This is the comparison test we’ve all been waiting for, and the question it asks is simple: is the Mercedes-Benz X-Class 4×4 dual-cab utility a serious contender, or over-hyped pretender? To find out the answer we’ve taken the top-spec X-Class X250d Power into South Australia’s desert heartland and pitched it against harsh conditions and fierce rivals.

THE CONTENDERS

Also along for the drive is the new Toyota HiLux Rugged X, the popular (and soon to be facelifted) Ford Ranger Wildtrak, the Volkswagen Amarok Core Plus, the HSV-tuned version of the Holden Colorado, the SportsCat+, and the X-Class’ recently re-tuned close relation, the D23 Navara, in ST-X trim.

Does the Mercedes X-Class have to chops to compete in the ute segment?
Does the Mercedes X-Class have to chops to compete in the ute segment?

By the way, we’ve brought the less expensive four-cylinder Amarok along for this test rather than the more popular V6 because a six-pot Benz is due later in the year. We’ll run those two German arch-rivals head-to-head then. So for now we’re all four-cylinder turbo-diesel (except for the five-cylinder Ranger) and all automatic, reflecting the buying choice at this end of the market. The cheapest vehicle in our group is the VW at $50,990 and the most expensive is the HSV at $68,990.

The X-Class is the second-most expensive vehicle here at $64,500 before on-road costs. But there is plenty more that can be optioned, including metallic paint and real leather to replace the artificial stuff. Our vehicle had the Style pack adding side steps, roof rails and 19-inch alloys (18s are standard) and that boosted it to $73,500.

The HSV SportsCat was the most expensive ute out of the bunch, with the SupaShock option ticked.
The HSV SportsCat was the most expensive ute out of the bunch, with the SupaShock option ticked.

The HSV still managed to top that, adding options including Supashock remote canister dampers to bump its price to $74,450. The Rugged X retails for a meaty $63,690, but the test vehicle only added metallic paint, which grew the ask to $64,240. The $61,790 Ranger added ‘Pride Orange’ paint to increase its price to $62,340, while the $54,490 Navara added leather pack for $1500 to climb to $55,990.

The cheapest vehicle, even when the options of metallic paint, Alcantara heated seats and a higher-grade infotainment system were added remained the Amarok, which climbed to $54,510.

When it comes to the performance the Ranger and Colorado tied for peak power (147kW), while the Holden was number one for torque at 500Nm (the Duramax 2.8-litre engine is untouched by HSV). At the bottom of the outputs list is the HiLux at just 130KW and the Amarok at 420Nm.

Six diesel 4WD utes, but all very different in their own way. Which is best?
Six diesel 4WD utes, but all very different in their own way. Which is best?

The Sportscat is the porkiest at 2274kg, the Navara the fleaweight at 1979kg. The X-Class weighs in at 2161kg, reflecting its wider, heavier chassis and a heap of added sound deadening. The Rugged X is 2252kg, 207kg heavier than the donor SR5 HiLux auto.

You can’t separate the X-Class and the Navara when it comes to drivelines. Both get the same Renault-sourced 2.3-litre bi-turbo diesel engine that makes 140kW and 450Nm combined with a seven-speed automatic transmission. The 4×4 system is part-time with low range and a locking rear differential, which is the same arrangement as the Ranger and HiLux.

Read more about the Flinders Ranges here

The Colorado has a helical limited slip rear diff rather than a locker, while the Amarok has permanent 4×4 (the manual is part-time) and misses out on low range all together. Instead it has an off-road mode that plays with stability control, ABS, transmission settings and hill descent control. There’s also a mechanical rear diff lock.

Despite having a 2.8-litre engine, the HiLux makes only 130kW and 450Nm. It also combines with a six speed-auto. The Amarok has a 2.0-litre engine, makes 132kW and 420Nm and drives via an eight-speed auto.

Interior

If your expectation is the X-Class will set a new cabin standard because it’s a Mercedes-Benz, then prepare to be disappointed. It actually looks a bit odd with its huge concave sweep across the dashboard and a large non-touch infotainment screen plonked on top. The twin-dial backlit instrument panel is familiar, but there is a noticeable lack of storage areas, especially as Benz can’t pull its normal trick of putting the gearchange on the steering column. And that column, like the Navara, only adjusts for rake.

The Navara has a recently updated rear suspension setup, which improves the load carrying capability.
The Navara has a recently updated rear coil suspension setup, which improves the load carrying capability.

The Navara’s cabin does not match the X-Class for grandiose presentation, but it is cohesive and well executed. Considering the dollar difference, it’s more than acceptable.

Where the X-Class makes real progress over its rivals is in two areas. Firstly, it introduces autonomous emergency braking (AEB) to this class.

This feature plays a huge role in preventing front-to-rear accidents and is especially important in town. Not so important in the desert, but a lot of these vehicle will spend a lot of their time in heavy traffic. AEB is aligned with all-round disc braking when the class norm is disc/drums. Unfortunately, the X-Class does not twin AEB with adaptive cruise control, a feature only the Ranger has as standard.

The other key addition we’ve alluded to previously is sound deadening. The Benz is very quiet to ride in, outpointing all its rivals.

Like most modern VWs, the Amarok is a comfortable, refined and straight-forward place to be. A bit plain maybe, but that’s no deal breaker. However, the lack of side curtain airbags, which leave rear passengers less protected in a side-on collision, is a deterrent, especially for family buyers. Every other ute on-test had curtains that stretched to the rear seat.

Along with the HiLux, Ford's Ranger is a very popular choice amongst Aussie 4WD ute buyers.
Along with the HiLux, Ford’s Ranger is a very popular choice amongst Aussie 4WD ute buyers.

Apart from unique seats, the HSV doesn’t seem that much more special than a standard Colorado inside. Which means you’d feel a bit short-changed considering the ask. This is another vehicle without reach-adjust steering.

The HiLux has a really busy dashboard. There’s technical graphic in the instrument panel and the media screen is stuck on the dash almost as an after-thought. As modern as it may strive to look there’s only one USB port and no digital speedo.

The Ranger too has its interior challenges, squashing some key gauges such as the tachometer into the corner of the instrument panel. But it has got a spacious cabin to compensate, as well as plenty of gear.

In fact the Ranger, along with the SportsCat lead the group for space in row two. The X-Class has more width but knee and headroom are tighter. All six have stowaway rear seating to increase luggage carrying capacity.

The Amarok is the only ute on test with full-time 4WD, but it misses out on a transfer case.
The Amarok is the only ute on test with full-time 4WD, but it misses out on a transfer case.

Do the spec check across the six contenders and you’ll find all have a reversing camera and hill descent control. Tyre pressure monitoring is offered by the Ranger, HSV and X-Class. The same three also issue a forward collision warning, the Ford and HSV have lane departure warning and the Ford alone assist in keeping itself in its lane on-road.

Exterior

Forget aesthetics, this is all about that tray and which one can fit and carry how much.

And also, which one has the clearance to get you off-road. So we’ll let the figures do the talking. Tub dimensions are length x width x depth x width between wheel arches in mm.

On that score, only the Amarok and X-Class can fit an Aussie 1165mm by 1165mm pallet between the rear wheel arches, so it certainly paid off for Benz to widen the Navara’s chassis!

In payload terms it’s the X-Class on top. At the opposite end of the spectrum the Rugged X really suffers with all the extra weight it carries to offer ‘only’ 748kg.

Toyota's HiLux Rugged X scores steel barwork aplenty, which well improves off-road capability.
Toyota’s HiLux Rugged X scores steel barwork aplenty, which well improves off-road capability.

Its clearances are slightly inferior to the standard HiLux SR5 as well, except in terms of corner angles which the new front bumper really improves.

OK, we will talk aesthetics. The SportsCat looks awesome, the Ranger looks tough, the HiLux likes someone’s gone nuts in the parts bin, the Amarok understated, the Navara and X-Class pretty mundane – expect for that three-pointed star on the Benz!

On-Road Performance

The SportsCat is the most fun to drive on-road, in fact, it’s quite a treat on smooth, winding bitumen thanks to its tied-down Supashock suspension and AP Racing front brakes. The engine isn’t quiet, but it doesn’t mind a poke.

The X-Class handles well on-road and is smooth and quiet, which bodes well for a long journey. It rides firmly until you load it up and then the coil rear-end starts to sag.

Despite another recent rear-end retune, the Navara has that same issue, is noisier and more likely to jump around on a rutted road than the Benz. It accelerates with more urgency than the X-Class because it is lighter, but that 2.3-litre bi-turbo and its sometimes hesitant eight-speed auto aren’t the best drivetrain combo here.

The Ranger is much better. Its five-cylinder engine is strong and its driving manners capable with or without a load on a straight or winding road. We just wish the engine was less intrusive.

Which 4X4 ute would you choose?

The Amarok is the quiet achiever. It is almost as hushed as the X-Class and has the on-road advantage of permanent 4×4, so it can be more settled than the rear-drivers on greasy surfaces. A little more speed would be appreciated, but the eight-speed auto works hard to extract the most from what’s available to it.

Which leaves the HiLux. It has underwhelming engine performance, with an agricultural feel and driving manners you could only describe as inoffensive. Perhaps the best thing about the Rugged X is the fabulous LED headlights and lighting strip. In outback Australia where critters like to bounce into your path at night, that’s incredibly helpful.

Disconcertingly however, the Rugged X developed an engine fault where it dropped into limp home mode. It happened four times, all when the engine was being revved hard. Reconnecting the battery temporarily fixed the problem. As this was written we’re still waiting for an explanation from Toyota.

There are plenty of tough tracks for testing out capability in the stunning Flinders RangesThere are plenty of tough tracks for testing out capability in the stunning Flinders Ranges
There are plenty of tough tracks for testing out capability in the stunning Flinders Ranges

There was another disappointing issue with the Toyota; the instrument panel hood dropped slightly on the left-hand side obscuring some warning lights in the IP. A plastic cover also unclipped from the driver’s side rock rail. It was easily relocated, but it shouldn’t have come loose in the first place.

There are five utes here that work well in the off-road environment, be it everything from gravel roads to gnarly obstacles. And there’s one that doesn’t.

Tied down too tight on its suspension, the SportsCat rattles and crashes any time the going gets rough. On something really bad like the rutted Finke Road; it’s horrendous. The rattling was so bad one of the sail plane’s plastic covers fell off and the quick release tonneau cover broke both hinges and had to be tied down to stay in place.

It’s worth noting HSV discovered these issues for itself during pre-production testing but our test SportsCat missed out on the fixes before we headed outback. There’s other issues too. The tailgate became jammed by grit and difficult to open. And what’s the point of two tow hooks up-front and none at the rear?

High-end suspension, bigger rubber and special HSV tuning sets the SportsCat apart from a Colorado
High-end suspension, bigger rubber and special HSV tuning sets the SportsCat apart from a Colorado

Despite its road-focussed suspension set-up, HSV has equipped the SporstCat+ with Cooper Zeon AT tyres and a rear stabiliser that disconnects in low range. Neither helps on difficult ground because there’s not enough articulation or a locking rear diff.

If the HSV was the black sheep, the Amarok was a bit mottled. The lack of low range didn’t really hurt it in the vast majority of conditions we tested it in thanks to hill descent and ascent control. But its lesser ground clearance wasn’t helpful so a sliver of doubt remained in our minds. The refinement experienced on-road transferred to off-road. It rode over ruts well and was refined in its behaviour.

The HiLux improved corner clearance certainly proved an advantage getting through the gnarly stuff, but as we’ve already noted, approach and departure were slightly reduced compared to the cheaper SR5. Well, at least the Rugged X looked the goods and those robust steel bumpers added confidence, as did all-terrain rubber.

On rutted roads it smooths the way at all bar walking speeds, where it sets up a strong bonnet-wobbling resonance. There was also some steering rack rattle.

The X-Class had a weird little foible. Its steel rear bumper suffered damage from the rear tyres flicking up debris into it.

Otherwise, the X-Class behaved like a nicer version of the Navara. Funny that. It could tackle most obstacle confidently, but its rides suffered on the gnarly rutted roads, especially on optional 19-inch rubber. Its 70mm wider track also delivers a clumsy 13.4m turning circle.

Which leaves the Ranger. Jump into this after the Benz and it’s a much nicer car to drive, it changes direction more easily and feels better balanced. It’s steering is heavier but more communicative and all that grunt helps it push along as well. It could cope with high-speed rutted roads or low-speed scrambling out of creek beds equally well.

Outback South Australia proved a great place to test out these six utes and especially find out how they coped with the conditions the car companies are always telling us they are made for.

Well, some coped better than others. Commendably, the X-Class completed the trip without drama or complaint. It also has strong refinement and safety plusses. In other ways though, apart from price, it doesn’t distinguish itself from the pack.

So could it win? Hit the video link to find out and to also check out more stunning scenery from our trip.