2007 Mercedes-Benz ML63 Review
SEE ALSO: Mercedes-Benz Buyers Guide
MERCEDES ML63 AMG HIGH PERFORMANCE SUV:
Filling a Niche We Knew Not Existed
By Steve Purdy
Did we need an SUV that will go zero-to-60-mph in less than 5-seconds, handle like a sports car and pamper occupants with the finest in Teutonic luxury? Of course we did. We just didn’t know it. Well really, I already knew that niche was a fun one having made an intense road trip to the South Carolina coast in a BMW 4.8is last year. Unlike lots of SUVs that have no “sport” element to brag about, these high-performance versions justify the name - lots of sport and plenty of utility. Mercedes has filled this niche with the ML63 AMG, introduced to the world at the Frankfort Motor Show in Sept of ’05, and introduced to the US spring of ’06.
Any manufacturer wanting to be world-class has to have a high-performance line these days. Cadillac has the V-Series. BMW has the M cars. Now Lexus has the L. Audi has the L-Line, Chevy has SS, Mitsubishi has Ralliart and Dodge has SRT. Some are better, and more legitimately high-performance, than others. AMG is just about the strongest of all.
Mercedes needs just these three letters for their tuning division. AMG was created in 1967 by a couple of former Mercedes engineers Hans Werner Aufrecht, the “A” and Eberhard Melcher, the “M” in a little town near Stuttgart, Aufrecht’s birthplace Großaspach, the “G.” Does that all make sense? Mercedes-Benz bought out the company in 1999. Production for the AMG division has climbed from 500 cars a year in ’99 to 20,000 AMG vehicles in ‘05, half of which were delivered to the United States.
This meaty SUV looks and feels aggressive and intense. Little rudders stick up from the cowl vents giving the driver an other-worldly, Mad Max sort of effect. Huge wheels and tires fill the generous wheel wells making for a solid, athletic stance. The ML63 looks big and heavy but in a solid, agile, running-back sort of way. Design reflects Mercedes ongoing fresh look of fluidity.
With the seat pumped up high I feel like I’m ready for a Baja run in my fine “nappa leather” seats - a soft, full-grain leather made from unsplit sheepskin. Seats are heated, cooled, generous and well-bolstered. All the controls are well thought out and just challenging enough to add some interest to the interior. Some German cars, I’ve found, seem to take pride in making the controls obscure but the folks at Mercedes just want them to be a bit different, classy and functional. Dual climate controls not only include temperature but distribution of the moving air as well. The only thing that we could not figure out was how to reset the clock. It is daylight savings time change weekend. We couldn’t even find instructions in the inch-thick, three-pound manual.
Under the hood is a 6.3-liter V8 rated at more than 500 horsepower with 32 valves breathing naturally without the assistance of turbo-chargers or kompressors. What’s more amazing is that it revs to 7200 RPM. That’s a lot of revs for a big V8. Maximum horsepower comes at an amazing 6,800 rpm and maximum torque (465 lb.-ft.) comes at about 5,200 rpm. Two spark plugs per cylinder, 100,000-mile tune-up interval, two high-energy coils, electronic throttle, integrated sequential multipoint fuel injection and phased twin-spark ignition including individual cylinder control of fuel spray characterize this uber-content engine. The AMG engine is so state-of-the-art that when setting up the small plant that would build the high-tech, high-performance engine to power the Z06 Corvette GM engineers visited the AMG facility to learn how best to make such a hand-built engine.
Let me just say simply that the thrust from this engine, pushing this large, heavy SUV is amazing. To those who say all that horsepower is superfluous I say “bunk!” There is no such thing as too much horsepower.
Passing the power along is Mercedes’ Speedshift™ transmission with electric column-mounted shifter just like the Rolls Royce. This 7-speed automatic with a manual shift mode featurs shift buttons on the back of the steering wheel at 3 O’clock and 9 O’clock positions. Not exactly paddles, rather just large metal tabs. Pinch the one on the left for downshifts and the right for upshifts. VW and Audi have spoiled us with the quick-shifting DSG transmissions, so even this slick Mercedes unit feels like it shifts to slowly. It is gratifying to trigger manual mode, just by engaging either of the tabs and moving through the gears according to one’s own agenda. Shifts are so smooth we can barely feel them at higher speeds.
Chassis and body are one, unlike the previous M-Class. We have here a unibody rather than a body-on-frame like the original. Towing capacity is still 5,000 pounds. It still feels way more truck-like than car-like. Perhaps that’s a result of the stiff, suspension. Front suspension is independent with double wishbones. The upper arms are high-strength forged aluminum alloy and lower arms are cast-iron. Integrated into the design are antidive geometry and a good solid stabilizer bar. Rear suspension is independent as well - a 4-arm multilink system featuring high-strength forged aluminum-alloy upper arms, antisquat geometry and alignment control.
With some nice fresh snow this week we had an opportunity to check out the permanent 4-wheel drive system. With a 40/60 front/rear torque split maintained via a single speed transfer case and center differential we kept pretty straight even on brisk acceleration although the huge tires made for a little squirm both on slippery surfaces and on groved, worn pavement. It would get just a few degrees off straight on the show before correcting. Downhill Speed Regulation is driver-activated and modulates the throttle, brakes and ABS to maintain a straight line when descending a slippery hill. We didn’t test that. Hill Assist prevents roll-back when parked on a steep hill. Both 4-wheel Electronic Taction System (4-ETS) and Electronnic Stability Program (ESP®) assist with extreme handling situations so even the silliest driver stays out of trouble.
The sophistication of this chassis is mind-boggling. This is the third paragraph needed to describe it all. Airmatic Semi-Active Suspension with Adaptive Damping System (ADSII) continually optimizes ride and handling by automatically selecting one of four damping profiles for each spring-strut every time a wheel changes its direction of up-down travel. Electronically controlled pneumatic spring-struts integrate variable-rate shock absorbers and coil springs. ADSII Driver-selectable Auto, Comfort, and Sport modes change the thresholds of wheel/body movement at which the damping profiles are changed. I played with these settings all week and could barely tell the difference from one to another. It just seemed mighty stiff and jumpy all the time. It would be great on a race track with very little lean or sway. Automatic 4-wheel level control includes driver-selectable ride height, which can raise the vehicle by up to 3.1 inches with the touch of a button, and automatic vehicle-speed-sensitive lowering, which can reduce the ride height by 0.6 inches at higher speeds.
Steering feel adds to the sportiness of this ML63. It pulls hard back to center in any situation and as we pushed it hard through our local cloverleaf it felt gratifyingly tight. The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion with integrated hydraulic damper boasts a turning radius of 37.9-feet. For a vehicle its size that’s remarkable.
When you can go so fast you sometimes need to stop as efficiently. Four-channel ABS is standard, of course, as are the big ventilated discs front and rear – 15.4-inches in front and 14.4-inches in the rear. Brake Assist for emergency stopping and Electronic Brake Force Distribution for balance in stopping, stability in braking in a curve and brake pad wear are standard as well. Lots of rubber contacts the road to help with the going and the stopping. The brake calipers are visible through the classy five-spoke alloy wheels and have the AMG emblem. Tires are high-performance 295/40 ZR20s.
Fuel mileage is rated at 12-mpg in the city and 16 on the highway. Not great, but for someone paying 90-grand for a rip-snortin’daily-use SUV that’s probably not an issue. I was averaging 14.5 early in the week as I was exploring this hot SUV’s limits. Later in the week we had a couple of trips into the city involving some freeway cruising and we got it up to 16.5. The fuel tank holds 25.1 gallons and MB recommends at least 91-octane fuel.
Under the floor panel in the rear cargo area we find a collapsible spare tire mounted to a conspicuously ugly wheel. I haven’t seen one of these before. It comes with an electric air pump that plugs into the 12-volt receptacle. Looks like it would be a big job to change a flat on this thing.
A few other things to like about the ML are the thoughtful accessories and ergonomics. This is the best keyless entry system I’ve encountered. Just keep the fob in your pocket. Touch the door handle button to lock as we leave the vehicle. Then upon our return it unlocks the instant our finger touches the handle. The rear window wiper starts to swipe automatically whenever you have the front wipers on and you put the transmission in reverse. The center console is bounded by a sturdy grab bar on each side, not only good for grabbing but for keeping stuff from sliding off the console. The interior lighting controls are on a series of overhead buttons and include indirect, soft lighting as well as a rear cargo area light control.
If I were a fellow of means in the market for a luxury SUV and I appreciated all this high-tech stuff plus I liked to go fast . . . really fast . . . this would be the SUV for me.
The ML63 AMG we’re playing with this week has a base sticker price of $85,500. With a few extras it’s just about $90,000.
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