The Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG provides blistering straight-line speed and a comfortable interior but is hampered by a rough ride and appallingly low fuel economy.
by Lawrence Ulrich
AMG, the performance arm of Mercedes-Benz, seems to be on a mission. It wants to extend its fearsome reach to every corner of the Benz lineup, including areas that appear to defy logic.
For the majority of buyers, the ML350 SUV gets around quite smartly with its 268-horsepower V6 engine. Its $44,825 base price isn’t too painful, and it’s even tolerable at the pump, with fuel economy rated at 15 miles per gallon city/20 mpg highway. The diesel-powered ML320 CDI, for $1,000 more, boosts mileage to 18/24 mpg. (It delivered the highest tested fuel economy we”ve ever seen in a midsize SUV, at a combined 24 mpg over a week”s worth of driving.)
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Moving up in the M-Class line, the $53,575 ML550 features a 5.5-liter V8 with 382 horsepower, and a fuel economy rating of 13/18 mpg. Nothing too unusual here “” a lot of SUVs throw around numbers like these. It’s still playing in reality”s ballpark.
That brings us to the exceptional ML63 AMG, an $87,825, 503-horsepower blast over reality”s center-field fence. We”re not sure why anyone would drive this deluxe monster truck, but whoever it is, they may be going too fast for us to ask them. Then again, there”s always the gas station: The AMG”s abysmal fuel economy of 11 mpg city/14 mpg highway will ensure regular stops to quench the beast’s thirst. Our week-long test returned 13 mpg on required premium fuel, meaning that in one year a typical owner will spend twice as much on fuel as someone filling up the diesel-powered M-Class.
Current M-Class models, the second-generation of the designed-in-Germany, built-in-Alabama SUV, have a wedge-like, tastefully conservative shape. But on its own, that basic shape won”t do for an AMG Mercedes so the
ML63 gets a special grille, thick fender flares, tinted brake lights, and chunky front and rear bumpers. Then there are polished 20-inch five-spoke wheels, stainless-steel running boards, and a sport exhaust with a quartet of chrome pipes to complete the aggressive look.
Behind the handsome wheels, perceptive onlookers will notice AMG brake calipers and enormous brake rotors that deliver amazing stopping power “” but more on those later.
Potential buyers should be aware that even with the standard all-wheel drive, those 20-inch high-performance tires aren”t suited to even mild off-roading, and forget about snow and ice. Driven in messy winter conditions, the ML63 worked hard to maintain traction, often engaging its stability control system to keep things in check. Owners in wintry climes will want to consider a second set of snow tires, or at minimum, all-season tires, for that time of year.
Power-folding mirrors come in handy for street parking or tight spots; a power liftgate is also standard.
The ML63 AMG may have the engine of a sports car, but its interior is luxury all the way. Except for a stiff ride when the suspension is in sport mode, the ML63 version maintains the M-Class” refined, comfortable environment. Tremendous AMG sport seats are wrapped in Nappa leather with suede-like Alcantara inserts. They can be adjusted in 10 different directions and are pleasant places to be during trips short or long. A leather AMG sport steering wheel is joined by AMG-logo door sills and stainless-steel pedals. The special AMG instrument cluster has a lap timer so you can keep track of precisely how long it takes to run errands around town.
The extensive roster of luxury features includes a DVD navigation system, back-up camera, Harmon/Kardon sound system with six-disc CD changer and Sirius satellite radio, a sunroof, three-zone climate control, and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
There”s just less than 30 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, and a touch over 72 cubic feet when they”re folded down, which is about average for this class.
Note that there”s no third-row seating available, and like most SUVs of this size, the M-Class accommodates just four adults in comfort. A fifth adult passenger in back makes for a tight fit.
The $1,110 Keyless Go system, which allows motorists to start and drive the car without putting the key in the ignition, strikes us as more of a gimmick than a convenience. The adaptive Distronic cruise control, which automatically slows and accelerates the car depending on the traffic ahead, works as well or better than any competing system, though it remains pricey at $2,200. But considering the already-lofty price of the ML63 AMG, we recommend the dual-screen DVD entertainment system ($2,670), heated rear seats ($590), and iPod integration kit ($365).
Our test model discharged its own battery on a frigid winter evening due to a climate-control motor failure. It couldn”t be jump-started and had to be towed away.
At the ML”s heart is a 6.2-liter V8 engine that appears in other vehicles in Mercedes’ AMG line, like the S63 AMG sedan. In the ML63, it’s tuned to deliver 503 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque.
Just how strong is it? How about 0-60 miles per hour in 4.8 seconds, faster than many sports cars, and nearly two full seconds quicker than the V6 model. Hammer the gas at any speed, and prepare for giddy thrills as the Benz howls to its 7,200 rpm peak, leaving everything in its battleship wake. This magnificent hand-built engine spurs the big Benz to 120 or 130 mph with ridiculous ease, and on to an electronically limited, 155-mph top speed.
The engine is well-mated to Mercedes” brilliant new seven-speed automatic transmission, which features comfort, sport, and manual-shift settings. While the transmission is nearly faultless, we”d like to see Mercedes rework the steering-wheel shift buttons on its performance models. The little plastic triangles currently used seem like an afterthought on such sport-oriented machines.
The ML 63 rides on a special AMG version of Mercedes” Airmatic suspension, here with adjustable ride height. Mercedes” adaptive damping system smooths the bumps and keeps the body flat and composed in corners. Between the thin 20-inch tires and the suspension”s sport setting, the ride was noticeably harsh for rear-seat occupants, making the comfort setting the default choice for most situations.
Another AMG trademark is brakes that are up to the task of reining in monstrously powerful, often weighty cars from Autobahn speeds. Four-wheel vented and cross-drilled disc brakes feature mighty calipers with huge rotors. The brakes are simply spectacular, bringing the ML to a stop as if it were a compact sport sedan.
Yet after a few days of blowing the doors off cars and trucks of all sizes and descriptions, the realization hit that the ML 63 AMG “” except in a straight line “” isn”t as fun to drive as your average sport sedan, or even a Mini Cooper, for that matter. While it offered surefooted grip in dry conditions and nicely weighted steering, the ML doesn”t feel especially agile or car-like in the manner of a Porsche Cayenne or BMW X5. With all its lavish equipment, this is the heaviest ML at roughly 5,100 pounds, and the driver is regularly reminded of its size and mass.
Throw in the Hummer-esque fuel mileage, and it becomes hard to shake the question: What exactly is the point? If you have an answer to that question, the ML 63 could be the SUV you”ve always wanted.
Is the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG for You?
Buy the ML63 AMG if
Overwhelming straight-line speed means more than underwhelming fuel economy, and you don”t mind spending $90,000 to get it.
Keep Looking if
You can”t help noticing that the ML 63″s price is double that of the base ML 350; you require better than 11 mpg, no matter how fast or luxurious a vehicle is; you want a third-row and more than five seats.
Four adults fit in comfort; squeezing one more in the back is a tight fit. No third-row seating is available.
Options Worth Splurging on
For families with kids, DVD entertainment system ($2,670); for cold-weather regions, heated rear seats ($590); iPod kit, ($365). Distronic cruise control is slick but expensive at $2,200; definitely pass on the Keyless Go for $1,110.
BMW X5; Land Rover Range Rover Sport; Porsche Cayenne Turbo
2008 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG Gallery: