Driven: Mercedes X-Class V6

The standard X-Class is a great pickup; it might be based on the Nissan Navara but the changes Mercedes wrought are so great as to make it almost a completely different vehicle – and I’m not just talking about the interior. Lesser models might be powered by Nissan engines and transmissions but the chassis has been so heavily revised that it drives very differently, too. Better, in fact, riding more smoothly and flattering the driver with its more precise handling.

But it’s the exterior that draws the eye; that imposing front grille draws more attention than almost anything else I’ve driven in the past twelve months. Appreciative comments, too along with iPhone photos. The Rock Grey Metallic colour, which is actually a kind of metallic brown/grey, helps. It might not be your first choice when you’re speccing your new pickup online, but it’s a fabulous colour in real life being as discreet and sober as the Archbishop of Canterbury. It costs an extra £525, and is worth every penny.

But then the same could be said of almost every option that was fitted to my test vehicle, which led to an on-the-road price of around £50,000 plus VAT. That’s an awful lot of money, especially if you can’t reclaim the dreaded, in which case you’re waist-deep to the tune of almost £60,000.

Still, the interior is very nearly as nice as the exterior, which helps justify the cost. And while it’s not plush, not even close, but what there is is nicely judged and impeccably installed. There are no rattles, no creaks and almost flawless ergonomics, except for the weird mouse-cum-wrist rest, which remained unintuitive for the fortnight I had the X-Class. I’ve no doubt that familiarity would ease my contempt but I’m still not convinced…

But, as most people buy pickups because they offer significant company car tax advantages, anything that helps make it feel more like a car and less like a commercial vehicle is a bonus, and the interior certainly plays a large part in the X-Class’s appeal. It’s not luxurious, not by any strtetch but it’s more car-like inside than almost all of its contemporaries. Having said that, while Isuzu D-Max owners will be weeping with joy, I suspect that anyone who’s familiar with the Toyota Hilux or the Volkswagen Amarok will be wondering what all the fuss is about.

But no-one else bar Volkswagen offers a pickupo with a V6 turbo-diesel engine under the bonnet. Displacing 2987cc and producing 258bhp, it is smooth, powerful and almost silent and it’s the engine the X-Class was crying out for since day one. Not especially economical – I averaged around 27mpg over about 600 miles of mixed driving – it’s nonetheless a delightful thing to have under the bonnet offering all the urge anyone really needs.

Possibly too much, in fact. Despite being shod with road-going Bridgestone Dueller H/P Sport tyres, the power is more than enough to overwhelm the chassis. A friend of mine helps develop and tune pickup suspension systems for a well-known manufacturer and he drove the V6-engined X-Class a while ago. He complained that it suffered from more understeer than he would have liked – until he noticed he was travelling around 20mph faster around any given bend or steering pan than he would have been in any other pickup. The X-Class’s permanent four-wheel-drive system has a 40:60 front:rear torque split helps a little, but understeer is still the predominant handling characteristic.

His verdict, therefore, concurs with mine; the X-Class handles very well indeed – in my opinion, it’s easily the best in its class – but you do need to keep an eye on the speedometer as it picks up speed very quickly indeed, which might leave you vulnerable if-and-when you arrive at a corner going much faster than you thought.

And in case you’re still not convinced that this is a very quick vehicle indeed, its 0-60mph acceleration time of around 7.5 seconds is the same as that of the Renault 5GT Turbo, a car that wowed us all with its other-worldly acceleration back in the mid-eighties.

The X-Class’s sheer civility doesn’t help. It’s quiet and refined and it rides quite well, so the normal pickup-style feedback is almost absent. That’s not a complaint by any means, it just means that the usual haptic feedback and clues as to your speed are almost entirely missing, so you need to pay attention.

You need to pay attention to the gearbox, too. As is so often the case, the Eco and Comfort settings leave it lethargic, with gentle throttle inputs and early gear changes; my impression is that Sport is the setting the engineers would prefer it to be driven it as it is beautifully responsive when left in that setting, hanging onto each gear for longer and snapping through the changes more eagerly.

That it defaults out of Sport and into Comfort whenever you turn the car off is hugely annoying. (Speaking of which, the digital compass in the rear-view mirror is very distracting. You can turn it off, but it comes back on whenever you re-start the vehicle. This is a very odd way to configure something that isn’t safety critical…)

I didn’t dare venture off the beaten path because of my test vehicle’s road-going tyres. However, the X-Class does have a 4H setting, which locks the centre differential, and a 4L, which engages the low-ratio gearbox too. It also has Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, which might sound like settings for idiots who can’t drive but both are genuinely useful and add an extra level of safety.

Speaking of which, the 360-degree camera system is brilliant, allowing you to place the pickup exactly where you want it to be. It comes into its own when you are parallel parking at the kerb, allowing you to keep those expensive alloy wheels unblemished and scuff-free. Top marks there for adding something that makes day-to-day use so much easier and less stressful.

My real concern with the X-Class is that its civility and refinement leave it feeling like a not-terribly-good SUV. Almost a victim of its own success, if you like. No pickup is ever going to handle as well as an SUV or ride as comfortably, or be as quiet. It’s just the nature of the beast; pickups are commercial tools that have to be able to carry a tonne in the pickup bed to qualify for the sort of tax breaks that attract people to them. This leaves most pickups with a raw, earthy appeal that compensates for their commercial underpinnings; they make you feel adventurous, as tough-as-hell, and equipped to tackle the zombie apocalypse or the next Beast from the East with equal aplomb.

The X-Class doesn’t. Its road-going tyres might make threading it along a country lane genuine fun but they leave it unable to tackle even the lightest of off-road conditions. Its relatively crude chassis means it can’t compete for comfort with even the lowliest of SUVs, and the back-end feels a bit fidgety when it’s empty, which it will be most of the time. Ironically, if it was less accomplished, there’d be less to complain about but when you’re charging the thick end of £60,000 I think we’re entitled to compare it to stuff that isn’t pickup-shaped, too.

Those caveats aside, if you really want a pickup, whether that’s for tax or aesthetics, then this is about as good as it gets; I rattled off a 200-mile journey and was as fresh afterwards as when I started.

And have I mentioned that it’s got a bloody lovely engine?

Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno