REVEALED: What it's like to drive the Mercedes-Benz ute
RECKON there are already too many utes on our roads? It's about to become more crowded.
The Mercedes-Benz of pick-ups, the new X-Class, has just gone on sale in Europe before it lands in Australian showrooms in early 2018.
Mercedes is yet to confirm price but early indications range from $40,000 to $60,000 for twin turbo four-cylinder diesel variants and stretch closer to $70,000 for turbo V6 diesel models due mid 2018.
There will be three model grades, starting with a basic "tradie” version that has a vinyl floor, steel wheels, and grey bumpers.
Depending on your point of view it will be an expensive Nissan Navara or a cheap way into a vehicle with a Benz badge.
In case you weren't aware, the X-Class is based on a Navara frame, uses Nissan four-cylinder engines, and is made on the same production line as the Navara in Spain.
Unlike other model sharing arrangements, it's not simply a Nissan with a new badge.
Mercedes has made extensive changes, adding strengthening beams to the chassis, fitting four-wheel discs in place of rear drum brakes, and it has wider axles for a bigger footprint.
The body is 70mm wider than the Navara and every panel is unique to the X-Class; the only visible carryover parts are the side glass, the exterior door handles, the key fob, and the rear-view mirror in the cabin.
Using the Nissan Navara as the foundation - rather than designing a new ute from the wheels up - meant Mercedes was able to join the booming segment faster. It's also cheaper to share development costs than go it alone.
The X-Class will have some technology firsts for the class, such as automatic emergency braking - standard on all models - which slams on the brakes if the driver isn't paying attention.
It will avoid a rear-end crash at suburban speeds and mitigate impacts at freeway speeds.
The X-Class is also available with a high-resolution 360-degree camera - another class first - which can be handy for off-roading, or when trying not to scratch the alloy wheels on a gutter.
All models come with seven airbags, including one for the driver's knee, the same number as in the Toyota HiLux and Nissan Navara. That's one more airbag than most utes on the market, and three more than the Volkswagen Amarok, which lacks rear airbag protection.
You could be forgiven for thinking, being a Mercedes, the X-Class would come with the works.
But it has some notable omissions, proving no one vehicle is yet to get it completely right in this segment.
The flagship X-Class only comes with faux leather seats - they're a "leather look” vinyl - even though the top end Toyota HiLux and Volkswagen Amarok have genuine leather seats.
Radar cruise control and lane-keeping technology - available on the Ford Ranger - are not available at any price on an X-Class.
Tyre pressure monitors - standard on the flagship Volkswagen pick-up - are also missing from the Mercedes options list.
The X Class lacks a household power socket in the centre console - standard on the most popular variants in the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux line-ups - which can be used to charge a laptop or power a small fridge.
It also misses out on Apple Car Play and Android Auto - standard on the Ford Ranger, Holden Colorado, and Volkswagen Amarok and most new Mercedes passenger cars.
Mercedes says smartphone mirroring will be introduced to X-Class about a year after launch, but can't be retro-fitted to vehicles sold before then.
ON THE ROAD
First impressions? It's a good first effort but - and this may come as a shock - we're not sure it's better than a Volkswagen Amarok to drive.
Mercedes has worked wonders when it comes to suppressing noise from the diesel engine, but only the most expensive model gets the extra sound deadening. Lesser grades are noisy.
The ride comfort is better than the Navara on which it is based, but the X-Class still gets the jitters on patchy roads.
This is a trait of most utes but, based on our experience, the Ford Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok deliver a smoother ride.
The steering is cumbersome. At three-and-a-half turns lock-to-lock it can feel like steering a bus in tight corners. The steering is also not as linear in feel or as well weighted as the Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger or Volkswagen Amarok.
The start-stop button on the flagship X-Class is hidden from view below the dash, there's limited oddment storage in the centre console and the cup holder is too small for larger smartphones.
The air-conditioning and four-wheel-drive controls are poorly placed down low in the dash, and are hard to see and use quickly.
The "theatre style” back seat is higher than the front seats so passengers have a better view, but taller passengers may find headroom a bit tight.
Four-wheel disc brakes are unique in the four-cylinder ute category; only the Amarok V6 matches Mercedes in this regard at this stage.
But the brake pedal on the test cars felt long and spongy, versus the precise feeling of the HiLux which has four-piston brake calipers up front. Mercedes, however, says braking performance is best in class.
The massive turning circle of 13.4 metres - thanks in part to wider axles - is worst in the class, compared to Navara (12.4m), HiLux (12.6m), Ranger (12.7m) and Amarok (12.95m).
Power outputs from the X Class twin turbo 2.3-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder engines (120kW/403Nm and 140kW/450Nm) are unchanged from the Nissan Navara and use the same six-speed manual or seven-speed auto transmissions.
But the X-Class has piled on the kilos thanks to the extra chassis strengthening and bigger body.
It's almost 300kg heavier than the Navara and about 200kg heavier than most ute rivals, which blunts performance.
These aren't meant to be race cars, but the X Class four cylinder models are about one second slower to 100km/h than the equivalent Nissan.
The Mercedes-powered turbo diesel 3.0-litre V6 (190kW/550Nm) matched to a seven-speed auto and full-time all-wheel-drive promises to match or better the performance of the V6 Amarok (165kW/550Nm), which has an eight-speed auto and full-time all-wheel-drive.
The Mercedes X Class will likely rank among the top three or four utes in the segment and many will buy it for the badge alone. But there's already room for improvement.