Johannesburg - South Africa is bakkie country. Just have a look at the monthly sales charts and those manufacturers that make them spend a lot of money convincing you that you need one.
And once you are behind the wheel, you wonder why you haven’t had one in the driveway from the moment you were able to drive.
It’s almost the perfect vehicle, particularly in South Africa, and the modern versions really are as close as dammit – in terms of ride quality, features and safety – to any car in the same price category.
You can tow anything behind it, throw in garden refuse and building rubble, put on a canopy and load the family’s luggage for an extended holiday and no-one will lift an eyebrow if you arrive at a black tie event in one.
The big players like Toyota, with their Hilux, and Ford, with the Ranger, know full well what their bakkies mean to the bottom line and while the likes of Isuzu, Mitsubishi, VW and Nissan, with their cameo roles, aren’t to be discounted at all, the bakkie war essentially has two players.
It’s not like the Germans to be late for anything but, in the case of the double cab market, Mercedes-Benz basically walked in when the credits were rolling across the screen.
This wasn’t helped much when they entered the market with the X220d and X250d, which was based on Nissan’s Navara, although Merc did work on some elements, like the chassis and suspension.
The powertrains, though, were Nissan and consumers weren’t entirely fooled, with lots of remarks, particularly on social media, about paying a premium for a bakkie that was essentially a Navara with a Mercedes badge.
That all stopped when they introduced the X350 which, in hindsight, they should have done first.
It’s pretty much all Mercedes-Benz and the difference between its siblings is remarkable.
Sure, there are still elements of the Navara present but the heart of it comes out of Stuttgart, and for that there’s again a premium which I reckon, in an economy like ours that’s hanging on a thread, makes it difficult to justify purchasing.
So what they have done is put in their own 3.0 litre V6 turbodiesel engine that gives you a very decent 190kW and 550Nm.
This is distributed to all four wheels through Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic system that has three differentials, front, middle and back, which makes it a powerhouse on the 4x4 circuit. The question is, though: would you take an almost R1 million vehicle to go rock and sand climbing?
If you do, it has very decent suspension flex, 222mm of ground clearance, will easily scamper over a gradient of 45º and has a fording depth of 600mm.
I didn’t, not because I doubted its ability to go toe-to-toe with anything else in the market but, as anyone will tell you, on an off-road course, rocks and dongas have a mind of their own, and a ding on a Merc is likely to be an expensive exercise.
Where the 4Matic did come in to its own was on dirt roads and here it’s definitely in the top three vehicles I have driven on the same stretch of dusty, corrugated, badly maintained road.
It’s Basotho-pony-sure-footed even at a fair speed and not once did I feel like things may become a bit awry.
It’s the same on the black stuff, where road manners, cornering and braking show the effort they have put into the suspension, chassis and all the other additions to make it eminently driveable.
You have an option of five driving positions: Comfort, Eco, Sport, Manual and Off-road. Apart from Off-road, for obvious reasons, I reckon Comfort mode covers almost all the driving situations you’ll find yourself in and I really only tried the others because they were there.
Inside, though, it’s a bit licorice allsorts, with a strong Mercedes presence but also a distinct Nissan flavour.
The seats are incredibly comfortable, but to get a perfect driving position you have to rely only moving the steering wheel up and down because there isn’t a reach option.
The top half of the dash is very much Mercedes-Benz with round aircon vents, the infotainment system and dials and buttons. The rest, unfortunately, does the package a disservice and look a bit too plasticy.
Also, there is no traditional column shift but, instead a floor shifter – which does the ergonomics no real favours.
Much of that can be varnished over, though, but I found the lack of space for odds and ends baffling.
There’s no place to put your phone and, if it’s a smartphone, the somewhat shallow cup holders are too narrow, add a bunch of keys, Leatherman and wallet and they’re going to be sliding about in the door storage space.
Overall, though, the X350 is certainly a premium bakkie. The question is whether it’s almost R144 000 more premium than its closest competitor, the V6 VW Amarok, or R300 000 more premium than the big two.