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km : First Drive

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28 February 2012

I’ve only been back in the driver’s seat for a couple minutes, but already this stretch of road feels, I don’t know, not quite right. Can’t put my finger on why, but I sense trouble’s just around the corner. My eyes saunter down to the speedo and notice the needle’s floating at a tick above 70. I back off, and just as it falls through the posted limit of 55 mph, I come upon a fallen comrade — another of my auto-journo colleagues getting a roadside chiding of the written variety from one of California’s finest.

I feel bad; it’s only partly his fault. We’re driving the new Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, a 550-horsepower grocery getter that inhales miles like a chain-smoker does Pall Malls, on an open stretch of California 154 just outside Santa Ynez. All day long, I’ve been checking my speed, and every time I’ve been over the limit. Sometimes by a lot. If not for the speedo, it would be impossible to guess how fast I was really going.

The ML63 AMG is designed just for that — soaking up long stretches of high-octane speed while coddling a family of five in sheer luxury. Like a roadgoing Learjet, but for just less than six figures ($94,900 to start). A cross between the USS Nimitz and the QE2. You get the idea.

Starting with a base-spec 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML, AMG commissions a hand-built 5.5-liter V8 for the ML63, complete with a pair of turbos and direct injection, as with most other new AMG 63 models (the C63’s engine bay can’t accommodate the turbos, so it still makes do with the naturally-aspirated 6.2-liter V8). This is married to an AMG-specific seven-speed automatic — Mercedes calls it “Speedshift” — that uses a wet clutch assembly in place of a torque converter for better efficiency and faster shifting. Power is fed in a 60:40 rear-to-front split to all four wheels, which wear 265/45R20 performance tires. With 518 (or 550) horsepower and 516 (or 560) lb-ft on tap, this isn’t your sweet granny’s wheezy old Benz wagon.

The chasm in the horsepower and torque figures is dependent upon whether or not you choose the $6050 “AMG Development Package,” which includes a remapped ECU (unlocking extra boost pressure and a 174-mph top speed), red-painted brake calipers, a carbon fiber engine cover and an AMG steering wheel with suede-like accents. The additional torque and power is definitely noticeable and always welcome, shaving a tenth of a second from the standard 4.7-second 0-to-60 sprint, but we suspect most drivers will be content with “just” 518 horses and the standard 155-mph speed limiter.

Either way, it’s a very impressive performance for a 5000-pound SUV, though admittedly the kind we’ve come to expect from the Germans, a people who still know and value the unadulterated joy of an open, unlimited autobahn. Discussions of such performance naturally lead to the BMW X5M which, despite weighing in nearly 400 pounds heavier, manages to pull off similar stats (0-60 in 4.5) with only five more ponies and a mere 500 lb-ft from its smaller 4.4-liter engine. Where BMW may be running things closer to the ragged edge, Mercedes claims its engineers chose a less stressed approach to coaxing that much fire out the metal.

One thing’s for certain: use all of that potential unwisely and you’ll be dropping C-notes in the fuel tank fairly often. For one thing, the ML63 has a massive gas tank, the same 27.7-gallon belly found in every other new ML. Second, while the smaller displacement and direct injection can potentially improve efficiency by close to thirty percent, a heavy right foot will negate all those benefits. Officially, it’s good for 15 mpg city and 15 mpg highway.

Handling lives up to expectations too, with a firm ride from the air suspension’s sport setting and a fairly tranquil experience in standard mode. Brakes are world-class; massive (15.4-inch) cross-drilled and vented rotors are squeezed by six-piston calipers in front, with 13.6-inch, four-piston units in back. The steering is the only letdown on the dynamic front, being overboosted and slow to respond to initial inputs.

As a fashion piece the ML63 AMG is a stunner, with all of the need-for-speed bodywork we’ve come to expect from AMG. But it’s especially attractive on the inside. The interiors of all US-spec ML63s will wear upgraded “Designo” leather upholstery in black, brown or white with perforated seating surfaces, contrasting stitching and full leather trim on the dashboard. A tony range of wood trim is offered — anthracite-stained poplar, satin-finished ash and piano-black lacquer in addition to the traditional burl walnut — to give the cabin a very modern, upscale ambience. A suede-like “Dinamica” headliner is optional, but completes the ensemble.

A beautiful, modern interior begs for a high-end sound system, and Mercedes-Benz is happy to oblige by replacing the standard Harman/Kardon stereo with a 1200-watt upgrade by Bang & Olufsen. Too bad we never turned it on, content instead to listen to the music coming from under the hood — a mad symphony of wooshing turbos and bellowing, burping exhaust.

Which brings me back to my unfortunate compadre swimming in blue and red as I pass. I’m sure he would agree the new ML63 AMG makes its speed almost too effortlessly. Really officer, it’s not his fault.


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