Not long ago, the idea of a Mercedes-Benz ute would have been reserved solely as an April Fool’s joke. In fact, BMW did just this, trailing an M3 ute as its April 1st gag as recently as 2011.
Thing is, nobody’s laughing now, and despite the impending demise of Holden’s iconic ute, the market for upmarket pick-ups is clearly picking up. Due to launch on July 17th, the Mercedes-Benz X-Class looks set to capitalise on the additional headroom in the ute sector.
The X-Class – based on the NP300 Nissan Navara brought about by Mercedes’ deal with the Renault-Nissan Alliance – isn’t the first ute to carry the three-pointed star.
The G-Class Professional programme still sells utes in various markets and the beautiful W115 stacked-light sedan turned into a ute for the Argentinian market in the 70s. Nevertheless, it treads new ground in the market, closing what Mercedes chairman Dr Dieter Zetsche described as “one of the last gaps in our portfolio.”
The mid-sized ute market currently accounts for 14.1 percent of all Australian registrations and that portion of the pie is notably top-loaded.
Ford’s upmarket XLT and Wildtrak versions of its successful Ranger ute account for more than 62 percent of all Ranger registrations, so clearly there’s a big demand for utes that can still put in the hard yards but which come with more than a few creature comforts.
To date, Volkswagen’s Amarok has represented the high-tide mark in this class, its V6 TDI 550 Ultimate model retailing at $67,990 and boasting the sector’s most powerful engine at 165kW/550Nm. It also justifies its price tag with features such as an eight-speed automatic ‘box, a leather-trimmed interior, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, auto braking and heated front seats.
So can we expect a whole host of copycat BMW, Audi and Jaguar products if the X-Class does well? Possibly not. You see, Mercedes isn’t diluting its brand by offering a ute. Unlike its premium-sector rivals, it has a long and proud history of commercial vehicle manufacture, giving it a decisive advantage in this sector, for the time being at least.
When asked if there was a halo model Mercedes-AMG X-Class in the pipeline, Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, didn’t rule out the possibility, saying "So far no, but maybe we will see in the future."
The day we see a $100,000 one-tonne ute could be closer than we think. Land Rover’s increasing penchant for exploiting market niches could see it pitch in with a ute version of the next-gen Defender.
Mercedes-Benz is tipping the ute segment to grow by around 30 percent worldwide over the next 10 years, and is reconsidering its plans not to take the Spanish and Argentinian-built X-Class to the USA where there has been a big spike in ute sales from the Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Ford USA has also announced it will be taking the Ranger back to the US in 2019.
So what started out as a bit of a joke has become a serious battleground for some very big players. Mercedes has chosen its partner wisely, as Nissan is the world’s second biggest manufacturer of mid-sized pickups, and with larger ute platforms like the Titan in the Japanese giant’s portfolio, we may not have seen the end of Mercedes’ plans just yet.