As you might expect from a marque that considers itself a maker of luxury products, when Mercedes planned its first ever pick-up – the X-Class that arrives on these shores in December – it aimed very high, in both driving ability and design savvy.

And in a bid to prove its point, the three-pointed star brand took What Van? for a spin in its new model on a race track more used to supercars than pick-up trucks, before following that up with a ride across a serious off-road circuit too.

Yes, the basic ladder frame chassis is based on the Nissan Navara, but Mercedes says significant changes have been made to better the X-Class’s ride and handling, including a wider track, better dampers, and disc brakes on all four wheels. On the road, in rear-wheel drive and through tight turns the body remains remarkably flat and passengers comfortable.

The whole experience isn’t far off a decent-handling SUV. It’s just as impressive off-road. The start of the route was covered in loose stones and dry mud and called for four-wheel drive – enabled on the move via a knob on the console. The mid-range 190hp 2.3-litre diesel X250 six-speed manual tested – and the probable UK bestseller – puts its power down well with an audible roar, but it doesn’t encroach too much into the well-insulated cabin.

More surprising is how fast the truck feels – official figures quote 10.9 seconds for 0-62mph and a 114mph top speed – and when a wheel catches a deep rut or rock at speed, the X-Class’s excellent set-up masks the impact inside brilliantly. The ‘deeper off-road’ part of the course required low-ratio four-wheel drive to take on inclines so steep you’d normally find another way around, but Hill Start Assist technology and the less than snappily named Downhill Speed Regulation system really helped. A 100% differential lock for the rear axle is an option for those needing even more control.

To assist these extreme-angle manoeuvres the X-Class’s 360º view employs an extra camera mounted under the radiator grille to help the driver see – via the 8.4-inch infotainment screen – below the vehicle. The course also got the X-Class’s wheels wet, as it showed off its wading skills (official fording depth is 600mm) and its ability to tackle pitched terrain: we experienced two 40º manoeuvres and Mercedes says the X-Class can tackle up to 49.8º.

Interior space is good, six-footers can sit one behind the other happily, and a higher ‘stepped’ ceiling ensures decent rear headroom. Behind the rear passenger’s head the sliding rear centre window can be operated electrically from the driver’s seat and through it you can look out onto a 1,587×1,560mm load bed, which will take a Euro pallet.

Less impressive are the cabin finishes. The workaday Pure trim employs dark plastics from dash to doors, and the jet engine-inspired air vents imported from Mercedes’ car range – even when set within the smart, concave wood filet of top-end Power trim – can’t mask the ‘orange-peel’ hard plastic finish of the dashboard below.

The automatic gearbox selector and surround look cheap too. Mercedes knows how to do better (and should). Official prices at the time of going to print were unconfirmed but expect the range to start at £27,200 (ex-VAT) for the 163hp X220d Pure – a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder diesel with six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive and engage-able four-wheel drive. Mid-range Progressive trim will add £1,200 and top-end Power trim another £3,500.

The 190hp X250d is available in manual or seven-speed automatic form and a 258hp X350 V6 diesel with permanent four-wheel drive arrives mid-2018 with prices likely to rise into the early £40,000s (ex-VAT). Economy and emissions have only been quoted for the first two engines so far and range from 37.2mpg and 195g/km of CO2 (X220d rear-wheel drive manual) to 35.8mpg and 209g/km (for the X250 4Matic auto).

To summarise…

The X-Class is seriously car- or at least SUV-like, on-road and thoroughly convincing off-road. The exterior design is smart and striking too, while working within the limited palette of its  Nissan underpinnings and proportions (the X-Class is lower, wider and a bit longer, but shares the exact same wheelbase). The interior is pretty good at first glance too, with lots of Mercedes’ car design cues imported.

But here and there – notably the lower dash and auto gear selector – suffers from poorer quality finishes. Despite those reservations, we can see Mercedes UK succeeding in its aim of selling more of its plusher Progressive and Power-trimmed models than the basic Pure – and with top-end versions of the Ranger and Amarok in its sights – Ford and VW might have cause for concern.