Along with bullet trains, Green Tea Kit Kats and live airings of BBC television programming, the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class pickup truck won’t be available in America any time soon.
And just like the latest episode of “Doctor Who,” there would appear to be healthy demand for the Mercedes X-Class. Equipped with up to 405 pound-feet of torque and a max towing capacity of 7,700 pounds, the truck offers plenty of muscle while bringing something new to a growing market.
Yet the combination of consumer preferences, trade tariffs and lofty pricing all erode the business case for bringing the midsize truck to the U.S. even as pickups have been among the fastest growing segments over the past several years.
Americans want trucks, and expensive ones at that. From 2012 to 2016, the average transaction price of a midsize pickup truck increased by 25.2 percent to nearly $32,500, according to market research firm J.D. Power.
“The X-Class certainly appeals to the affluent buyer that does outdoor activities,” said Jeff Schuster, vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive.
“People want luxury features in a truck, but they don’t necessarily want the luxury brands,” said Stephanie Brinley, analyst for IHS Markit.
The Lincoln Blackwood, introduced in 2002 as a luxurious version of the Ford F-150, is a prime example, Brinley said. It was such a dud that Ford killed off the model after a single year on the market.
General Motors attempted the same strategy, debuting the Cadillac Escalade EXT, an upscale version of the Chevrolet Avalanche, in 2002. Though the Escalade EXT ran until 2014, it never captured the passionate customer base GM sought, Brinley said.
Even though the X-Class boasts impressive figures — such as a payload capacity of nearly 2,300 pounds, which easily bests ratings for the Colorado and Toyota Tacoma — it would still fight an image problem, Schuster said. Picture a hired carpenter or locksmith pulling into the drive in a $50,000 pickup with a shiny three-pointed star in its grille.
“I’m not sure that’s going to send the right signal to the homeowner, or the job you’re bidding on,” Schuster said.
Moreover, as a Mercedes, the X-Class would likely struggle to convince buyers that it’s tough and dependable enough to compete, Schuster said.
Mercedes has run into this problem before. Its commercial Sprinter van has grown a loyal customer base — it has captured a 6.4 percent market share in the large vans segment in the U.S. through the first six months of 2017.
But that took years of gradual growth while being sold under the blue-collar Freightliner and Dodge brands until 2010.
And although Mercedes is a popular brand in the U.S., the X-Class could be the wrong truck for the market, analysts said. It shares the platform based on Nissan’s Navara, a vehicle that might not mesh with U.S. consumer preferences, Brinley said.
“Typically, the smaller pickups for the international market don’t meet the ride and handling expectations in the U.S.,” Brinley said.
GM found that to be the case when it decided to bring the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon — sibling midsize pickup trucks derived from the Holden Colorado built in Thailand — to the U.S. market in 2014.
“General Motors had to do a lot of work to get the Colorado and Canyon ready for the U.S,” Brinley said.
The engine choices on the X-Class also demonstrate how the current vehicle isn’t configured for the U.S. market.
The X-Class will be available with four engine options, three of which are diesels.
“That’s pretty consistent with the rest of the world,” Schuster said, but not in the U.S.
Nissan, Toyota and General Motors offer a wide range of gasoline-powered engines in their midsize pickup entries, and only GM offers a single diesel. Mercedes would have to expand the X-Class powertrains to attract American buyers, which may prove expensive, Schuster said.
“That could have come into play, not wanting to add cost and complexity to the vehicle,” he said.
Mercedes is bullish on the global market for midsize pickup trucks. The automaker estimates that sales will increase from 2.2 million in 2016 to more than 3.2 million in 2026, an increase of 43 percent.
LMC has similar estimates, projecting a 36.5 percent increase from 2.1 million in 2016 to 2.9 million vehicles by 2024.
The projected growth has encouraged Mercedes on the idea that the global midsize market — particularly countries such as Australia, Argentina and South Africa — is “ripe for a premium truck,” said Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz.
U.S. buyers purchased 448,400 midsize pickups in 2016, and IHS Markit projects a 9.5 percent increase to about 491,000 by 2021. But that is likely not enough volume to carve out a niche for the X-Class that would make the necessary investment from Mercedes worthwhile, Brinley said.
Pricing is another issue. The X-Class will debut with a base price of €37,294 in Germany, the equivalent of $43,000 in U.S. currency. Pricing would likely be changed to around $35,000 to reflect U.S. tastes if it came to America, Schuster said.
Still, that would make the X-Class easily the most expensive vehicle in its segment, and some upscale trims would surpass the average transaction price for larger full-size pickups — $39,125 in 2016.
Add in the fact that Mercedes would have to contend with the so-called chicken tax, a 25 percent tariff on imported light trucks, and the situation becomes even thornier.
“It would affect pricing, for sure,” Brinley said.
Still, both Brinley and Schuster left the door open for a possible U.S. debut in the future. Schuster suggested that long-term, the allure of America may prove too strong for Mercedes to resist.
“Frankly, this is the pickup market,” he said.