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The Mercedes X-Class 350D 4Matic

The announcement by Mercedes-Benz — renowned for its opulence and performance products — that it was entering the off-road segment, was met with sighs of dismay from both sides of the “bakkie” fence. Isn’t that Toyota property, with everyone else simply clinging on?

Ford shifted those parameters and bit into the Toyota market with the introduction of the new, wider, meaner, faster Ranger in 2013, while Isuzu, Nissan and Mazda have also been keeping the off-roader non-conformists happy.

The X-Class created a lot of hype when it was launched, but did not fulfill all the usual Merc expectations, as the design collaboration with Renault/Nissan left too much of a “we’ve seen this movie before” taste in the driver’s mouth. The X250 D received a number of classical nom de plumes: a personal favourite “the Navara with mascara” sticks stubbornly to my mind whenever I see one of them. Add the Renault 2.3-litre turbo engine to the buffet and expectations do truly reduce joy.

It was a brazen attempt to take customers from Toyota and Ford, but the market had spoken and with the state of the economy, the 800K bakkie needed to do something that would shift traditional buyers away from their brands. Part of the challenge that the luxury brand faced was the design partners. A Mercedes buyer wants a Mercedes; they are not interested in the hybrid lovechild of other brands that do not maintain the same status quo of the German Company.

The release of the V6 350D with an authentic Mercedes engine that thumps out 190kW of power with a solid 550Nm of torque promised a welcome deviation from the disappointment that was the 250D. With Geely taking a 10% stake in the company, the choice to tackle the bakkie segment was a bold and adventurous move, but the company should have centered on affordability and quality or luxury and exclusivity. Engaging all those parameters in a rather fickle consumer market tends to either fare well or fail dismally.

The X 350D should have been the truck that Mercedes launched the X-Class with. Its throne-like ride stance, daytime running lights, sparkling metallic paint and sporty interior all add to the excitement of this quick mini-truck.

The interior is luxurious mix of components that yell Mercedes quality with underlying hints of other design contributors. It’s practical and functional, with all the familiarity of the brand, which makes it an easy transition from any other Mercedes you may have owned. The speedo tops out at a respectable 260km/h, which made me look twice. Hmmm, we got it to just under 206km/h, very impressive and it did not feel like we were ice-skating in a hurricane, so kudos to the 4-matic suspension.

The engine is responsive, with a lingering over-boost function that intervenes often enough to become addictive. It’s fast for a mini-truck; we got a flying 7.7 second 0-100km/h, which is pretty quick for a 2.3-tonne bakkie. The paddle shifters help with flawless downshifts and the quick-responding box is essentially car-like to use. It overtakes with an efficiency that borders on a sedan and gets you plenty of shocked glances from cars as you effortlessly fly past them on inclines, declines and practically anywhere you need to overtake; blind corners, rises, inclement weather excluded. The big advantage is that you can do this without having to bother about dodging the numerous potholes on our previously advantaged roads.

It’s a bit sluggish in comfort, but it gets better consumption in sport anyway, so why bother with cliché mode? Its suspension is nimble, tight and gives the best feedback of all bakkies we have driven so far. There is no road that tests a vehicle’s suspension like Long Tom Pass and the X-Class twists, bucks and grips with bakkie-like tenacity. The paddle shifters keep you in the torque band and although we had work commitments in Mpumalanga and could not stay longer, the Mail & Guardian will definitely be planning a joint test with other trucks.

We hopped off the beaten path, clicked it into off-road mode and engaged the 4-High drive option. As we crept into the forest, twilight cast ghostly shadows against the pineswept backdrops and I remembered that we did not have proper off-road tires on. Sticky pools of mud beckoned us, but we were not taking the bait. I dodged some of the wetter, swampy patches and gratefully navigated us back to the main roads. Off-road would have to wait; I was not in mood to get stuck with no reception in the wild Sabie outbacks.

The X-Class is deceptively fast and consistently challenges you to stay below the speed limit. We found it smooth and well sound-proofed; it cruises at about 145km/h without breaking into a sweat. It manages a frugal consumption for its size, probably the best average of any of the 4×4’s we’ve tested, and if you add the power and ignore the price, you have a serious contender for the best bakkie on the SA market.

Its Mercedes heritage still shines through despite the Nissan overtures and still allows a sophisticated level of exclusive satisfaction for the driver and passengers. The X-Class gets gawked at wherever you go. We even saw people peeking in the car’s interior when it was stationary. This is the path of design, performance and ethos Mercedes needs to follow in order to make significant strides into the bakkie market of the new age.

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