From the passenger seat of the new Mercedes-Benz bakkie, Calvin Fisher tries to differentiate this premium German product from its Japanese DNA.
Mercedes-Benz has finally graced us with their latest combatant, the X-Class, after years of dangling it like an elusive carrot or render thereof. It's an unlikely fella: a bakkie otherwise known as a compact-truck or ute. But since it's been unveiled in Cape Town, South Africa let's just stick to the term bakkie. Forget the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger, the Mercedes-Benz takes aim at the premium edge of the wedge, based as it is on the Nissan Navara's underpinnings and tasked with putting the VW Amarok V6 in its place (that's relegating it to second place of course). Has Benz done it? In short, it's too soon to say, but let me explain.
Set to swipe the Amarok V6 aside as the best bakkie in SA? We'll have to wait until 2018 to find out.
This is bakkie country
But it's also Benz country, with AMG badges adorning the bootlids of hatches, saloons and SUVs of school-runners to shopping-getters to track-enthusiast cars alike. A Mercedes-Benz bakkie seems like a natural fit and it was a pity that our first interaction with the X-Class was minimal, a mere viewing on a Wednesday followed by passenger rides on Thursday spent on both dirt and asphalt.
But let me cut to the chase – the X-Class is a success in the metal, but not a resounding one. The concept car's flash and pomp has been traded in for a profile strikingly similar to the Navara donor car, including the steep rake where the cabin meets the load bay, as well as that kink in the rear window sills. The Stuttgart-based brand's front-end, lamps and grille addenda constitute a convincing graft job, and the wheel arches have been squared off to evoke Teutonic heft and, when you eventually clamber aboard, you'll be delighted by a cabin reminiscent of those of the marque's SUV models.
Similarities between the X-Class and Navara will be drawn, especially on the surface as the likeness is undeniable.
Despite the bakkie's development by Stuttgart engineers over the last 3 or 4 years, I feel that the hard points it shares with the Navara have ultimately shone through. From my passenger seat, this feels just like the Japanese bakkie. And why shouldn't it since they both ride on the same independent suspension, which is SUV-soft and somewhat of a revolution in this class of vehicle? Engines are similar and the Mercedes-Benz apes the dimensions of the Navara so for what it's worth, the main points of distinction are aesthetics and that aforementioned premium-ness, the latter of which is best appreciated in the cabin. It was fortunate, because that was where I got to flick, flack and twist dials and controls to my heart's content...
The layout is typically Mercedes-Benz, the only oddity is a gear lever located in the traditional position as opposed to Mercedes' usual insistence on the steering column. It's hardly a criticism, but if you're desperately looking for a chink in its armour then I suppose that's it.
But it won't matter, the X-Class is destined to be Mzansi fodder. Not even its price point will hurt its appeal. In Europe the base model will launch at R550 000 and by the time it makes its way to our shores at the end of the first quarter of 2018, it will have crept considerably closer to the million-rand mark, with the options list pushing it well beyond. And you'll see them everywhere. Sure, not in droves like the Ranger and Hilux, but in places you wouldn't expect a humble double-cab, rather a premium SUV, which is what the X-Class is with the benefit of a load bin that can be loaded with a 1.1-ton payload (such as a peloton of very expensive bicycles and gear, or several crates of expensive wines) and will be seen towing a horse-box or trailer between farms, not to mention conducting suburban crawls and climbing kerbs at schools.
It appears Mercedes-Benz has done just enough to the cabin to give it that extra premium touch.
This is a truck designed for well-heeled South Africans, South Americans and Australians alike, and to a lesser extent Europeans, but despite its obvious appeal to the American market, it won't be making its way to Trump land. As for our German driver, when asked if he had roads similar to the ones we were being driven on, the pristine tarmac of the Franschhoek test track and the gravel course that hithers and thithers alongside it his response was simply: "No. But we have potholes." Do with that what you will.
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class has proven that not even sharing the spine of a Japanese bakkie, which itself has also spawned the Renault Alaskan, can diminish the lustre of the Three-pointed Star. That's testimony to the brand's tremendously transformative corporate identity, which can be injected into the visage and living space of anything from a tiny A-segment hatchback to this. The fact that the brand has genuine off-road pedigree and an extensive off-road catalogue means it's not going to be lonely in the company portfolio either. It's an impressive effort, to say the very least.
Watch Calvin's passenger ride in the X-Class below: