Mercedes X350d: Benz’s uber-ute for power players

How much performance, plushness and pose-ability can a ute stand? Benz raises the bar with an X-Class that implements a star drivetrain.

CRUISING Slovenia’s State Highway One equivalent pegged to the posted 130kmh speed limit – riding at walking pace a series of yumps significant enough to have diagonally opposing front and rear wheels pawing air.

And in each instance, noting that the engine is pulling without strain, sometimes registering less than 1000rpm without discomfort.

This level of pedigree – evidenced with the seamless mechanical refinement you associate with Mercedes’ large luxury cars - leaves a powerful positive impression about most Benzed X-Class one tonne ute yet, the X350d.

On the operational side, there’s little to undermine the extra-premium standing expected of a variant which imbues even more German spirit by divesting the Nissan-shared drivetrain that locates in the four-cylinder variants we’ve had since April for a complete set of underpinnings from the Mercedes warehouse – the V6, the gearbox then everything else required to send drive to each wheel.

My experience came with this model came at the international media taster event, on the roads of a central European state that has become an economic powerhouse and growing tourist mecca since Yugoslavia’s fragmentation of Yugoslavia in 1991.

Yours will come in December. By then the customer base will also be fully up to speed with how much will be asked for the X350d’s mid-level Progressive and flagship Power editions heading here, that information coming out in August.

We drove from the X-Lodge, in everyday life the clubhouse for an upmarket golf course near the country’s capital, Ljubljana, venturing first into the forested mountains for a get-to-know stint before undertaking a second trip, heading northeast toward the (still disputed) border with Croatia.

A route starting with motorway then chases across the country overlooked by the Kamnik Alps and its centrepiece, Grintovec, whose height of 2558 metres the country’s highest peak, through meadows and fields toward and then wending alongside the Krka River, through the town of Novo Mesto and its imposing ruined castle. 

Ultimate goal was to check out a source of Slovenia’s greatest export. Around 216 square kilometres of this country is given to producing world-famous red wines, the best originating from our ultimate destination of Trska Gora, whose southern slopes feature not only some amazing centuries-old vines but also ‘wine cottages’, popular as weekend retreats and a unique-feature of the vicinity.

The final stretch to just such a retreat, Rataj cottage, was no easy feat. It necessitated taking lanes so narrow it seemed the wing mirrors would have occasionally been hanging above the stone walls on either side and so steep that, without all-wheel-drive, we’d surely have been fighting for traction.

How ancient were these thoroughfares? Put it this way: We would have been comfortable laying odds that a 5200 year-old wooden wheel with an axle dug up near here probably rolled on them, perhaps pulled by the most elemental kind of horsepower. Just to add extra spice, our Stuttgart-plated lane-filler seemed to present a red rag to bullish local drivers, whose intention to assert dominance delivered several millimetric misses – but no hits.

Well, who would truly dare? The uber-ute ambience of the plushest 2.3-litre double cabs we’ve had in the market since April is even more apparent with the Power grade six-cylinder I was sharing with an Australian motoring writer.

And, yes, while it’s clear that all the usual Benz identifications has not been enough to keep even the casual onlooker from establishing connection with the donor Navara NP300 – nose and tail alterations are convincing, yet the silhouettes and side-one stance unmistakably conjoined – it’s only fair to say that, if you were to drive these together, the difference in ride quality, interior appearance and quietness over the donor is vast.

With a drivetrain that is entirely off the Benz shelves and – state, the Germans - will never, ever be shared with Nissan, the flagship elevates further still.

Had Mercedes simply conspired a straight engine swap and left all else alone they’d have still made powerful impression. Compared with the four-cylinder in the X220d/X250d, power has jumped by 50kW and torque by 100Nm, meaning peak outputs of 190kW at 3400rpm and 550Nm across 1400-3200rpm. Zero to 100kmh of 7.5 seconds means it is utterly untroubled even by the most powerful four, the X250d, which nails the sprint in a far more leisurely 11.8s.

Fuel burn? Sure, it elevates, but not hugely, with the world’s oldest maker citing 9.0 litres per 100km overall on the official cycle. Even CO2 emissions are pretty decent, at 137 grams per km.

Change doesn’t stop at the firewall. This variant utilises the whole drivetrain from the GLE sports utility (and a Vito van) so, while a seven-speed automatic transmission remains, it’s but not Nissan’s but the 7G-Tronic Plus, slicker and also more sophisticated with have steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

On top of this, the X350d is also granted a 4Matic full-time four-wheel-drive system, with a 40:60 front-rear fixed torque split and, for off-roading, a centre and rear differential locks, as well as low-range gearing and hill descent control. Beyond this, it’s also the sole X-Class with a Dynamic Select feature, which allows drivers to choose from five different drive modes: Comfort, eco, sport, manual and off-road (but doesn’t change suspension stiffness). The control, and the addition of paddle shifters on the steering wheels, are the only changes you’ll see in the cockpit when comparing with an X250d Progressive or Power.

How much Benz has spent on turning a four-cylinder ute with part-time four-wheel-drive into a V6 edition in which all the wheels provide grip for all of the time is closely guarded.

It's a shame local market spokesman Blake Vincent, when pressed for even a hint about pricing, became as tight-lipped as X-Lodge’s chef when quizzed about ingredients for his Prekmurska Gibanica, a layered pastry meted a European Union protection that means that it can only be made by certified producers). You'd have to think rumours of this being the first one-tonner to break the $90k barrier might be on the money.

The factory trims a Progressive with 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, leather-lined steering wheel and parking brake, fabric seats, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment, eight-speaker sound system and halogen headlamps and enhances the Power to further include chrome-plated underbody protection, a chrome-plated rear bumper, matte black pixel and microfibre dashboard trim, microfibre/artificial leather seat upholstery and electrically adjustable seats.

In either format, standard safety equipment includes autonomous emergency braking, active lane keep assist, front and rear parking sensors, trailer stabilisation, tyre pressure monitor and seven airbags.

Sounds familiar? It should do. While potential exists that several fittings optional in Europe might become standard here – LED lamps and a 360 camera seem to be set to arrive on NZ-market Powers – anyone who has checked out the highest-end four-cylinder X250d four doors, which top out with the $69,990 X250d, will see the are V6s virtual doppelgangers in look and fitout.

But not in the driving. You don’t have to spend much time at the wheel at all to figure that the six-cylinder is a massively more polished offer, not simply because it has more grunt but also because the eschewing of a part-time four-wheel-drive for a system that delivers all-paw always utterly changes the driving demeanour.

The transformation is such that I’d imagine buyer thinking will be influenced less by choice within the family and more with how the X350d compares with the only other category rival that configures the same way.

The Amarok V6 and X350d both exude robustness, but in terms of look, finish and feel, and especially when comparing cabin environments, the Volkswagen could be considered to be a bit more workmanlike or, alternately, less flashy. However, as everyone knows, by the time the X350d lands, Wolfsburg will have played its ace card of a new variant producing 10kW and 30Nm more than the Benz engine. Yes, that’s advantage purely availed on overboost, only in third gear or higher and only when the driver uses at least 70 per cent of throttle. But even so, it still has more … and will very likely offer it for less money.

So where does leave the X350d? Trading very nicely on being a robust machine that maintains the intrinsic toughness you’d expect from a ute and yet is also palpably less rough around the edges than anything else in its category, the donor included.

The spiffy spec and obvious comfort of the cabin most obviously reinforce that this product is chasing a clientele more likely to use this as a recreational substitute for a relatively swank SUV than as a workhorse and our excursion showed that intention to deliver above and beyond category expectation also shows in ride and refinement.

At what cost to its base ability? It’s a good point. The one concession to it being especially tailored for comfort and on-road dynamics would seem to come from the payload rating having diminished, from 1067kg to 965kg.

Otherwise, no trad strengths appear sapped. A 3500kg tow rating means it is bang on the horse float and caravan set and, notwithstanding that Benz has gone for a Continental tyre that isn’t as chunky as some, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t take of off-seal with confidence.

The base figures of a 600mm wading depth, 222mm ground clearance (assuming the optional higher clearance suspension will be standard here, as it has been for the X250d), 30-degree approach angle and 25-degree departure angle all register positively. Opportunity to undertake off-roading was limited to a 15-minute spin around a course our hosts had carved out behind a half-finished housing development adjacent to the launch venue. The truck sailed around with such confidence that insistence to undertake it in 4Low and employ the hill descent on the ascents could have been ignored. It probably could have done just as well in 4Matic or 4High. 

Back on seal, the X350d simply elevates the positive impressions delivered by the X250d when driven on NZ roads. Slovenia doesn’t have our coarse chip surfaces, so how it fares for road noise is a question only local assessment can answer, but this first taste suggests that the Benz package could well challenge Amarok’s status as the class leader for ride quality.

While some buyers might doubtless have been happy for the X350d to be totally carlike, Benz itself decided to best avoid that impossibility (because, well, utes are utes) and instead create a ride-handling formula that would put a foot in each camp.

They’ve done well. Occasional chassis shudder and some rear-end bounce over rippled surfaces during some dirt road driving reinforced that it’s still a ute at heart and might also leave impression that the multi-link coil-sprung rear axle’s advantage over leaf-sprung rivals is not as great as marketing spin might suggest. However, it’s a trademark traydeck trait that very likely would be addressed by putting weight above the back wheels, a trick Benz determined not to pull so as to ensure we were given a clear picture.

Certainly, the X350d feels very assured and confident on tarmac, and while it doesn’t quite match Amarok for steering sharpness, assessing which is more rewarding for driving appeal is going to be …. challenging. Gut feeling is that it’ll be close. In isolation, the X350d straight away evidences that it is better than average. Not car-like – how could it ever be? = but certainly car competitive in some respects.

Benz’s full-time four-wheel-drive system is such a clearcut winner, too. The certainty and peace of mind it offers impacts hugely, to the point where you’ll be left pondering why it is that the majority of ute makers still favour part-time systems that relegate their trucks to rear-drive on seal.

The all-paw is also obviously needed here to contain the V6’s shove. There’s always far more oomph than you’ll get from the alternate 2.3-litre Nissan engine or any other four-cylinder competitor I’ve tried.

There’s a touch of turbo lag low in the range, but once it wakes up there’s plentiful torque – enough to ensure it rarely has to rev all that hard to get the job done.

Assuredly, it feels more action-packed in the Sport mode; regressing to Comfort and even Eco is fine for cruising – and, on our day, delivered the best economy (the display suggesting 10L/km on the 130kmh motorway).

But you’ll be quick to switch out of those settings when on tight, winding roads. One thing, though, even when you’re giving it stick the engine remains impressively refined. It has a little bit of roar but is never shouty.

The transmission is also decent, too. Yes, it could sometimes seem a little jerky as it shuffled through the lower gears but is nonetheless one of the more cultured choices in this category, with smart and sharp shifts in the performance setting.

So, a lot to like, then. But also some other factors to consider. For one, despite X-class being patently much more than a rebadged Navara, there’s no way of avoiding that this is a co-share.

That association bodes well, of course, for elements of toughness and reliability, but perhaps in respect to perceived premium-ness some diehard Mercedes fans might find themselves a little challenged. Fact is the Navara just wasn’t designed to meet the same expectations that a high-end brand has to work to. 

It’s not that the effort to imbue an executive air has been in vain – far from it – but, fact is, even with implementation of some very swish appointments and finishing, you cannot help but notice that everything has come down to compromise. Will the remnant plastics and dated switchgear and a non-adjustable steering column that jar in the already expensive four-cylinder line irk all the more here? Rhetorical question, obviously. Surprised and shocked reaction to this from my driving partner, an X-Class newbie, was perhaps telling.

Buy a ute, too, and you must reconcile to not getting the very latest tech now slotting into the Benz passenger line, including some cars that cost less.

Full Distronic seems possible but high-riding application of the impressive MBUX screen now showing in the A-Class – and Vito van – and set to proliferate more cars could be improbable. Benz has to be careful so as not to upset its co-operative partner, but it would seem limitations to the electronic architecture that, as is, already makes the incumbent sat nav slightly slow-witted seems to be the heart of the issue. The Nissan architecture does not allow for another tasty Benz speciality, SUV-style active body control.

Then there’s the distribution arrangement through being a product of the Mercedes van and heavy vehicle division. The poshest ute should naturally take pride of place in big city Benz car showrooms but won’t unless those franchises are also accredited to deal in the brand’s commercial vehicles. And only 11 of the 26 nationally are.

So, not the smoothest of roads. And yet it’s easy to understand why Mercedes believes the X350d will very likely be its best-selling X-Class. It’s in the money.