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New Mercedes ute scores an X in our tow test

If badges are important, then you’ll no doubt look at the Mercedes X-Class. In this case, the three-pointed star has two faces and as a ute the opinions are good. As a tow vehicle? Cue fanfare: on a kazoo.

Mercedes-Benz is no stranger to the commercial vehicle market, having sold everything from vans to trucks for years. But the company is best known as a prestige car and SUV brand, and it’s one that has never sold a dual-cab one-tonne ute – until now.

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The X-Class is a commercial vehicle but in the strange new world of today’s vehicle market, a large proportion of dual-cab utes are sold to private buyers because utes have become fashionable. It seemed inevitable that Mercedes-Benz would eventually front up with something like the X-Class, a ute that combines 4WD ute function with the cachet of the three-pointed star.

To save on development costs – and have something on the market relatively quickly – Benz had a quiet chat with Nissan. The result was that the X-Class was based on the D23 Navara. While X-Class and Navara share engine, transmission, driveline and many under-the-skin components, the X-Class has a wider track, unique suspension tune, NVH improvements and additional safety features such as trailer sway control. It also weighs a couple of hundred kilos more than the equivalent Navara.

The Mercedes-Benz X 250d Power we tested is the premium X-Class model – that is, until a V6 X-Class model (the X 350d) arrives later this year. This ute might be based on a Nissan, but when it comes to pricing, especially for options, its pure Mercedes-Benz. That is, it’s expensive.

The X 250d Power costs $61,600 (six-speed manual, plus on-road costs) but the test vehicle was fitted with optional seven-speed auto ($2900), metallic paint ($950), style bar ($1551), towbar ($836), seven-pin towbar wiring ($462) and electric brake controller ($765). It also has the $2490 Style Pack, which includes privacy glass on rear windows, electric rear window, side steps, roof rails and 19-inch six-twin-spoke alloy wheels. Tally this all up and you have $67,940 (plus on-road costs).

An option worth mentioning here is the electric brake controller (EBC). Mercedes-Benz is one of the few manufacturers to market an EBC as a genuine accessory. At $765 the remote-head EBC (which looks suspiciously like the Redarc unit) isn’t cheap, but at least you have peace of mind if you check this option, knowing that you’ve got warranty coverage for the whole vehicle including the EBC.

The Power has a fairly comprehensive standard features list that includes 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, a 360-degree camera, PARKTRONIC parking assist, leather/microfibre seats (electric adjustment at the front), a leather-look dash top and door caps, climate control, keyless entry/start and an 8.4-inch COMAND multimedia system with digital radio, navigation and touchpad.

The X-Class wins the safety features war with Navara by having autonomous braking and trailer sway control but isn’t the ute with the most safety/convenience gear on the market. That award goes to the Ford Ranger, with its unique offering of lane-keeping assist and active cruise control on the Wildtrak model.

It might be based on Navara but you wouldn’t know it on the outside: the X-Class exterior is unique to the Benz product and adopts a more aggressive, squared-off style than the Navara.

The interior is all Mercedes-Benz’s own too, and it all works without any ergonomic disasters. While front occupants have excellent supportive seats and plenty of room to move, the back isn’t so great; the seat could be more reclined and if you’re tall you’ll notice a lack of head and leg room.

You don’t get all warm and fuzzy about Benz quality inside the X-Class: sure, at first glance it looks great with stitched (vinyl) material on the dash and doors and cool-looking circular air vents, but look more closely and it starts to lose its shine. Brittle plastics adorn the lower part of the dash and some switchgear feels cheap, bringing a general low-rent feel to the interior.

Hopefully it gets better when it comes to towing. On paper, it’s looking good: trailer sway control – tick; 3500kg (braked) towing capacity – tick; towball download limit 350kg (which is 50kg up on the Navara) – tick.

Only a few utes allow you to tow the maximum 3500kg while also having the ute fully laden, and the X-Class isn’t one of them. The X 250d’s Gross Combined Mass is 6200kg, which means you’re going to have to reduce payload in the vehicle and/or trailer by 550kg. As tested, the X 250d has a 979kg payload limit (with a kerb weight of 2271kg and a Gross Vehicle Mass of 3250kg).

We hitched up a Nova Vita 216-9R from Sydney RV, with a Tare mass of 2800kg and a towball download of 185kg. The Benz drooped just 25mm at the rear and the front lifted a mere 4mm. No surprise really, given the sub-200kg towball mass. Hitching the van solo was actually easy too, thanks to the X 250d’s excellent rear-vision camera.

Getting off the mark with or without a van, the X-Class is responsive – its twin-turbo diesel engine doesn’t really have much lag. It’s from there on in that the Benz ute is not so happy to be lugging a heavy van around.

Driving on the freeway at 100km/h, it worked out best to keep it in fifth gear (in manual mode) with the engine spinning at about 2500rpm. Left to its own devices, the transmission would keep shifting gears, never happy to stay in seventh (top) gear for very long.

Not that the Mercedes would be towing at 100km/h for long where any hills were around; the slightest incline would see the rig slow to around 80km/h. On one particularly steep hill behind Lithgow, the X 250d slowed from an 80km/h cruise on the plains down to 38km/h towards the top of the incline.

Despite its competitive engine outputs (140kW and 450Nm), perhaps there is no substitute for cubic inches (engine displacement) when towing. Other utes with similar outputs (but larger engine displacements) don’t make it look easy when towing heavy vans but they don’t make such a meal of it up hills as the X-Class. Perhaps the 190kW/550Nm three-litre V6 X-Class (when it arrives in a few months) will be a much happier tow vehicle.

Whether it’s revving hard to haul a van up a steep hill or cruising on the freeway at 100km/h, one thing is for sure: the X-Class is very quiet inside for a ute. The engine clatter is only audible at idle and sounds distant, almost as if it’s coming from another vehicle.
It was travelling down the other side of the steep hill that we discovered that the X-Class’s transmission will not hold gears in manual mode; just before reaching redline (about 400rpm before it), the transmission would up-shift, losing the meagre engine braking the 2.3-litre engine had. This is a vehicle that you would drive very slowly down steep inclines with a heavy trailer to ensure it doesn’t overheat the brakes on vehicle or van.

Including the climb over the Blue Mountains, cruising around hilly terrain around Lithgow and then back to Sydney (with a total of 300km covered), the X-Class averaged 18.9L/100km. You’d expect that figure to improve with touring out in the plains of the outback, especially if you’re towing a lighter van. With the average we achieved, you’d still get to around the 400km mark before thinking about refuelling.

When you’re touring for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, ride quality is important. The X-Class rides really well (for a ute, at least) when unladen, and also when towing on smoother, gently undulating roads. When on chopped up bitumen or some of the severely pot-holed Aussie goat tracks optimistically called highways, the X 250d was not very comfortable to ride in. The vehicle just never felt settled, stuttering its way over the bumps in a short, sharp up-and-down movement. The X-Class is not the only ute to ride like this, but it seems that it really could be better.

The X-Class could really do better as a heavy-duty tow vehicle when it comes to stability too. The rig never really felt settled when towing faster than 80km/h, with minor cross winds or anything more than a very gentle steering movement causing the trailer to sway. When towing just one van you can never be sure that trailer sway wasn’t just down to a poorly balanced van, or that the vehicle and van’s dimensions are somehow at odds with each other. Whatever the reason, the X-Class felt unsettled to a greater or lesser degree with three different heavy caravans we towed behind it. Towing one particular van saw trailer sway control kick in several times.

The X-Class’s rather less than secure stance on the road when towing could probably be fixed with an anti-sway coupling or a weight distribution hitch (WDH); these are often used to very good effect on many rigs. A WDH should not be necessary on paper (because the towball download with this caravan was relatively low) but in reality it might be just the ticket for the X-Class.

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