Cape Town - The eagerly-awaited Mercedes-Benz X-Class was revealed to the world, in full showroom guise, at a glitzy event at Cape Town’s harbour on Tuesday night and it was quite fitting that the premium carmaker chose to stage its global premiere on local shores.

For starters, South Africans have a love affair with the pick-up truck (or bakkie as we’ve affectionately dubbed it), particularly the one-tonne variety. We’re into premium brands too, and there’s really no denying that! So it’s little surprise that Mercedes-Benz has identified South Africa as one of the key markets for the world’s first premium-branded product to compete in the modern one-tonne segment. 

It’s not the first Mercedes bakkie ever, but that’s a story for another day.

And yet the new Merc's debut has sparked some finger wagging, with many accusing the X-Class of being nothing more than a Nissan Navara in a fancy mink coat. Sure, it does share its chassis, door panels and most of its engines with the aforementioned Japanese bakkie, and it’s also built in the same Spanish factory. That is to save on the exorbitant development costs that Mercedes would have had to fork out for a product of unproven popularity, bean counters will tell you, before going on a long “efficiency of scale” tangent.

Yet has Mercedes-Benz added enough of its own fancy flavour to justify the inevitable premium positioning?

The exterior styling is likely to strike the right chord with consumers, particularly the frontal design that mimics Merc’s modern SUV range. While the doors are basically identical to Nissan’s, the Benz does have smoother wheel arches and a unique, if somewhat understated, rear end.

It’s an all-Benz affair inside, with some high-end finishes on the larnier-spec versions and elegantly stitched leather seats available in a choice of colours.

The X-Class will be available in three flavours: Pure, Progressive and Power. There were no base 'Pure' models on display at the launch event and in pictures they look quite plain and workmanlike, but the Progressive and Power derivatives that I was able to climb into felt rather plush, for the most part, with ‘cool-touch’ silver shadow trimmings and various aluminium and woodgrain ‘effect’ inlays. The upper dash is soft to the touch, but the large bulging lower-to-middle mass of plastic is not exactly premium in appearance or feel. 

For the most part, however, Mercedes-Benz has delivered a classy cabin, and it’s also available with the widest selection of materials and colours in its segment, and a fairly gluttonous array of gizmos and gadgets, but we’ll get to those a little later.

By now you'll be itching to know whether it drives better than the average bakkie. Unfortunately it’s too early to tell for sure. No journalists will get to drive the new X-Class for at least another few months as it is still in the early pre-production stages. However, the global media contingent present at the reveal did get to ride shotgun for a 15 minute track and off-road course the following day, on the Franschhoek Motor Museum’s premises.  

Stepping into the passenger seat of a 4x4 model in range-topping ‘Power’ guise, and with the Nissan-sourced 2.3-litre turbodiesel engine idling, I was impressed by how quiet it was inside once the doors were closed.

Mercedes assures us that it has fitted plenty of additional sound-deadening material to the X-Class, while its engineers also toyed with the engine mapping, suspension characteristics and steering ratio. Like the Navara, the Merc’s back end rides on coil springs rather than leaf springs, although it still has a live rear axle. An independent double-wishbone suspension does service up front.

It would be unfair to deliver an assessment of the ride quality and handling based on 15 minutes in the passenger seat on a Mercedes-designed course, but with the necessary big disclaimers attached, I can perhaps blurt “so far so good.” Driven at speed over badly potholed dirt tracks, it felt comfortable by bakkie standards, although with an empty load bin it still felt somewhat bouncier than I’d imagine a modern car-based SUV would feel over similar surfaces. This machine still has to accommodate heavy loads, after all.

Same goes for the racing circuit portion of the short route, where my driver skillfully pushed it through tight corners and multiple emergency lane change simulations at near-frightening pace, and though there was considerable body roll, as you’d get in any high-riding, ladder-box-constructed bakkie, the X-Class just held on for dear life. Based on that, and properly driven, I can see it passing the so-called “moose test” with flying colours.

Performance impressions will have to wait until we actually get behind the wheel, but for the record, the aforementioned 2.3 is offered in 140kW/450Nm twin-turbo and 120kW/403Nm single-turbo guises, mated to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed autobox. Mercedes will however offer its own V6 turbodiesel engine as a flagship option from mid-2018, tuned to 190kW and 550Nm and mated to a seven-speed autobox.

The Franschhoek course included some off-road obstacles that showed the bakkie's ability to handle a rear wheel in the air scenario (where the optional diff-lock comes into play) as well as crawl up and down steep gradients, where the low-range gearing and Downhill Speed Regulation showed their worth. 

See more of the tar and dirt courses in the video below:

2.3-litre diesels will be offered with a choice between rear-wheel drive and part-time four-wheel drive, while the V6 will come standard with a permanent four-wheel drive system, albeit still sporting low-range. Mercedes claims a ground clearance of 222mm.

And if you find yourself defending the Bakkie Benz around the braai any time soon, you might want to mention that the newcomer will have an official towing capacity of up to 3.5 tonnes and a payload of up to 1100kg. It will only be available in double cab guise, incidentally.

High-end cabin features

As mentioned, there are three trim grades available and with them a wide variety of interior trimmings and features, from workmanlike in the Pure, to plush and stylish in the Progressive and quite flashy in the Power derivative.

All versions come with a multi-function three-spoke steering wheel, leather covered in the Progressive and Power models. Vehicles fitted with the Audio 20 CD and Comand Online infotainment systems also get a centre-console-mounted touchpad similar to that found in MB’s passenger cars.

The gadgets arsenal includes an integrated SIM card that allows drivers to monitor their vehicles remotely via a smartphone and even send it navigation destinations ahead of the journey, although it has yet to be confirmed whether SA models will offer this feature.

All local specs and prices will only be confirmed closer to its April 2018 projected on-sale date, but overseas versions offer an impressive array of gadgets and gizmos. 

In addition to available luxuries like the Comand Online infotainment system, with its 21.3cm screen, and Linguatronic voice control, there is a full range of driver-assist equipment available.

For starters there’s a 360-degree camera system that not only provides the usual reverse view, but also gives you the view ahead that you can’t see when climbing an extremely steep incline on a trail.

Additional safety ‘assist’ gadgets come in the form of Active Brake Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Traffic Sign Assist, Trailer Stability Assist and tyre pressure monitoring. 

Some cool accessories

Those last few paragraphs could easily be inserted into story about a high-end passenger car, but in addition to all that, the X-Class can be accessorised with some rather cool bakkie gear.

Buyers can personalise their bakkie with a huge range of load bed accessories, including a colour coded hard lid tonneau cover (above), a conventional soft tonneau in black, an armadillo-like rolling cover, a bed divider system and a 156-litre storage box, in addition to a sports bar, colour-coded canopy and various underguard protection parts for off-roading.

Let’s not forget the LED illumination system and the handy 12-volt socket for your power tools.

But will the new Merc’s blend of traditional bakkie functionality and premium car luxury make it a hit on the market? Given SA’s aforementioned affiliation to fancy badges, there is a good chance that Mercedes-Benz will pull this one off, but it’s still early days.

IOL Motoring

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