FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE THE MOUNTAINS surrounding Santiago, Chile provided the spectacular backdrop to our first drive of Mercedesí forthcoming entrant to the booming dual-cab ute segment.
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class, which, in a deal with the Renault- Nissan Alliance, borrows heavily from the D23 Nissan Navara, will arrive in Australia next April.
Like Chile and its South American neighbours, weíre a key market.
Despite plenty of shared Nissan hardware, the connection is not obvious when you climb inside the X-Class. Here, itís all Benz, integrating instruments and switchgear largely borrowed from the V- and C-Class, with a unique dash and door trims. About the only compromise in relation to the shared platform is the placement of the HVAC controls low in the centre stack.
Yet the cabin of the base X-Class Pure also reminds you that this is a vehicle from the Mercedes-Benz Van division, with rough íní ready features such as a vinyl floor and plenty of unyielding surfaces. At the other end of the spectrum, the X-Class Powerís cabin feels more closely aligned with the brandís passenger cars, with plush carpets, stitched leather on the dash, powered seats and comprehensive infotainment.
Driving the X250d in Power specification reveals that Benz has done a mostly thorough job in re-engineering the platform.
The refinement is worlds better than Nissanís; well isolated from both road noise and the gruff fourcylinder turbo-diesel.
Steering feel and directness are not Navara strong suits and, disappointingly, it seems Mercedes has not wrought significant improvement in this area, leaving the hydraulically assisted steering as merely on par with the average dual-cab ute.
The suspension calibration, however, is a great leap forward.
The X-Class is better at soaking up bumps and undulations, maintaining composure on sweeping tarmac and control on more rugged terrain. The Nissanís well-located, coil-sprung live rear axle sets the X-Class apart from the average leaf-sprung live-axle ute, and is well behaved and predictable. Mercedes-Benz stressed the amount of work it put into the spring and damper calibration, in part to realise the benefit of the X-Classís significantly wider tracks than the Navara. The suspension mounting points and bushes are revised, and the result is a smoother and quieter ride.
The suspension changes Ė and tuning Ė instantly put the X-Class up there as one of the best handlers by the modest standards of the class, though we wonít know if itís as good as the benchmark VW Amarok until we back-to-back them on local soil.
The 450Nm twin-turbo Renault diesel remains a stout performer with plenty of grunt across a decent range, tied to a slick seven-speed Nissan automatic.
Yet while we found the X250d Power far more refined than its Japanese relative, some of the Navaraís gruffness carries into the lesser versions such as the X250d Progressive we sampled. It seems it misses out on the same level of insulation as the Power, which might remove some of the supposed upside of paying extra for a premium ute.
Weíll have to wait until later this year for Australian X-Class pricing, however for a shot at success the X220d and X250d in Pure and Progressive spec will have to be close to the existing players, leaving Mercedes-Benz with room to apply a bigger ticket to its range-topping, V6-engined X350d Power in the burgeoning premium ute market.
Polish of top-spec Power versions; supple ride for a dual-cab ute Steering nothing special; lesser versions not particularly refined
The X will come in three grades, with three engine options and part-time or full-time 4WD, depending on the engine. Only a double-cab body will be offered but both traditional ute and cabchassis will be available.
Flagship X350d is due in mid- 2018 and was available for passenger rides at the launch.
Tied to Benzís own seven-speed auto, the 190kW/550Nm 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 brings a huge performance boost and greater refinement than the four.
The top-spec Power variant gets 18-inch alloys, LED headlights, synthetic Ďleatherí seat and dash trim, dual-zone climate control, COMAND infotainment system , eight-speaker audio, and keyless entry among its standard kit.
While the X-Class is based on a Nissan Navara platform, just about everything has seen some degree of revision, to the point that itís easier to list what hasnít been changed than what has. These items include the four-cylinder turbo-diesel drivetrain, the side glass, the internal door frames, some switchgear and details such as the key fobs. All the sheetmetal is unique, as are the dash and door trims. The windscreen and rear glass are wider, the axles are broader and adopt disc brakes on the rear in place of drums, and the suspension is Benz-specific.
Ford Ranger XLS Double Cab $51,090 Key attractions are macho styling, a muscular 3.2-litre five-pot turbodiesel and dynamics that arenít completely uted. An update mid next year will also bring the hi-po Raptor which will inject further appeal.
VW Amarok TDI420 Core Plus $50,490 The ageing Amarok remains a cut above its mostly Japanese-brand, Thai-built peers. Class leading cabin space and tray size, polished ride and handling, and strong performance make it the X-Classís fiercest rival.