THE FORCE AWAKES | REVIEW UTE – Mercedes-Benz X-Class Ute

Mercedes-Benz moves into the ute market, and, in doing so, it changes all the ground rules – words by Chris Mullett 

It was five years in the making, but as it enters the Australian market in April of 2018 the X-Class will set totally new limits of ability that currently are not matched by any of its competitors.

Placing a new vehicle above all its opposition, even before it goes on sale in Australia, is a large call by anyone’s definition. But that statement comes as the result of decades of experience behind Delivery Magazine’s test and evaluation programmes.

As an indication of the importance of the Australian market for global ute sales, Delivery Magazine was privileged to be invited to monitor the development programme for the X-Class through the past 14 months, joining the Mercedes-Benz engineers working on the programme in various locations around the world, including Germany, Sweden, South Africa and South America, as the company confirmed its final specifications for the X-Class, prior to its release for sale.

The X-Class project involved Mercedes-Benz in researching the whole aspect of the ute market, determining the reasons behind the increasing popularity of what was once just the tradies’ workhorse, and finding the best way of competing in the segment within a reasonable timeline.

The way forward, after evaluating a number of possible options, lay in forming a joint venture with an existing manufacturer to shorten the development time. The Renault Kangoo forms the basis for the Mercedes-Benz Citan small van, so it was perhaps a natural progression to joint share with the existing Nissan Navara, when the time came to find the base unit on which to build its ute entry.

While the premise might sound simplistic, to produce the Mercedes-Benz ute equivalent demanded that the model due to wear the three pointed star would incorporate the looks of a Mercedes-Benz and combine that appearance with the right feel for roadholding and handling, together with safety features and inbuilt benefits that today determine the DNA of a Mercedes-Benz.

The development time was indeed relatively short, the result of Nissan having brought the Navara to market as the latest iteration of this popular nameplate. But, from that point onwards, it became very clear that the X-Class was never going to be a joint venture alternative that shared everything except the badge on the bonnet. 

The Mercedes-Benz project engineering team started the X-Class development programme by evaluating every component from the tailgate to the front bumper bar. What worked, what didn’t, what could be developed and improved, and, above all, how to lift the final product to a new higher level of comfort, ride and handling, and ability, commensurate with being Europe’s premium brand.

This level of expert interaction in an existing vehicle is unheard of when it comes to Japanese manufacturers, with most mid-life upgrades originating from Tokyo confined to trim panels and chrome embellishment. What was of particular interest to the Delivery Magazine team is how the engineers approached the project of creating a ute that looked and felt like a Mercedes-Benz, even though its initial origins were more that of a distant cousin, rather than the dux of the family.

The task for the X-Class Project Team, as outlined by Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz vans, was to create the first genuine pickup with convincing passenger car characteristics.

“It’s robust, strong and with good off-road capability – just like a pickup should be. It’s also aesthetically pleasing, dynamic to drive, comfortable, safe, connected and individual – as you would expect from a Mercedes,” said Volker.

“As a result, the X-Class pushes the boundaries of the classic pickup and makes this vehicle segment attractive for private use, too. With three design and equipment lines and an extensive scope of further individualisation options, we offer the ideal vehicle for a range of different customer groups and their needs,” he added.

The project team started the X-Class development process literally by taking apart the current Navara NP300 and evaluating every component. The single and bi-turbo engines stayed, the front and rear axles didn’t, replaced by wider track axles that feature ventilated disc brakes all-round and coil springs, with an independent front end and a newly designed five-link rear with solid beam axle. The chassis came under scrutiny, with extra cross bracing added to stiffen up the ladder frame, plus individual areas of the chassis and body that were reinforced.

Stiffening the chassis to remove the opportunity for it to flex under cornering forces is critical when developing high capability suspension systems. With a stiff chassis the springs and dampers can be fine tuned for maximum effect, uninfluenced by chassis flex that in turn alters angles under stress.

Engine management systems also came under scrutiny, with MB engineers reprogramming engine and driveline calibrations to provide power and torque outputs as expected in a premium level vehicle. The single-turbo and bi-turbo engines are therefore similar to those used in the Navara, but the manner in which they perform is very different. The relationship between the bi-turbo engine and the seven-speed Aisin transmission used with these engines is also remapped through programme changes to the electronic control module.

In the most basic workhorse model, the single-turbo engine is matched to the six-speed Nissan manual transmission. However, even this has been modified, now featuring a cable operated shift, isolating the gear lever from the transmission, and, in so doing, reducing the risk of noise and vibration transfer through the shift linkage.

For the top-of-the-line version of the X-Class buyers get the full Mercedes-Benz developed and manufactured V6 diesel, aligned to the 7G-Tronic automatic transmission.

Now is probably as good a time as any to outline the three different models in the X-Class range, as described by Mercedes-Benz.

The PURE variant is designed for conventional use as a rugged pickup, the PROGRESSIVE variant meets higher requirements in terms of quality feel and comfort, and POWER is the high-end variant for urban lifestyles. External trim differences include painted lower body panels on the lower rung models and chromed bits on the upper levels.

With a length of 5340 millimetres, a width of 1920 millimetres (excluding the outside mirrors) and a height of 1819 millimetres, the X-Class can haul a payload of up to 1.1 tonnes and is able to tow up to 3.5 tonnes. There’s room for a Euro pallet between the wheelarches.

The POWER model comes with LED high-performance headlamps with these units containing LED sidelights and daytime running lights. High beam on the inside works using a reflector system and low beam on the outside uses projector-beam technology, with an additional two fog lamps in the front apron. The X-Class is the only mid-size pickup to be equipped with lighting in the cargo area as standard. The third brake light contains LED lights that illuminate the whole load bed – operation is by a switch in the centre console. A 12-volt socket to power additional equipment is also part of the standard equipment in the load bed.

For the tyre and rim choices there are three options, with 17-inch, 18-inch and 19-inch rims shod with 255/65, 255/60 and 255/55 series aspect ratio tyres. During Delivery’s evaluation of each of the different models there’s a noticeable influence on the ride, handling and comfort as might be expected when using lower aspect ratio tyres. With a coarser level of ride comfort, albeit with less tyre squirm for very high speed cornering, the 55 lower aspect ratio tyre actually detracts from the first excellent impression of the ride and handling, resulting in our recommendation of opting for the middle of the range and choosing the 255/60R16. For the serious off-roader, of course, the 65 series tyre is the go, with much less risk of tyre or rim damage from poor quality on road or off-road surfaces.

In terms of ride and handling, the suspension tune provides suppleness unmatched by any other ute on the current market. At high speed there’s none of the pitch and bump steer from the rear that can be part of the expected behavioural pattern of some utes. The wide track axles front and rear enable the X-Class to corner better and more precisely than any of its competitors. It does so more safely and with the vehicle under full control of the driver, even when being driven at very high speeds on a demanding private test circuit. The steering system has reverted to that of hydraulic power assistance rather than an electronic system as the Project Team believes this provides better feel across the broad spectrum of intended use.

The best way of describing the ride and handling is simply to state that Delivery Magazine has not experienced the level of handling provided as standard by the X-Class in any other light commercial vehicle in over 40 years of driving. It matches standards expected of a premium luxury vehicle.

Much of the reasoning behind the excellent road manners comes from the additional 70 mm wider track axles, supplied and tuned by Mercedes-Benz for these higher levels of ride and handling with extensive work done on the spring and damper matching.

Unlike some of its competitors, there doesn’t appear to be any major discernible difference in ride or cornering quality as payload increases. The standard clearance between the chassis and the rear bump stops is 80 mm, and after adding a load slightly in excess of 400 kg to the tray this clearance reduced by 30 mm to 50 mm. The additional load did not alter the road level attitude of the overall vehicle.

In developing the X-Class the MB project group evaluated all the competition including HiLux, Amarok, Ranger, Navara and Triton, benchmarking each of the models and setting its own targets higher in terms of intended achievements.

Although the Navara formed the initial basis of the X-Class underpinnings, none of the X-Class body panels, windscreen or rear windows are interchangeable.

One of the specific areas targeted during the development was that of interior width and shoulder room. By re-skinning the doors the external profile has widened by 70 mm, with an increase also applying throughout the interior to provide an additional 50 mm shoulder width for the passenger compartment.

In completing its analysis of the ute market, the MB project team determined that future growth in this segment lies with dual-cabs, consequently making the decision not to include a single-cab option in the vehicle line-up. What is coming along shortly after the initial introduction though is a dual-cab/chassis version.

The interior of the X-Class is duplicated from the current Mercedes-Benz prestige product lines, predominantly in this case the V-Class. Similarly, the safety inclusions are not variations on the current theme of ute options, but again migrate across from the premium luxury market, making the X-Class a leader in virtually every category in which it competes on specification.

Having mentioned the single-turbo and bi-turbo four-cylinder diesel engine options, the top of the line is of course purely Mercedes-Benz with the V6 diesel.

The 2.3-litre, high-torque, common-rail, four-cylinder diesel output in the X 220 d with single turbocharger generates 120 kW/163 hp and in the biturbo X 250 d it produces 140-kW/190 hp.

The bi-turbo engine has two turbochargers of different sizes, which, depending on the engine speed, compress the intake air either singly or in combination. This delivers powerful torque at low revs and more output at the top end of the rpm range and enables rapid response times, good pulling power and strong acceleration. The large turbocharger is designed for high throughput and kicks in when the revs are going up. This evens out the acceleration right through to the upper limit of the rpm range, creating the ideal pre-requisites for a dynamic driving experience as well as for transporting heavy loads and for trailer operation.

The PURE model in X 220 d form comes with a six-speed manual gearbox and a start-up spec that suits a role more as a workhorse. The PROGRESSIVE line is available with 120 kW as the X 220 d 4MATIC with six-speed manual transmission, with 140 kW as the X 250 d with six-speed manual transmission or seven-speed automatic transmission, and as the X 250 d 4MATIC with seven-speed automatic transmission.

The most powerful engine is the high-torque V6 diesel engine, and this will be released mid-2018. The X-Class shares this engine with numerous Mercedes-Benz passenger car models – from the G-Class to the latest E-Class. As the top model in the range, it comes as standard with permanent 4MATIC all-wheel-drive and the seven-speed automatic transmission 7G-TRONIC PLUS with steering-wheel shift paddles and ECO start/stop function.

In order to suit different drive applications there are four different shift protocols available at the touch of a button.

In Eco mode the shifts change at low engine speeds promoting fuel economy, and a stop/start engine feature further enhances this when the vehicle is stationary. In Sport mode the engine responds more immediately when accelerating, with faster shifts at higher engine rpm. In Manual mode the driver can select different ratios through the column-mounted paddles, and, finally, in Off-Road mode the ratio shifts move to higher switching points with a flatter, more predictable throttle control to improve smoothness on undulating terrain.

Added to these transmission enhancements is the full suite of expected intervention systems fitted to the passenger car range with ESP – Electronic Stability Programme, BAS – Brake Assist System to achieve the shortest possible braking distance, EBD – Electronic Brake Force Distribution to improve driving stability when braking and cornering by the intelligent distribution of brake system pressure, and finally ASR – Anti-Slip Control, which prevents wheel spin and maintains traction, with DSR – Downhill Speed Regulation handling descent speeds.

The avid off-roader is going to be amazed at how the 360-degree camera system can focus on the ground ahead, behind, and on each side of the vehicle, with high-quality vision displayed on the dashboard monitor.

In normal off-road driving in a conventional vehicle, when on steep hill ascents or declines the driver can’t see the road or track immediately surrounding the vehicle. The screen display provides perfect vision of the track, enabling the driver to avoid rocks or potholes to maintain traction and safety. This feature alone is amazing to use and experience and immediately raises safety levels without the need for a person standing outside the vehicle to direct the driver when off-road. The camera monitoring system also interacts with the driver when parking normally in confined spaces.

Those aiming to take a prestige vehicle off-road need have no doubts as to its capability. With a fording depth of 600 mm and ground clearance of a high-ride suspension setting for the Australian market of 222 mm, the front/rear approach and departure angles are 30 degrees and 25 degrees with a ramp over angle of 22 degrees and a side tilt angle of 49 degrees.

Unlike the current situation of purchasing a new ute and then having to modify the suspension system for a specific improvement in off-road or towing applications, Delivery Magazine believes that the standard fit suspension is so well sorted that further aftermarket modification would not achieve any appreciable gain.

Back to the world of passenger safety, and the X-Class comes with seven airbags as standard, with front, thorax/pelvis side airbags and two large window airbags for the driver, front passenger and rear passengers covering the A and C pillars plus a knee airbag for the driver.

The safety inclusions continue with Lane Keeping Assist that provides alerts to the driver if the vehicle wanders between lanes; Active Brake Assist that increases brake force if it detects an accident might be imminent, ultimately initiating autonomous braking; Traffic Sign Assist, which detects frequently changing speed limits and other information signs; Reverse Camera and Proximity Alerts, plus the 360-degree camera display on the monitor; Cruise Control; Trailer Sway Stabilisation; and Tyre Pressure Monitoring. As an adjunct to these inclusions there are additional driver aids such as voice control of selected operations, live traffic updates and an emergency call system that alerts a central monitoring service in the event of an accident to initiate an emergency services’ response. The monitoring service can even advise the driver where the vehicle is parked.

Fuel economy results are interesting, as, with the X 220 d, all measurements are under 8.0 l/100 km, with the combined figure showing 7.4 l/100 km and an emissions CO2 figure of 195 g/km for the manual version, and 7.6 l/100 km and 200 g/km for the 4MATIC version. For the X 250 d the manual returns 7.3 l/100 km and 192 g/km of CO2, against the seven-speed auto with 7.7 l/100 km and CO2 discharge of 203 g/km.

In a rare move, Mercedes-Benz has released pricing well ahead of the availability and there’s every reason to believe the news will send shockwaves through the marketing departments of Ford and Holden

The PURE cab chassis X220d starts off with a six-speed manual transmission at $45,450, rising through the ranks to $55,300 for the PURE ute X250d with seven-speed automatic. The cab chassis version of the PROGRESSIVE in X250d form gains the 4MATIC drivetrain and with a six-speed manual it costs $53,950, increasing to $57,800 for the seven-speed auto. The POWER version of the X-Class is available in ute form only, with the manual at  $61,600 and the seven-speed auto at $64,500. (Dealer delivery and on road costs are extra and charges may differ between States).

No pricing indication has yet been issued for the V6 Benz diesel version, due later in the year, but with all the additional inclusions the assumption would that for the best of breed the buyer is going to have to find at least another $20,000. Even at that level the X-Class will undoubtedly shake the foundations of its competition. 

In summing up the first full evaluation of the X-Class range, Delivery Magazine is confident to predict that following the release of the X-Class to Europe in November, prior to its availability in Australian from April 2018, the competing ute manufacturers around the world have cause to be considerably concerned.

In its first foray into the current ute-style of vehicle that is proving its popularity across international markets, the Mercedes-Benz project team has done a better job in designing and producing the X-Class than we’ve yet seen from any of its competition. In taking a quantum leap forwards it has leapfrogged over the current benchmarks of ability and safety and rewritten the rulebook, producing the best vehicle of its type, in its class.

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