DUAL-CAB UTES. These things are growing as rapidly as SUVs and not just in this country either. The humble work ute has transformed into something that’s fast replacing the large sedan and that’s largely because the thing is so adaptable, because people want their vehicle to be more than just a one-trick pony.
What is the Mercedes-Benz X-Class?
Well, if you’re into cars then you’ll know the donor vehicle for the X-Class is a Nissan Navara, a vehicle which will also be spun off by Renault as the Alaskan. But, if you’re not into cars then you’ll think this is a Mercedes-Benz ute…
Indeed, several people approached me across the course of my week-long loan asking about it. When I told them, apologies Mercedes, that it was essentially just a Nissan Navara (yep, an unkind statement) they almost spat out their lattes. A carpenter working on my house at the same time, didn’t really give the thing much time but then he’s not the target market. The latte-sippers are and they loved it.
Right, let’s look at this thing with an even-hand. A lot of motoring journalists have banged on about the similarities between this thing and the Nissan Navara and the fact the X-Class needs to prove that it’s a more premium Navara to be successful. It doesn’t.
See, as I said earlier, unless you’re into cars you won’t know about the shared ancestry. And besides, you’d either need to park the X-Class next to a Navara or have someone point out the bits that are the same. And there actually aren’t that many bits shared (Mercedes-Benz won’t say exactly what’s shared with the Navara)
But as far as I can tell, the windscreen and both the front and rear doors are the same and the rear window with its small opening centre piece is shared too, but beyond that just about everything else you look at on the exterior of the car has been reimagined by Mercedes-Benz.
And it looks good. That big, bluff front-end looks the part in a growing sea of dual-cabs that need to trade as much on their looks as on how they perform. The three-pointed star on the grille leaves you in no-doubt as to what brand of ute this is.
But it’s under the skin where the major changes took place, like increasing the front and rear track compared to the Navara, and this has made a huge difference, along with tweaking of the dampers and spring rates…you can’t help but think the fact the Navara runs multi-link coil springs front and rear (rather than leaf springs) was a key point in convincing Merc to use the Navara as its base for the X-Class. There’s more sound deadening throughout the vehicle, the steering has been tweaked and there’s a Mercedes-Benz seven-speed automatic on the thing.
And climb aboard the thing and, again, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a Merc first and foremost. For instance, the dashboard is all Merc’s work with bits borrowed from both the C- and V-Class. It’s a striking design.
So, yes, there’s a Nissan buried somewhere in the X-Class but, to my eyes and the seat of my pants, Mercedes-Benz has done more than enough to distance this thing from the Navara. More than that, the sort of people who are going to buy the X-Class wouldn’t look twice at the Navara.
The X-Class arrives towards the top of the dual-cab tree in three variations (Pure, Progressive and Power) with only one engine available, at the moment, one variant with a single turbo and the other with a twin-turbo set-up – a V6 is on the way although while it was tipped to become the most-powerful dual cab in the segment it has now been eclipsed by the VW Amarok V6. Pricing for the X-Class starts at $45,450+ORC for the X220d Pure and rises to $64,500+ORC for the X250d Power with seven-speed automatic – this was the vehicle we tested.
What’s the interior like?
Climbing into the X-Class, as you’d imagine, is completely unlike climbing into a Nissan Navara, unless, like the car’s exterior, you know where to look, but even then, there’s been enough stuff replaced and redesigned that the interiors are almost chalk and cheese.
Our test car was the top-spec X250d Power which means an Artico swathed interior (that’s Merc’s word for man-made, er, leather). It’s a grippy, suede-like material that looks and feels fantastic, but I doubt it would stand up to the rigours of either work or bush life. But for schlepping about the inner suburbs, it’ll be fine.
The seats are well-shaped and offer electric adjustment, making it easy to get comfortable behind the wheel. You end up relying on the seat for most adjustment as the X-Class’ steering wheel only offers rake adjustment and not reach. I covered more than 600km in my week with the X250d with 200km of them towing a trailer loaded to around 700kg. I arrived at my destination feeling fresh, but this is not just because of the comfortable and supportive seats. More on the ride and handling later in the review.
The dashboard is easily the most striking part of the interior. Besides the ‘premium’ trim with soft-touch and well-grained plastics gracing the upper parts of the dashboard, it’s the air vents bearing an ‘X’ that catch the eye and lift the interior beyond workaday vehicle. Sure, there’s still hard plastic in the areas you want hard plastic, like the lower parts of the dashboard and the door linings. Despite the ‘premium’ overtones, the X-Class is still intended to get its feet dirty.
There’s good forwards and side vision out of the X-Class although the rear window, shared with the Navara, is small. The large side mirrors help when changing lanes as does the blind-spot monitoring on our test car. Beyond this, when parking, our top-spec X250d has a 360-degree parking camera as standard which helps when manoeuvring the thing
Before getting into the back of the thing it’s worth pausing to discuss the infotainment system. Too many people dismiss these things in dual-cabs…they can either make life easier or they can enrage you so much that you want to throw something at the screen.
Unfortunately, for me, the X350d Power’s Comand infotainment system with touchpad is leaning towards the latter. The tablet-like screen juts out of the dashboard and is well positioned to be in the driver’s peripheral vision, so, tick. But it’s not a touchscreen, rather you control it via a rotary dial and touchpad down on the centre console. The whole set up feels cramped to use and overly complicated.
The infotainment system itself is stuffed full of functionality but accessing it via the touchpad is a pain in the proverbial and so you end up not using it. The fact there’s no Apple or Android connectivity means there’s no way to shortcut this laborious set-up. The system, I feel, would be fine for a passenger car, but in a work and play vehicle like the X-Class it’s just not as user-friendly as it should be.
While we’re talking about user-friendly…the X250d offers rain-sensing wipers which got a lot of work in my sodden week with the thing but the fact that everything is on one stalk only, yep, wiper control and indicators, with lights controlled via a rotary switch over near the door, is frustrating because of a lifetime of muscle memory from using two stalks. So, maybe it’s just me?
Climb into the back and there’s just enough room for three adults to sit across the back, but the passenger in the middle won’t be super comfortable. The seat backs are upright in their design and the seat bases are quite high (meaning taller passengers will be close to the roof) but the well-tuned ride means sitting in the back is more comfortable than it could have been.
Both my kids travelled in the back happily and could climb up into and out of the thing without issue. The doors are light so my daughter (aged six) had no problems closing it from inside the car even when it was opened to full extension.
Then we come to the tray. The tray measures 1581mm long and 1560mm wide, the width between the arches is 1215mm. Unlike other utes with their corner tie-down points the X250d Power gets “adjustable load-securing rails on the sides of the load bed”.
In my week with the thing, I needed to shift some sleepers and, initially, the lack of corner tie-downs concerned me. While I think they should still be fitted the sliding load rails were much better at securing the sleepers with the straps able to be tensioned at the same height as the load which meant absolutely no slack.
The tail-gate is heavy but plenty of aftermarket companies are offering hydraulic stays that can take the weight out of opening and closing these things, that said, I’m not sure if any are available for the X-Class. Getting to the spare wheel is easy-ish (you’ll still need to get dirty) and there’s a tub light, although it’s not great so an aftermarket one is recommended.
What’s it like on the road?
Like the Navara, the X-Class runs a 2.3-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel which is available in two states of tune, our X250d is the higher output with 140kW at 3750rpm and 450Nm of torque at 1500-2500rpm. This is mated, as standard, to a six-speed manual transmission but our test car had the cost-optional M-B seven-speed automatic transmission.
As you might have read, Nissan recently tweaked the suspension set-up on the Navara to keep that vehicle’s good ride but improve its load-carrying ability. The X-Class has inherited much of that vehicle’s set-up, although the X-Class runs a wider front and rear track, and the German engineers changed the springs, dampers, bushes and geometry to achieve the ride and handling characteristic they wanted.
The X-Class, like the Navara, is a ladderframe (reinforced on the X-Class) vehicle with a five-link trailing arm suspension and coil springs to locate the live axle at the rear and coil springs at the front. Both the Navara and X-Class are the only vehicles in the segment with this set-up. But unlike the old soggy-bummed Navara (this has now been fixed) the Merc’s set-up is excellent.
Indeed, and while I haven’t driven all the dual-cabs back to back, I’d suggest the X-Class offers the best on-road (loaded and unloaded) ride in the segment. On bitumen, the ride feels more like an SUV than a dual-cab ute with this thing’s ability to smother bumps and ruts in the road, without thumping or skipping in the rear, astonishing. Only larger holes in the road will set the whole thing shuddering.
While the steering too has been worked on, it is very light and not at all what I was expecting from a dual-cab ute. The steering is incredibly slow and it doesn’t get any better as you build speed but get some miles under your belt in the thing and you do get used to it, understanding that you need more lock and to hold it for longer when cornering. That said, the low-speed steering action is easy and the armfuls of lock aren’t such a big deal.
That slow steering doesn’t stop this from being an enjoyable vehicle to punt along a twisting road, and it’s an easy highway cruiser. The engine, in this more-power state of tune is just lusty enough with the seven-speed automatic transmission wringing out every last drop of grunt from the engine.
The X250d keeps up with traffic and pulls away from a standing start with eagerness, although at highway speeds there isn’t a lot in the tank for overtaking manoeuvres so you’ve got to plan ahead to avoid a rather long, slow build-up. Mercedes-Benz has added plenty of sound deadening to the X-Class to the point where you can barely hear the engine which adds to the premium feel of the thing.
The X-Class is rated to tow 3500kg and can carry up to 1100kg in the tray with a rear axle load of 1850kg. The key measurements are 2155kg kerb weight (assume all fluids and a 75kg driver), 3250kgkg GVM and 6130GCM. This means that if you’re loaded to the vehicle’s maximum, then your trailer can only weigh around 2880kg. The towball download is 350kg which is good, but as we all know a 3500kg towing capacity isn’t always a 3500kg towing capacity.
In my week with the X250d I towed a trailer weighing around 700kg and half a dozen sleepers in the tray. It was just my daughter and I on-board and the X250d didn’t feel overly blunted by the weight but I suspect pushing that to a 2000kg or more trailer would have a greater effect on performance. The seven-speed transmission is one of the better more-cogs gearboxes and is nice and responsive to the throttle with reasonable engine braking when driven in manual mode.
What’s it like off-road?
The X250d gets tyres designed for the bitumen rather than the dirt and that dictated where we could take the thing without wanting a lengthy recovery. See, it rained a lot in the week I had the X-Class and all the usual tracks we like to put 4x4s across were slick; the tyres on the X250d wouldn’t have cut it.
We spoke with Mercedes-Benz about whether it’s possible to cost-option the 17-inch alloys from the entry-level Pure which would make choosing off-road-friendly rubber easy and give you improved tyre deflation options when the going gets gnarly. Unfortunately, a dealer won’t allow you to fit the smaller wheels, however, you could spend some extra dosh on the wheels from the Pure, or any other aftermarket 17-inch alloy and fit 255/65 rubber. This would equal the diameter of the 18s on the Power variant.
The lack of appropriate rubber didn’t mean we didn’t venture off the beaten track; we just stuck to dirt roads rather than rutted tracks. Ground clearance for the X-Class is a claimed 222mm but when I measured from the ground to the bottom of the diff pumpkin I saw just 200mm which is just about enough. Other angles are: 30-degrees approach and 25-degrees departure angle with a wading depth of 600mm
The X-Class’s forte is definitely it’s on-road ride, handling and impressive grip. But that ride and handling translates across to dirt roads where the thing, again, feels more like an SUV than a ladder frame chassis ute.
Don’t be fooled by the 4Matic badge on the X-Class, this thing is not a permanent all-wheel drive; the V6 X-Class coming towards the end of this year will be, but this one, like most dual-cab utes is a part-time 4x4 (meaning 4x2 on the road and 4x4 High on loose surfaces) with low-range and a rear locking differential. It’s easy to slip from 4x2 to 4x4 via the rotary dial on the dash and you can do it on the fly too, engaging the rear diff lock is a push button affair – more on this below.
The tyres and the weather really did limit where we could take the thing but that’s not the end of the story, well, not yet anyway. We’ve asked Merc if we can borrow a lesser-spec model with more off-road friendly tyres to give the thing a proper test off-road – this will be later in July. Stay tuned.
We did enough to suggest that the X-Class would be every bit as capable off-road as its Navara starting point. But, like the Navara, when the rear diff lock is engaged and it only works in low-range it kills the brake traction control on the front of the vehicle.
In situations like this, we’d recommend not using the diff-lock and keeping the traction and stability controls active across the front and rear of the vehicle; this will be more effective than having the rear diff lock engaged and the front open. Until we’ve had a chance to test the thing again, we’ll park the conversation here for now.
What about safety?
The X-Class was awarded a five-star ANCAP rating and comes standard with a bunch of airbags covering the front and back, reversing camera, traction and stability controls, autonomous emergency braking and lane keeping assist, while our X250d test car added a 360-degree camera.
So, what do we think?
Well, the X250d Power is aimed at those who’ll stick to the blacktop, the 18-inch alloys wrapped in 255/60 rubber just don’t have the meat for off-roading. The X250d offers excellent on-road manners and controlled dirt-road performance. The interior feels refined and very Mercedes-Benz.
Words by Isaac Bober via practicalmotoring.com.au Photos by Manufacturer