The debate about whether the Mercedes-Benz X-Class can justify its premium price tag has intensified with the arrival of the new V6 flagship derivative. We travelled to beautiful Ljubljana, Slovenia, to drive the newcomer on a variety of surfaces. Will it set a benchmark for leisure double cabs when it arrives in South Africa in the 1st quarter of 2019?
I think it's fair to say that reviews of Mercedes-Benz's much-hyped first foray into the double-cab bakkie segment have been lukewarm. While its brand appeal, refinement and interior "ambience" are undoubted showroom successes, pricing, cabin ergonomics and rear passenger space are rather large bugbears. The arrival of an even-pricier V6 version is unlikely to resolve any of those problems, yet our experience in Slovenia suggests that the flagship X-Class offers notable improvements in other areas of the package, ones that may yet make the X350d the pick of the litter.
Under the bonnet
The X350d gets a Mercedes-Benz engine, a 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 that pumps out 190kW/550Nm.
Well, as the name indicates, the new range-topper is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine. But besides the higher peak outputs, it's also important to keep in mind that unlike the 4-cylinder unit used in the X250d, this V6 is not borrowed from Nissan, but is a Benz engine, and similar to the unit used in the GLE SUV. It pumps out 190 kW and 550 Nm of torque, the latter figure spread across a rev band of 1 400 to 3 200 rpm. These figures compare well with the upcoming 190 kW version of the Amarok V6, but the X-Class' deadliest rival does have more torque (580 kW).
Still, the extra shove that this new engine produces addresses one of the more minor issues we had with the X250d... In the smaller-engined X-Class, the extra weight that Mercedes-Benz added to the vehicle's underpinnings in its (successful) efforts to improve the bakkie's overall refinement and structural strength, the 4-cylinder engine's performance can, at times, feel underwhelming. Comparatively, the X350d feels stronger on the road than its 100 Nm advantage over the most powerful X250d suggests. Suffice to say it certainly feels far less troubled by sharp inclines.
The tow rating may be the same as the X250d's, but the new V6-engined flagship should be far more comfortable in this role.
Interestingly, both the 4- and 6-cylinder X-Class derivatives have the same tow ratings (3.5 tonnes), but I'd definitely far prefer using the V6 for heavy-duty towing. Acceleration times and top speeds shouldn't matter much with bakkies, but nevertheless it's worth mentioning that the X350d can sprint to 100 kph in 7.5 sec and achieve a 205-kph top speed. Mercedes-Benz claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 9.0 L/100 km.
SUV-like drive characteristics
So, given the extra muscle (courtesy of a genuine Mercedes-Benz engine) and the exceptional refinement the X350d offers, the German marque is off to a good start in its attempts to justify what is likely to be a close-to-R1 million price tag for the new flagship X-Class. And, it gets better still...
Steering wheel-mounted shift paddles are standard fitment on the X350d, but you're unlikely to frequently need them.
The engine is mated with Mercedes's 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission and, unlike the X250d, features 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive as standard. In its standard mode, the system channels 60% of torque to the rear wheels, but it will shift the percentage allocated to the respective axles as circumstances/conditions demand. A low-range transfer case is fitted (with 4MAT, 4H and 4L modes) and a rear differential lock is offered as an option.
As standard, the X350d also comes with Dynamic Select, which allows the driver to select distinct driving modes to suit his (or her) preference. This kind of system is not often found on pick-ups, and allows the driver to select from 5 modes; Sport, Eco, Off-Road, Comfort and Manual. Oh, and there are even 'shift paddles behind the steering wheel, should you want a more hands-on feel and shift gears manually.
In terms of ride quality, handling and refinement, the X250d is already an impressive machine, but this X350d's extra grunt, combined with the smoothness of its transmission, as well as the more SUV-like drivetrain set-up, elevates it to a level that we've come to expect from Mercedes-Benz. It puts in a far more impressive showing, full stop.
Behind the wheel
The X-Class fascia remains attractive to look at, but there are some major ergonomic flaws.
As we headed out onto the narrow Slovenian roads and aimed for the mountains and some gravel surfaces, a few things became apparent. Perhaps the first few X-Classes we encountered had rough edges, because, subjectively speaking, the fit and finish of the X350d appeared improved. It remains a visually appealing cabin, with many of the interfaces obviously borrowed from other Mercedes-Benz products – not a bad thing. In terms of material quality it remains a mixed bag, with some of the touch surfaces being up to Mercedes-Benz's usual standards and others... well, not.
Sadly, given the vehicle's price and the Mercedes-Benz badge on the nose, there are some... rather major... flaws, too. Firstly, the ergonomics are poor. The ventilation controls are mounted too low (in front of the gear lever), the steering wheel is only adjustable for rake and there's nowhere to put anything. The drinks holders in the centre console are small, and the storage box between the seats is puny. And yet, there's so much wasted space – the area above the HVAC (climate system) controls is empty and in front of the passenger there's another vast expanse of plastic.
With up to 222-mm of ground clearance, 600 mm wading depth and up to 100% "gradeability" the X-Class puts in an impressive showing off-road.
In the rear, the legroom is average, but those seated in front are unlikely to complain – those Benz chairs are superb. We spent a significant amount of time on the road and driver (or front passenger) comfort levels are impressively high. Of course, the pliant ride quality furthers the X350d's cause: the 5-link rear axle and significantly fettled front-end (compared with the Navara), endow the X-Class with arguably class-leading ride/handling.
The hardest an X-Class is ever likely to work, besides towing the odd boat or horsebox, is to carry some leisure activity "stuff" on the back. And with a payload rating of 965kg, you can carry quite a lot of those...
Safety and Tech
360-degree surround view is particularly helpful in off-roading conditions.
Although South African specification and final pricing have not yet been announced, we fully expect to see Progressive and Power trim packages to be offered, with the latter the more high-end option. A fairly comprehensive list of option boxes remain available to be ticked, whichever derivative you end up choosing, but standard safety specification is very good. Seven airbags are fitted, and Active Brake Assist, Traffic Sign Assist and Active Lane Keeping Assist are included. There's also ESP trailer stabilisation, a tyre pressure monitoring system, cruise control and LED headlamps. If you want a better view of your surroundings (particularly when parking or off-roading), there are rear-view cameras or even full 360-degree camera packages as options. On the comfort side of things, both derivatives feature keyless go and dual-zone Thermotronic air-conditioning as standard (at least they do in Europe).
Visually, there's not much to distinguish the X350d from lesser X-Class models.
Mercedes-Benz expects the double-cab pick-up market to grow by about 800 000 units during the next decade. Plus, as these vehicles become increasingly sophisticated and car-like, they're likely to find further favour with private – as opposed to commercial – users.
This X350d appears to be a better fit at the top end of the market, than where the cheaper X250d sits (lower down) in the price list. To be frank, the X350d's characteristics are more in line with what consumers expect from a pick-up bearing the 3-Pointed Star on the nose – it further ups the refinement ante, now has the muscle to cope with its added heft and, in terms of features and drivetrain tech, makes the strongest case yet as a valid SUV alternative. It still has its flaws (the major ones are inherent to its cabin architecture), but the X350d is plainly the best-balanced Benz bakkie.