X marks premium pickup spot

How easy will it be for the X-Class – that’s the new Mercedes ute – to hit the sweet spot of the one-tonne traydeck market? We asked the sector leaders.

POTENTIAL for Mercedes to bring more polish and posh to the one-tonne ute sector does not faze the two mainstream brands that together achieve around half of all sales in this boom sector.

Spokesmen for Ford and Toyota in New Zealand agree there is logic to Benz determining to restrict the X-Class utility here in 2018 to a pure doublecab format, because that’s the bodyshape that achieves 85 percent of all ute sales here.

However, they also offer thought that Benz might be restricting its ambition by apparently determining to tailor its truck – or ‘pickup’ as they prefer it – to a high-end luxury state and so ignoring everyman tastes.

While their own top-end models – for Toyota, that’s the Hilux SR5 and SR5 Limited – and, for Ford, the Ranger XLT and Wildtrak - have all done well, in reality Kiwi interest in four-door utes spans beyond those models that are decked out mainly for recreational and family use, this writer was reminded.

The lower-priced and more utilitarian workhorse doublecab editions also fuel the sales fire, Ford New Zealand’s Tom Clancy offered.

“Actually, the success is with doublecab across the board, across the entire industry,” he said.

“The high end ones do well, yes, but the bulk of it is just the doublecab shape itself.”

He also says that while the ute market is clearly booming – last year’s 21 percent share of all new vehicle sales puts the type second only to sports utility wagons in passenger preference – and the industry is predicting more growth this year, Mercedes will not suffer for lack of competition.

“New Zealanders are spoilt for choice when it comes to utes.

“It’s a very competitive market … there are some good trucks out there and, of course, we think we have the best.

“Another like that (the X-Class) expands it even more (but) we continue to say it's up to the customer to decide, even as new entrants arrive.”

Toyota New Zealand has a similar view. The brand whose Hilux dominated for three decades before being bumped out of No.1 by Ranger two years ago expressed sentiment that it will take more a flash badge – our words, not theirs – to achieve significant support in this hotly contested zone.

“It’s a highly competitive, growing segment of the new vehicle market,” offered Steve Prangnell, General Manager (Sales and Dealer Operations) when asked about his thought about going up against a Mercedes ute and what the premier player could expect.

Range and accessories were crucial but “more importantly, reputation to handle the tough stuff. (These) are all contributing factors to making a customer’s consideration list.”

As a revision of the current Nissan Navara, the new Benz is also effectively something of a sister ship of the similarly spun Renault Alaskan here next year.

However, as Mercedes promised, it is likely to be more powerful – whereas the others are turbo fours, with Benz there’s a V6 turbodiesel in the mix – and the physical similarities are quite well-hidden. While the basic cabin structures of all three models appear to be the same, and all base on a common underpinning, Benz has worked even harder than Renault to create a bespoke front and rear-end styling.

Also, the Germans are using their own engines, all-wheel drive systems and interior componentry from other Mercedes-Benz product - particularly the C-Class sedan and V-Class van.

Benz’s thinking about positioning for play and not work – and so bypass single cab and extra-cab bodies or downmarket interiors and steel wheels - was aired during an international media event in Sweden yesterday. It showed off the vehicle in two upmarket guises – respectively labelled ‘Powerful Adventurer’ and ‘Stylish Explorer’ – which, though labelled concepts, looked to virtually be in production-ready state.

Benz believes the recreational factor will continue to show significant growth, enough to fuel what it forecasts will be a 39 percent global growth of mid-sized traydeck volume – from two million to 2.8 million.

In comment to this site, brand spokesman Jerry Stamoulis said: “Though it is too early to comment about pricing and specification … there will only be a dual cab option globally available.”

New Zealand’s high level of ute buy-in ensured this country is considered “one of the key markets for the X-Class and we place a high importance on the planning and roll out of this model on a global level.”

While Ranger and Hilux have been cited as particular rivals, Benz admits it will have to contend with Holden’s Colorado Z71 and the Volkswagen Amarok.

The latter is launching here next month in a V6 turbodiesel edition set to raise the bar for power – with 165kW and 550Nm - and price, with an entry Highline at $76,990 and a flagship Aventura for $87,990, with lots of options and accessories that have potential to push up the buy-in all the more.

Though Benz is adamant that it will not release local market pricing and specification and technical details until much closer to launch, it has left no doubt that there’s potential for the X-Class to carry any even sterner sticker than the VW and potentially be a performance equal.

While no specific information was provided on powertrains, the company confirmed the top model will be powered by a V6 diesel which will be mated to Mercedes-Benz' 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive. This AWD will combine an electronic traction system, a transfer case with reduction gear, and two differential locks. Under extreme off-road conditions, the rear differential and the inter-axle differential will be able to be locked.

The media information from the event says this powerful drive system and a tough ladder-frame chassis will allow the X-Class utes to have payloads of more than 1.1 tonnes, and a towing capability of up to 3.5 tonnes. A specially-constructed suspension will feature wide axles, a five-link rear setup with coil springs, and the suspension will be precisely calibrated for a high level of comfort both on and off the road.

Modern driver assistance features based on cameras, radar and ultrasound sensors will enhance safety and comfort.

The production alliance with Renault and Nissan means the models will be built at a Nissan plant in Barcelona, Spain.