19 April 2004

Mercedes-Benz is taking aim at the BMW X3 and the next Land Rover Freelander with this new baby off-roader to slot beneath the M-class.

The new X-class stretches the tape measure to around 4500mm, some 100mm shorter than the ML. The wheelbase, in particular, is noticeably shorter than the bigger SUV’s.

The new 4x4 is part of a two-pronged junior off-roader strategy being readied by the German car maker, which plans to sell the new high-riding five-seater to slot between a new Smart SUV and the next-generation, bigger M-class.

The new Smart off-roader will be called ForMore, in keeping with the company’s new naming policy that has already given us the ForTwo and ForFour. The name of the Mercedes has not yet been decided, although indications are that it may go into production as the X-class.

That name was registered in February last year for the US, Canada and Germany and Autocar has discovered that Mercedes has already registered model designations including X280 and X350.

‘There is clearly room at the lower end of the Mercedes line-up for a smaller four-wheel-drive vehicle,’ said one senior source in Stuttgart. ‘Our plan is to come at the established competition with a bottom-up and top-down approach.’

The X-class should go on sale in 2007 and will be priced from around £25,000 – comfortably less than the £31,000 today’s M-class costs. Mercedes is keen to avoid the mistake made by BMW, whose X3 has been roundly criticised as being too similar to the X5.

To keep profits high, both the X-class and Smart ForMore will be assembled at Merc’s Juiz de Fora factory in Brazil, which currently churns out C-class models for the US market. This explains why the new SUV’s permanent four-wheel-drive system borrows componentry from today’s C-class 4Matic.

Suspension is by conventional MacPherson struts up front and multi-links at the rear. Engineers confirm that the emphasis will be more on on-road comfort than achieving top marks in off-road conditions. Transmission electronics will split the torque between different axles and wheels according to the available traction.

The X-class will be sold with four-cylinder and V6 power, including range-topping 3.5-litre V6 petrol and 3.0-litre V6 common-rail turbodiesel engines.

The X350 should become one of the most rapid cars in the class, thanks to a peak power output of around 270bhp – at least until the rumoured AMG version goes on sale; the power-hungry Germans have also registered the X55 and X63 model names.

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