy.
On-road and off
Famously endowed with the Nissan Navara’s overhyped coil-sprung rear suspension in place of the segment’s de rigueur leaf springs – promising improved wheel control and a more sophisticated ride – the X350d also features bespoke damper tuning and a five-stage drivetrain-management system.
The Amarok, meanwhile, is endowed with a leaf-sprung arrangement and offers no option to tweak responses aside from a sport mode for the Tiptronic transmission. Not that it needs clever tricks, anyway. The VW has always been the market’s best-riding bakkie and it hasn’t been usurped. There’s little of the persistent shimmy that afflicts most pickups; instead, the Amarok does a passable impression of an SUV over broken surfaces. Certainly, its steering is vague and body lean is exaggerated, but it also feels lighter than its 2 178 kg and is unexpectedly stress-free to manoeuvre along urban streets (although parking it, like any other bakkie, is a chore).
Drive the X-Class immediately after a stint in the Amarok and straightaway it feels more controlled and closely connected to the road’s surface. But it certainly doesn’t ride any better than the Volkswagen, despite its coil springs; present is a constant fidget, even at a cruise on a smooth highway, which proves tiring after a while. It also can’t match the lighter VW’s easy-going demeanour, feeling leaden in its reactions to inputs through the well-weighted steering system.
The Benz does isolate occupants from road and wind noise better than the Volkswagen, however – the Stuttgart-based carmaker’s engineers added significant sound-deadening measures to the Navara blueprints – and its V6 engine is quieter at a cruise than the Amarok’s more riotous power unit.
We must also commend the X350d’s deceleration prowess. Bakkies generally brake poorly but thanks to a ventilated disc at each corner, the Mercedes-Benz recorded our best-ever stopping time for a leisure bakkie, coming to a halt in an average of a mere 2,89 seconds across 10 emergency stops. The Amarok’s time of 3,09 seconds, while still better than most, looks decidedly ordinary by comparison.
We also took both vehicles to our favourite proving ground – the Atlantis dunes – where testers again complimented the Amarok’s nimble nature, as well as its engine’s unstressed workings when ascending inclines. The X350d required low range to be engaged for the ESC system to fully switch off and so not interrupt progress. All in all, we agreed the low-range-lacking Volkswagen is the easier vehicle to drive on sand, while the Mercedes-Benz would most likely go further on rockier terrain.
The Amarok scores a decisive victory. Not only is it significantly cheaper than the Benz (even if you have your eyes on the flagship Extreme variant), but it’s more enjoyable to drive and more practical.
What should we make of the X350d, then? Although it has standout qualities – its drivetrain is as good as it gets in a bakkie, and you simply can’t ignore the sheer appeal of that badge (or the five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan) – it’s too flawed and expensive. Here’s hoping X-Class generation two, if there is one, will be an in-house-developed Mercedes-Benz following rumours of a split from the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance.
ROAD TEST SCORE