Twenty years ago, sport utility vehicles were trucks. They had big, heavy frames, solid axles and low-range four-wheel drive. At best, they would accelerate to 60 miles per hour in under nine seconds and top out just over 100 mph. "Handling" simply meant that they could keep all four wheels firmly planted while circling an onramp.
Twenty years ago, only exotic sports cars boasted more than 500 horsepower. They accelerated to 60 mph in less than five seconds and could hit 150 mph if allowed enough space. Tuned suspensions, oversized brakes and exhaust systems that roared were expected, but supple rides were not.
Now, take a look at that brand-new silver sport utility vehicle in the image above. Beneath its leather-lined and sound-insulated cabin is a 550-horsepower twin-turbocharged V8, electronically controlled suspension, six-piston brakes and permanent all-wheel drive – it's the most powerful SUV on the market.
The tall four-door will sprint more quickly than (and outrun) a Ferrari 360 Modena Spider F1, plow through foot-deep snow drifts and take a family of five, with a ski boat in tow, to a lakeside Fourth of July picnic.
Sounds a bit preposterous, doesn't it?
This is the all-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, and it isn't the first high-performance sport utility from this German automaker. In 1999, Mercedes-Benz made history when it introduced the world's first practical high-performance SUV – the ML55 AMG. (The 1992 GMC Typhoon was ahead of its time, but not very practical.)
The ML55's first-generation body-on-frame platform was fitted with a naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V8 making 340 horsepower. Against the clock, the all-wheel-drive SUV could hit 60 mph in just under seven seconds with a top speed of nearly 150 mph. In 2005, it was succeeded by the ML63 AMG, based on a second-generation unibody platform, which was equipped with a naturally-aspirated 6.2-liter V8 rated at 510 horsepower. With a 0-60 time of about five seconds and an electronically governed 155-mph top speed, the all-wheel-drive five-passenger SUV was much quicker than its predecessor.
With the introduction of the completely redesigned third-generation M-Class for 2012 and the success of the earlier high-performance models, another AMG flagship was a no-brainer. Predictably, Mercedes-Benz didn't disappoint when it revealed the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG at the Los Angeles Auto Show just two months ago.
Considering how much the fuel-efficient diesel-powered ML350 BlueTEC 4Matic impressed us last July, we were eager to get behind the wheel of the new enthusiast-tuned AMG model. As our good fortune would have it, we found ourselves holding the key fob to a brand-new Iridium Silver ML63 AMG in Santa Barbara, California, just last week. The SUV was freshly waxed and its 27-gallon fuel tank was topped-off with premium unleaded.
But before we dig into the drive, let's review what sets this high-performance AMG apart from its siblings. As is common with all of the German automakers, a performance model typically displays unique bodywork, new wheels, upgraded brakes, new bucket front seats, a sport steering wheel, new gauges and an oversized engine. The ML63 AMG is no exception.
Mercedes has ensured that there will be no confusing its AMG variant.
While the standard gasoline- and diesel-powered M-Class models are difficult to distinguish from each other without glancing at the rear badging, Mercedes has ensured that there will be no confusing its AMG variant. At the front, a completely resculpted fascia drops the shiny chrome in favor of aggressive black intakes to cool the radiators and front brakes. Subtle side skirts carry the theme rearwards where the back bumper is dominated by dark angular blocks, just like the front. Unlike the current ML350 models, which shamefully hide their exhaust outlets behind the bumper, the ML63 AMG proudly boasts four bright chrome-finished exhaust tips – lest anyone following forget that this SUV has serious bite.
In addition to the standard dollop of luxury Mercedes-Benz bestows on all M-Class occupants, the cabin of the ML63 has been upgraded for its performance mission. The driver and front passenger are treated to 10-way heated and ventilated sport bucket seats covered in premium leather and there are AMG-specific instruments with higher calibrations (our pictured test vehicle was European-spec). The incredibly thick four-spoke leather/Alcantara steering wheel is also unique to the AMG model, but it is part of the optional AMG Performance Package – more on that in a moment. A leather/wood steering wheel is a no-cost option.
The brakes and wheel/tire package is also bumped up significantly over the standard models. In the front, the AMG wears 15.4-inch ventilated and drilled iron discs with six-piston calipers. In the rear are 13.6-inch iron rotors, with four-piston calipers. The wheels on the ML63 are 20-inch alloys wearing summer compound tires (265/45R20) on all four corners.
All M-Class AMG models feature the automaker's Airmatic suspension, Ride Control and Active Curve system as standard equipment. In a nutshell, roll stabilization and damping are electronically controlled based on one of three driver-selected modes (Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus). Fully load-bearing, the air suspension will raise and lower the vehicle based on speed to improve handling, stability and aerodynamics.
Under the hood is where the really good stuff resides, as this is where Mercedes-Benz has dropped in its twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V8 between the front wheels. With stock boost set at 14.5 psi, the all-aluminum direct-injected engine is rated at 518 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 516 pound-feet of torque as low as 2,000 rpm. Preserving towing capacity was a priority, so the ML63 AMG utilizes a traditional seven-speed automatic transmission (AMG Speedshift) mapped specifically for high-performance duty. The gearbox has three toggle modes (Controlled Efficiency, Sport or Manual) and it may also be controlled via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
As has always been the case, the automaker's permanent 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is standard on the ML63 AMG, with a fixed torque split of 40 percent front, 60 percent rear. According to Mercedes, the ML63 AMG will sprint to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds towards an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph.
The V8 delivers a very impressive 550 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque.
This is a good time to discuss the optional AMG Performance package, which was fitted to our ML63. First of all, the $6,050 option increases turbocharger boost to 18.8 psi. As a result of the additional intake pressure, the V8 delivers a very impressive 550 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque - thus allowing Mercedes the bragging rights of currently producing the world's most powerful sport utility vehicle. In addition, the electronic top speed limiter is raised to 174 mph and a carbon fiber engine cover replaces the standard plastic unit. Inside the cabin, a leather/Alcantara AMG Performance Steering Wheel replaces the standard four-spoke unit. Lastly, the gunmetal brake calipers are painted bright red – this is by far the easiest way to distinguish which models have the AMG Package. With the AMG Performance package, the 60 mph benchmark falls in just 4.6 seconds.
Our Euro-spec model was also wearing 21-inch alloy wheels, wrapped in massive 295/35R21 tires at all four corners. While they are included in the package in other markets, they are a stand-alone option ($1,610) in the States. [Sorry for the confusion in the ShortCut video. - Ed.] Other equipment on our test vehicle included the Drive Assistance package ($2,150) bundling Distronic-Plus adaptive cruise control, Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Lane Keep Assist. Mercedes-Benz has not announced pricing on the ML63 yet, but it has said that pricing would likely stay close to last year's model, which had a base price of about $92,500 – a ballpark estimate says that an ML63 optioned like our test vehicle would be priced in the neighborhood of $100,000. At first glance, that may sound steep, but the BMW X5 M starts about $88,000 while the Porsche Cayenne Turbo will set you back at least $107,000 – before options.
Mercedes-Benz plotted out a spectacular driving route for our test (one of our all-time favorites), allowing us to sample just about every on-road aspect of its high-power SUV from windy mountain passes and off-camber corners to high-speed straights and fixed-pace highways. We ran it as hard as we wanted all day long, and returned it with just 16 miles worth of fuel left in the tank – it was even more satisfying than it reads.
A ballpark estimate says that an ML63 optioned like our test vehicle would be priced in the neighborhood of $100,000.
With our test model lacking a push-to-start button, we twisted the key fob and the V8 cranked over with a sporty kick and quickly settled into a soft idle. The seats and steering wheel, the two primary driver touch points, are nearly perfect. The chairs are firm and supportive, with sturdy bolstering on the thigh, hip and shoulder while the meaty steering wheel is finished with smooth leather on top and textured Alcantara on each side, exactly where slippery palms need the grip. Being an SUV, the driving position is both commanding in visibility and generous with its room.
Nearly immediately, we noticed the steering – it would prove to be our biggest gripe. Like most automakers, Mercedes-Benz is slowly phasing out its traditional hydraulic power steering systems and replacing them with simpler electromechanical systems. While there is a definite fuel economy advantage (primarily because the belt-driven hydraulic pump is removed), many find the systems lack feel and feedback. That said, the ML63 AMG uses a special AMG-tuned speed-sensitive electromechanical system that is simply too synthetic for our tastes. At low speeds, it felt artificial, while at high speeds it bounced back to center as if held in place by thick rubber bands. The steering itself was impressively accurate and stable, but felt completely unnatural compared to traditional systems.
Steering aside, we found plenty to like with the ML63 AMG during our initial jaunt eastbound on the highway heading towards Ojai. The cabin was free of wind noise and unexpectedly quiet, especially considering the four massive tire patches slapping the pavement at each corner. There was no noise coming from the other side of the firewall, either, as engineers have effectively muted the brawny V8 with well-placed insulation between its madly whirling parts and the passengers. However, there was beautiful music coming from the quad tail pipes – and it sounded superb. At low engine speeds it was a subdued deep burble that was never annoying. At higher engine speeds it became a stronger rumble, while full throttle gear changes were accompanied by a throaty explosive outburst that was so sexy we wanted to crawl into the rear hatch with it and cuddle.
Off the highway, we were faced with a challenging mountain road through the Los Padres National Forest (coincidentally the same route we drove in the Lexus LFA). We firmed up the suspension and pushed the 5,000-pound SUV hard just to see what it would do. The ML63 is no featherweight, but its sophisticated air suspension and active roll bars kept the unibody chassis nearly flat and the Michelin Latitude Sport tires in an optimal relationship with the pavement – its level of grip even exceeded the nausea quotient of an unnamed journalist.
The brakes also inspired confidence with their firm pedal and progressive travel. There is a lot of heat to absorb, but numerous hard stops didn't seem to tax them. We did find it easy to summon the ABS (inside rear wheel) when we braked late into a corner, but the stability control was unexpectedly unobtrusive.
The ML63 AMG feels every bit a 4.5-second vehicle.
With all-wheel drive, acceleration was brisk but unexciting (sorry, no wheelspin). Throttle application doesn't require much forethought, as there is always grip somewhere. At one point, we unloaded the rear over a rise and mashed the accelerator. For a brief second the rear wheels spun in unison, then they grabbed the pavement and we launched forward (don't ever underestimate 560 pound-feet of torque). And yes, despite its SUV massiveness, the ML63 AMG feels every bit a 4.5-second vehicle.
Compared to the BMW X5 M and the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the 5,005-pound ML63 AMG with the AMG Performance Package is the most powerful SUV out there (the BMW technically has five more horsepower, but it lacks 60 pound-feet of torque), yet it fails being the sportiest. We suspect the comparatively lightweight Porsche (4,784 pounds), with its torque-vectoring drivetrain, variable torque split and lightweight ceramic brakes, will still set the quickest lap with the brawny but powerful track-tuned BMW (5,368 pounds) right on its tail.
The ML63 AMG has a soft side that completely masks all of its amazing potential.
Where the Mercedes-Benz excels is in its ability to execute a near flawless split personality – it is a gentle beauty and monstrous beast. While the BMW X5 M and Porsche Cayenne Turbo never let you forget that you are driving a high-strung sport ute with big wheels and masculine athletic personalities, the ML63 AMG has a soft side that completely masks all of its amazing potential. Driven courteously, the 550 horsepower SUV is every bit as benign, peaceful and quiet as its entry-level ML350 sibling without exhibiting even a hint of roughness around the edges.
Twenty years ago, a story about an SUV like the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG would have been inconceivable.
No, it would have been absurd.