OPINION | Why the Mercedes-Benz X-Class was ultimately doomed to fail

Brenwin Naidu dissects the brief history of Merc's ill-fated bakkie

05 February 2020 - 17:37 By Brenwin Naidu
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class
The Mercedes-Benz X-Class
Image: Supplied

How excited we were when Mercedes-Benz dropped its X-Class concept in 2016. And my use of the pronoun refers to all of us at the southernmost tip of the African continent. We love pick-ups, yes we do. We even inducted an Afrikaans colloquialism into mainstream lexicon – that term specially reserved for the breed of vehicles with a passenger cab and an open cargo area.

The appeal of the X-Class hinged on the convergence of two things that many consumers in this land regard highly: the Mercedes-Benz brand and the do-it-all versatility of a bakkie. You have to agree that the initial teaser looked the business. That was all thanks to its exaggerated muscles, rear light strip that encircled the tailgate and chunky rollers that would never see beyond the show podium.

Yes, we all knew about Daimler’s synergy with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. We all knew that the Navara would underpin the effort. And we could all identify traits from the Japanese counterpart, even in the concept. Still, most kept faith. In the notion that the company that pioneered the motor car would have sufficiently reworked the core ingredients they borrowed. Then the big day came. Mercedes-Benz revealed the X-Class in production form, right here in the Western Cape’s capital.

Ah, yes, Cape Town. The event was quite an extravaganza, spanning two days. The first saw an unveiling at a swanky setup on the waterfront. The next day saw us being ferried to Franschoek Motor Museum for a series of product workshops. May I add that seemingly bottomless reserves of fermented Anthonij Rupert grapes were plied between these educational sessions. Whatever the reason for that was, I certainly doubt it was for the purposes of distracting the media in attendance. The year was 2017 and yours truly was at this exciting first exposure to the X-Class, which included a ride in the passenger seat over a makeshift off-road course at L’Ormarins farm.

The Nissan bits were a big talking point around the lunch tables. It became a game: how many shared elements could be spotted? At first glance, on the outside, there was clear kinship. The doors, door handles and side mirrors, for starters. There were clearer giveaways inside. And if those were not clear enough, the key would do the trick: the same, lightweight plastic fob used for most Nissan products, but with a three-pointed star tacked-on.

“If the mandate was to build an unequivocally luxurious pick-up truck, they could have gone a little further,” read a line from our report published in Sunday Times Lifestyle Motoring on July 30 that year. The company invited us to the official press drive in Chile in October. We came away with this verdict, published on 26 November 2017: “To say that the X-Class feels authentically premium might be a stretch”. But, we conceded that the engineers had done a reasonably good job of further enhancing some of the existing virtues we identified in the Navara, especially in the area of ride quality. Our lingering thought, however, was whether this was good enough for a brand that promises the best or nothing?

And evidently it was not, as the news was confirmed this week that the X-Class would be axed from the portfolio after only two years of production. It bows out officially at the end of May. It was inevitable, given the underwhelming sales figures. A news report on TimesLIVE, published February read: “Sales of the X-Class in 2018, its first full year on the market, were just 16,700 in Europe, Australia and SA, the only three countries where it is sold. Only 973 X-Class units were sold in SA last year”.

Brenwin Naidu at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz X-Class.
Brenwin Naidu at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz X-Class.
Image: Supplied

But the decision to can the pick-up is one that leaves me ambivalent. Because (objective criticisms aside) this is a product whose spirit could be admired. See how chipper I look in the photo above. I understand what they were trying to achieve – but the execution should have been approached differently. The X-Class represents a missed opportunity. The commercial vehicles arm of Mercedes-Benz has a pretty formidable history and this experience could have easily been drawn upon in the development of its own bespoke pick-up. Instead, the result was a thinly-veiled badge-engineering effort, where accountancy won in the boardroom meeting: a victory that ultimately led to losing the battle overall.

The outcome could have been different with a bit of foresight. You also wonder if the X-Class would have fared better if its makers were not so extortive in the outlay being demanded. Some might have been more willing to pay for a Nissan Navara peppered with Mercedes-Benz embellishments if it were competitively priced at least. That said, a second-hand X-Class could make a darn attractive proposition. Log onto any motoring classifieds portal and take note of how substantial the depreciation is.

For example, I found a 2018 X220d progressive with 23,500km on the odometer going for R469,000 – a full R173,103 less than the new price. But what you really want is the X350d with its V6 engine. The new price on that is R904,188. There’s one listed for R749,700 with 16,201km on the odometer. Then again, that kind of money gets you close to a new Volkswagen Amarok Canyon, with its potent 3.0 TDI motor…

The legacy of the X-Class is an unfortunate one. It will be a prime example in numerous case studies about unsuccessful automotive joint ventures.