Mercedes' debut in the one-tonne pick-up market, the X-Class, takes everything that's good about the Nissan Navara - with which it shares underpinnings - and builds upon it. It's one of the priciest vehicles of its type with a starting ticket of around €40,000, and there are a few minor hiccups with the German newcomer to take into account as well, but in essence this is a deeply impressive and well-resolved machine.
In the Metal:
While all one-tonne pick-ups, by their very nature, have a uniform engine-cabin-load bay shape that is determined by their required capabilities, some manufacturers manage to style their machines ever-so-slightly better than the competition. And, in the case of the Mercedes X-Class, we might be looking at the market leader. It has a face that is so clearly related to the company's line-up of SUVs and it works well on the big, chunky bodywork, while the creased bonnet and C-shaped LED taillights (standard on the top-of-the-range Power version tested here, as are LED headlights) give it a clear link to the attractive concept version we've seen throughout 2016. OK, base Pure models have black grilles and steel wheels, but in upmarket specification, the X-Class looks every inch the premium machine it aspires to be.
The X-Class loses a mark, though, because the interior is not quite what you're expecting of a (likely expensive) vehicle wearing the three-pointed star. Up to a point, the cabin works well and that point is the horizontal line running beneath the air vents and bisecting the dash. Above this, there's a soft, padded, contrast-stitched leather upper portion of the fascia and an appealing, scalloped band of trim beneath, while the Mercedes steering wheel and crisp instrument cluster behind further up the ambience levels. And then you get below the line, to be greeted by an expanse of hard, scratchy plastic that encompasses that small and fiddly row of shortcut buttons for the seven-inch Comand infotainment, and then even lower down are the badly-sited and rather plain controls for the heating/ventilation (these being a direct lift from the Navara). Furthermore, the practicality isn't great, because there are very few places to store coins, smartphones and other bits and pieces at a level above the door bins, which are a long way down from where front-seat occupants sit. Finally, there's yet more unyielding, 'elephant skin' plastic on the transmission tunnel.
There's a reason for all this durability, of course, which is the X-Class' dual purpose as both a potential family car alternative to SUVs and its origins as a commercial vehicle that's developed from the same platform and drivetrain as the Nissan Navara and Renault Alaskan. So there can't be a load of Alcantara and plush leather at lower levels, because they'll be ruined by customers who actually use the Mercedes pick-up as, well, a working pick-up. But given the X-Class is supposed to be the new apogee of this particular class, a machine that's a cut above the rest, then the fact its cabin finishing isn't any better than - and indeed might not match up to - the likes of the Volkswagen Amarok, the Ford Ranger and even the Navara itself is something of a disappointment. At least it's spacious on board and well-equipped too, meaning it's only these one or two items of finishing that leave something to be desired.
In mid-2018, Mercedes is going to slot its velvety-smooth 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel from its passenger car range into the X-Class to create the X 350 d, a 258hp, 550Nm brute that should eclipse even the top-power Amarok for both performance and the cultured nature of its drivetrain. Mercedes also says it has worked on the suspension of this particular halo model to make it drive in a manner unlike any other truck and, having briefly sampled its abilities from the passenger seat during a high-speed ride over an incredibly undulating mountain road, we're inclined to think the V6 X-Class could be a genuine game-changer. It is absolutely astonishing in terms of its road-holding.
Until then, though, we make do with the 2.3-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel as used in the Navara and Alaskan, available in 163- and 190hp formats in the Mercedes also. They are badged X 220 d and X 250 d respectively and though we don't know exact Irish specifications as yet, the former is expected to be found at lower Pure and middle Progressive levels, where it comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, while the latter should be at Progressive and upper Power levels. All Irish X-Classes should feature 4Matic all-wheel drive, which means the X 250 d comes with a seven-speed automatic only. It's not a Mercedes transmission, but the company has put work into sorting the electronic management to ensure it shifts in a smooth and efficient manner as befits a 'Benz.
Mercedes also claims it has done much work in places you can't see to ensure that the X-Class feels suitably improved on the Nissan, such as refining its own set-ups for the suspension (multilink on the rear axle, don't forget) and cramming in more sound-deadening and so on. But we've still got a ladder frame chassis, a proper four-wheel-drive system with a low-range transfer box and the sort of off-roading/load-lugging capabilities that buyers, be they commercial or private, in this class demand. So how different does the Mercedes truly feel when compared to a Navara?
The answer is: very different. The 2.3 is a strong unit that provides good pace and plenty of flexibility, but it's not the quietest or most refined engine in the world, or even in this class - where noisy motors are almost a given. Yet here, Mercedes has worked hard to ensure that, when you're in the cabin, the volume of its exertions is dampened down to such an extent that it only really makes its commercial vehicle roots known when you absolutely cane it to the redline (which is needless) or when you're sitting in stationary traffic with your foot on the brake for a long time, where some vibrations can be felt. Other than that, the loud whooshing and grumblings you get from a Navara's engine are kept strictly at bay.
The ride quality is another improvement, as it's more cosseting than the Nissan's, although the traditional 'ladder frame shimmy' is still evident on only mildly corrugated surfaces. Nevertheless, even the leaf-sprung Amarok, which actually possessed the best comportment in class up to now, has to cede its crown to the X-Class here. Because, not only is it as smooth as you could hope for when driving one of these tough trucks, the suppression of tyre roar and wind noise is way in advance of any of its rivals. At a 110km/h cruise, the X 250 d feels like a proper, cultured Mercedes-Benz.
The handling is good too, because the X-Class keeps its body movements well in check and actually has a lot of mechanical grip at both axles, making it surprisingly keen in the corners. You have to deal with slow-geared steering, but the weighting is lovely and it remains consistent and faithful at all times, so this is another area where Mercedes is ahead of the field. The brakes are discs all round, leading tech for the sector along with the similarly-equipped Amarok, but they do need a hefty prod to get even an empty X-Class to decelerate sharply. Despite this, you'll have more fun piloting the Merc along at speed than you would in anything else. It's a really strong all-round dynamic showing, despite the fact the X 250 d retains perhaps the Navara's weakest point, its vocal engine.
What you get for your Money:
Prices for the Mercedes X-Class start at €39,950 for the X 220 d in basic Pure trim, but most buyers are expected to go for at least the X 220 d Progressive, which bumps the ticket up to €43,995. An X 250 d Power, like our test car, is the wrong side of 50 grand, starting at €52,550, which makes the X-Class the most expensive pick-up of its type.
That obviously raises the immediate and awkward question of 'well, why wouldn't I just buy a much cheaper Navara instead?', but that's somewhat missing the point. All washing machines clean your clothes, but you'll pay more for a Miele than you would for a Zanussi. The fact is, if you want Mercedes badges on your front grille and folding tailgate, and you want the appointments and equipment that you'd expect of a premium German product, you have to pay a little more for it than you would for a Japanese or American equivalent.
While it is by no means perfect, the new Mercedes X-Class immediately stakes a claim for being the best of its type. It's already class-leading in certain areas, such as its handling, its ride and refinement, its steering and possibly also its looks. The X 250 d is a likeable and impressive contrivance, then, but it's that X 350 d that we can't wait to sample - as it feels like the first pick-up truck that might genuinely provide a sporty, SUV-like driving experience that will shake up the market sector. The best won't come cheap, but if you can afford it, the X-Class is the one-tonne load-lugger you're going to need to claim superiority over your mate who currently runs an Amarok V6 TDI.