If the late, great Janis Joplin had also needed to pick up a yard of mulch from her local garden center, her prayers would have likely been answered by the upcoming Mercedes-Benz X-Class. Recently spotted prowling the roads of far-far awayland (Germany) was a not-so-conspicuously camouflaged pre-production version of Benz’s utility wagon that’s due to hit showrooms late next year. It’s looking dangerously market-ready and was possibly out and about for purposes of real-world testing or more likely to generate a media buzz while banking on our love affair with re-tweeting things that we find vaguely interesting.
A pair of X-Classes has been making the rounds this auto show season; one equipped with a host of off-road goodies like a cage-style tailgate, while the other is trimmed much more stylishly, presumably aimed at the urban cowboy set. The latter features a ring of LEDs around the tailgate to serve tail light duties which oddly reminds me of a concept car I saw in the early nineties that might have been an Oldsmobile. The roadworthy version, however, seems to be sporting a rather traditional solid tailgate and bedside-mounted tail lighting.
What Is This X-Class Business?
The X-Class is being developed in partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance and shares its ladder-frame chassis with the new-for-2014 Nissan Navara, which is a Nissan Frontier in Yankee speak, despite the current Frontier soldiering on with the previous-generation Navara’s chassis. The X-class will receive drivetrains and interiors unique to Mercedes and is anything but an exercise in badge engineering. Hopefully the X will receive the chassis upgrades of the North American-built Nissans. Spanish-built Navaras are developing a reputation for snapping their frames in half due to corrosion issues that don’t seem to affect those built here, even when driven in salty places like Vermont.
Speaking of drivetrains, Mercedes hasn’t confirmed anything but expect the litany of turbodiesel inline-4’s that are available on their van line which is in charge of the X-Class project. Should the X make it stateside, there might be an early appearance of the upcoming inline-sixes that Benz has been touting lately. All X-Classes will feature four-door cabs for profitability as well as an available four-wheel drive system. Mercedes has been avoiding talk of a high-performance version though it would be entertaining to see one fitted with a ludicrously large V8 in their current trend of AMG-ing all the things.
Also of mystery is whether or not North America will get the X treatment. Initially, Benz reps were quite adamant that their forthcoming ute would not be coming stateside, citing a lack of market, however recent statements are not so clear. Reasoning against federalizing the X-Class is mostly speculative at this point but may be rooted in Mercedes’ unique branding strategy for the North American market.
It’s All About The Image, Yo.
Mercedes-Benz, globally, produces a rather comprehensive range of vehicles that vary greatly in equipment levels. While still marketed as premium quality, they are known more as the “best” in most markets, rather than “most luxurious” as they are in the states. For example, the average American consumer is unaware of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class (a VW Golf-esque econobox; pictured at the right) since Mercedes-Benz USA would prefer it to be kept a secret. In short, Mercedes only imports the loaded models that are in line with its “luxury cars only for the Yanks” branding that it’s been cultivating since it stopped selling the 240D back in the early eighties.
This poses a bit of a product-placement issue for the potential North American X-Class. Given that the truck is under their van division, they could easily market it at the Sprinter dealers but that would relegate the model to the commercial market while the typical mid-sized pickup buyer is accustomed to shopping at more mainstream vehicle outlets. On the other hand, marketing the X through their passenger car channels runs the risk of sullying their carefully-cultivated luxury brand by having the S600 Maybach share a showroom with a something as plebian as a pickup truck.
Wherever (and if) the X-Class gets sold here, it offers Mercedes-Benz the opportunity to more-or-less create the premium mid-sized pickup segment. Sales of the Tacoma, the Colorado, and the like are on the rise and it’s a wonder that nobody’s bothered to douse more of them down with glitter, à la GMC Canyon Denali. Luxury full-sized pickups have been a thing for some time now so it only makes sense for a pimped-out mid-sizer to happen. Given Mercedes-Benz’s reputation of uncompromising durability and refinement, the X-Class could be an excellent choice for active, well-heeled suburban dads that can’t stomach the idea of driving a crossover. Also, there are a plenty of social climbers out there that’ll buy anything with a three-point star on the front of it.
Another hurdle for a North American X-Class to clear is one of economics and obsolete geopolitics. Known colloquially as the Chicken Tax, foreign-built light trucks are earmarked onto a 25% import tariff from the Johnson era that was passed to protect domestic agricultural interests or to get back at the French. Consequentially, US-spec Subaru BRATs had those stupid jump seats in the beds (shown at the left) so they could pretend that they were “passenger cars.” Another way around the Chicken Tax is to assemble the trucks stateside, much to the delight of the UAW. This might not be a huge issue since Nissan and Mercedes both have light truck plants in the Southeast but it would be an expensive risk to tool up the factories for an uncertain model that might be too niche to sell in substantial numbers.
A Benz pickup sounds great, in theory, assuming they are able to massage the Nissan-ness out of the chassis, sort of like Chrysler was able to massage the Mercedes-ness out of the 300, except actually making the car better. Mercedes has a long-standing tradition of building excellently durable machines and the X-Class will round out an already-thorough product portfolio. As for the US Market, it’ll likely take some serious demand before MB-USA agrees to bring one in. That said, premium mid-sized pickups could very well be the next truck fad and, along with the venerable Sprinter and the new Metris vans, Mercedes could position itself as a top-tier commercial vehicle producer in the US. Let’s hope they throw a hotrod version in on the mix as well. X63 AMG, anyone?