One of the most hyped vehicle launches of the past couple of decades is now a reality for South Africans with the formal introduction of the Mercedes-Benz X-Class bakkie – and perfectly timed to happen days before the opening of the biggest agricultural show in the country, namely Nampo in Bothaville.
Known for hosting farmers with bulging wallets, the X-Class will take pride of place on the Mercedes stand and, while the company does not discuss or disclose specific model sales numbers, it is a safe bet May is going to be a good month with pre-orders and instant sales possibly around the 500 units mark.
From the first design sketches, the hype started along with lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ about Mercedes-Benz building a bakkie. Shock. Horror. Stop the presses!
Really – This company builds cars, SUV, MPV, vans and trucks – all of which are premium class so the question really is not why they added a bakkie, but why it has taken so long.
The answer is they have not. In the South African market, the X-Class is not the first Mercedes-Benz bakkie and utility Mercs have been around since the 1950s.
In 1955 Binz, a coachbuilder located near Stuttgart produced 400 W120 180D bakkies for export exclusively to South Africa (in right hand drive format).
Gary Bowes, who works as a Dealer Technical Specialist for Mercedes-Benz in Pretoria still drives a locally manufactured version one and says: “The idea of producing a Type 180D Ponton pick-up originated with the six original post-World War II independent South African importers, namely, Cargo Motors (Johannesburg), NMI (Durban), Stanley Porter (Cape Town), Haaks Garage (Pretoria), Ronnie’s Motors (East London) and John Williams (Bloemfontein).
“They were all marketing Mercedes-Benz and various other makes in the late 1950s and were looking at how they could increase their sales which were severely limited by the strict allocation of passenger car import permits – in 1955 only 100 Mercedes-Benz cars could be imported.
“A pick-up or bakkie, as we call them in South Africa, was classified as a commercial vehicle which was subject to fewer import restrictions. With the co-operation of the Mercedes-Benz central office which then operated in Johannesburg, the six importers arranged with Daimler-Benz AG to import ‘half-cars – the built-up Type 180D but without the body section behind the ‘B’ pillars to which they then fitted a locally made load-box.
“The biggest problem was to find a local coach builder capable of making a ‘car-quality’ load-box that fitted the lines of the 180D.
“The work was eventually entrusted to body builders, Morewear Industries of Germiston, which after laborious efforts, achieved a very successful result. The distributors were insistent a high quality standard should be maintained, particularly as buyers were found to use these vehicles mostly as passenger cars.
“Several hundred were built between 1956 and 1958. Local assembly of Mercedes-Benz passenger vehicles started in East London in January 1958, which allowed more units to be imported and the necessity for continuing with the 180D pick-up therefore disappeared.
“As far as I am aware, there are two versions of this pick-up; The South African version, which is recognisable by the gap between the cab and the load-bin and where the spare wheel is situated behind the left seat inside the cab.
“The Binz version does not have the gap between cab and load-body and the spare wheel is stored in a compartment below the tailgate. I do not know how many of the Binz versions were imported to South Africa but I have seen a few running around, but I definitely prefer the body lines of our local version.”
The other issue in the hype equation is the collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and Nissan that has given rise to comments about the X-Type being a ‘Nissan with bling’ or a ‘Navara with mascara’.
Mercedes-Benz is happy to shrug these off, stating the help from Nissan in using the Navara underpinnings was instrumental in them being able to get the X-Class to market in a much shorter time than it would have taken if they had to develop it all themselves.
The company also stresses even though there is Navara in the X-Class “every single part and component has been touched by Mercedes-Benz engineers and specialist” making it, they claim, a 100% Mercedes-Benz product.
Either way get over it! Collaboration between automakers is nothing new, has been going on for a long time, and will continue to do so.
Nadia Trimmel, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans Southern Africa says: “There has never been a more perfect time for Mercedes-Benz Vans to enter the bakkie segment in South Africa. But in true Mercedes-Benz fashion, we are opening this segment to a new customer group who want a robust bakkie with refined sophistication and unparalleled driving comfort.”
“This is the first bakkie to convincingly combine the versatility of a double-cab with the luxury of a passenger car. The X-Class is robust with exceptional load capacity and off-road capability, but yet it’s also aesthetically pleasing, dynamic to drive, comfortable and safe.”
As mentioned Mercedes does not do sales numbers, but she said much of the target market would be to place the X-Class as the second Merc in the garage!
The X-Class locally is launched with two design and equipment lines for different lifestyles and working environments. The X-Class Progressive is aimed at consumers seeking a rugged bakkie with extra styling and comfort functions, while also being a comfortable yet prestigious vehicle for private or dual use.
The X-Class Power is the high-end line. It is aimed at customers for whom styling, performance and comfort are paramount. As a lifestyle vehicle beyond the mainstream, it is suitable for urban environments as well as for sports and leisure activities off the beaten track. Its design and high level of equipment reflect an independent and individualistic lifestyle.
At launch only two diesel variants are available with the V6 petrol due in the first quarter next year. The common-rail diesel drive system with a displacement of 2,3-litres is available with a choice of two power outputs.
In the X220d, the engine generates 120 kW and in the X250d 140 kW.
The media launch drive took us on the stunningly scenic Devil’s Peak Pass in the Outeniqua Mountains near George in the Western Cape. Closed to the public, the rarely used pass was in existence when Sir Thomas Bain started building the Montagu Pass (opened in 1848) and the much longer Prince Alfred’s Pass.
He used Devil’s Peak as the route for his supply wagons and, although he did not actually build it, made some modifications to make it easier to negotiate.
The pass is narrow, rough and traversed only at a snail’s pace – a good test of the capability of the vehicle and the X-Class has no problems with ground clearance, tractability and the like.
My only gripe was the engine was surprisingly noisy in the upper end of the rev range and the electronic steering ‘loosened’ up too much to allow proper communication between the driver and the actual angle of the front wheels.
As speed increased the steering ‘tightened’ and the problem went away. While it is unlikely the vast majority of X-Class bakkies will do more than a bit of kerb-crawling in posh shopping centres where this steering disconnect will never be noticed, it is possibly worth an engineering thought to somehow recalibrate it when low range is selected.
Admittedly, due to time constraints, I drove only this one variant and will have to wait for road test versions to see if this is a reality or aberration.
The X 220 d is available in rear-wheel drive, while the X 250d is offered in rear-wheel drive or with engageable all-wheel drive, with low-range. Power is transferred via a six-speed manual transmission.
Its special feature is the wide transmission spacing, with a short first gear for maximum torque and a long sixth gear to keep rev speeds down. This design makes allowance for typical situations such as hill starts with a horse or boat trailer in tow and long-distance comfort on motorways.
A seven-speed automatic transmission is available for the 140 kW, X 250 d and X 250 d 4MATIC models.
Coil springs are used at both the front and rear. The front wheels are guided by double triangle wishbones.
At the back, a rear multi-link solid axle with good articulation capability is well suited to transporting heavy loads. This combination ensures that the suspension is comfortable and the handling is safe given any permitted load condition.
With 1 632 millimetres at the front and 1 625 millimetres at the rear, the X-Class has a wider track than most competitors do. At 3 150 millimetres, the wheelbase is also longer than many other bakkies.
A ladder-type frame chassis with closed longitudinal profiles and cross-members provides the basis for transporting heavy loads and handling tough off-road terrain. The comfort suspension is designed in such a way that it achieves a high level of driving dynamics and ride comfort on the road, while also delivering maximum off-road capability.
Mercedes-Benz is the only manufacturer in the segment to opt for large disc brakes on both axles as standard. The front axle has internally vented brake discs with a diameter of 32 centimetres. The internally vented brake discs on the rear axle have a diameter of 30,8 centimetres.
Passive safety is provided thanks to standard equipment such as seven air bags and the i-Size attachment system for two child seats. With Active Brake Assist and Lane Keeping Assist options, driver assistance systems increase safety and comfort.
Descent control is provided on both the manual and automatic versions, maintaining vehicle speed to 8 km/h in 4H and 5 km/h in 4L and it works extremely well to allow the big vehicle gently to walk its way down and over obstacles.
In fact, there is so much electronic kit in this bakkie in the form of driver assistance, it does rather take the challenge out of genuine off-roading.
The major off-road facts are: Wading depth 600 mm, Ground clearance 221 mm, approach angle 30,1 degrees, departure angle 25,9 degrees, maximum tilt 49 degrees, breakover angle 22 degrees and gradeability 100%.
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class offers line-specific packages. These include the Parking Package (Parktronic and a 360 degree camera); Comfort Package (driver and co-driver lumbar support, electrically adjustable seats for the driver and co-driver, Artico / Dinamica seat covers, Thermotronic automatic air-conditioner and a stowage net in co-driver foot-well) and the Style Package (LED high performance headlights, partial LED tail lamps, roof rails, a privacy glass, electrically opening rear window, 18-inch alloy wheels and running boards). In addition, the Winter Package offers driver and co-driver heated seats and heated washer fluid jets.
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class comes standard with the manufacturer’s PremiumDrive full maintenance plan for 100 000 km/6 years, whichever occurs first. For a nominal cost, customers have the option of extending the maintenance plan up to a maximum of 180 000 km/8 years, whichever occurs first.