SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
Does $21,000 justify 5.4 liters and 342 hp of super high performance sport ute? It would, if that were the price. But that is the premium that is requested by Mercedes over the "standard" ML430 and about $30,000 more than the entry level ML320.
I tested the ML430 nearly two years ago and found it to be very competent, with enough power to propel it from 0-60 in 8 seconds flat. Its engine was wonderfully smooth, made some great sounds and had passing times in the low fours and could scoot from 50-70 up a steep grade in 6 seconds.
The ML430 is powered by a 268 hp 4.3L V-8. "Don't change anything with the way this car handles and steers...it is as nimble and agile a sport ute as I have driven." So how could Mercedes improve on near mechanical and engineer perfection. I wasn't too sure about the exterior design, a little minivanish looking, and commented on the cheap lower dash plastic and imitation wood.
MBZ has improved the ML. They did on the outside, inside and created a rocket ship that can blast through snow, climb a wall or challenge sporting sedans in the twisties and the drag strip. That's what the $21,000 is for.
The making an ML55 AMG starts in Germany where engine and chassis modifications are made. It starts with a standard ML chassis. The engine is from the 5.0L model V-8 (S500) and it is stroked via the use of a longer throw crankshaft 8 mm to 92 mm. Output goes up from 302 hp to 342 hp at 5,500 rpm. Torque is boosted to 376 pounds at 3,000 rpm. This is an improvement of 74 hp and 88 pounds of torque over an ML 430.
The spring rates are increased and the shocks are stiffened and a larger front antiroll is added. Then five spoke 8X18 inch alloys wheels are installed over the standard 17's and then huge 285/50X18 inch tires are fitted. Just looking at the Dunlop SP Sport 9000 tread pattern is intimidating.
The brakes are the same oversized 13.6 vented discs in front and 13 inch solid discs in the rear that are on the ML430. AMG adds special red 4 piston calipers to add to brake pad area which reduces fad and improves feel. Of course, ABS is standard.
The unit is then ship to Alabama for fitment of the rest of the AMG pieces such as special fender flares, the treatment for the driving lights located on the front bumper and the building of the car itself. That task is accomplished is a special area of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant were the other ML's are built. Wheelbase of 111 inches, overall length of 180.6 inches and width of 72.2 inches remain constant for all three ML models.
If you like the muscular fender flare add on's, The Mercedes product can be had as a dealer add on for the other two models (430 and 320) for $605.
Finishing off the ML55 are two large chrome tipped AMG inscribed exhaust tips out the rear. But the best part is the sound coming from those pipes. It is better than any organ. The big V-8 has a muted burble at idle that escalates to a wonderful rapture as the engine climbs in revs to its limit of 6,000 rpm. It is as fine a sounding unit as I have encountered.
But you have to listen quick because when asked, it will not spend much time at any particular rpm. With its TouchShift manual control (or fully automatic if you select) driver-adaptive shift logic five speed electronically controlled transmission, each gear during acceleration seems to last a nanno second during the ML's attempt to defy escape velocities under full throttle operation.
How fast? Try 0-60 in 6.45 seconds which a couple of years ago would be considered supercar performance, but certainly faster than any other production sport ute on the market. I had three runs below 6.3 seconds with times of 6.09, 6.16 and 6.29. The five speed auto keeps the engine at a boil at all times except when the ignition is off. Passing is supercar quick with 50-70 taking an average of only 3.19 seconds, a passing number I was able to duplicate 4 times.
Up a steep hill (6-7% grade) will only slow the ML55 about a second with times averaging 4.26 seconds. I was able to run 60-80 mph at a track with times running right at 4.04 seconds. This thing is quick with a capital Q. And this performance comes with a weight penalty over the ML430 of about 170 pounds as the ML55 tips the scale to 4,861 pounds.
Big engines sometimes consume mass quantities of fuel. The ML55 is no exception. EPA rated at 14 city/17 highway mpg, I averaged 15.4 during my test period. On the highway, the trip computer indicated a constant 18-18.5 mpg at 70 mph, about 2 mpg less than the ML430. Even with half my drive time spent on the freeway, my hyper-extended right foot probably got in the way of an mpg or two.
As with other ML's, the 55AMG is graced with state of the art, double wishbone suspension at all four wheels. Torsion bars are used for springing in front and coils are in the rear. The shocks are gas-charged and stabilizer bars are at each end. The highway ride is perfect. Incredibly smooth on the superslab, the compliant ML eliminates any intrusion from tar strips and expansion joints. It is one of the best highway travelers I have encountered. But on Ponderosa Road, the washboard surface wasn't eradicated. As with the ML430, the 55AMG wasn't perfect. But around the two 90's it held its line perfectly in spite of the bumps.
Its rack and pinion steering feels improved with less effort required at slow speeds, but road feel and accuracy remain spot on. In the twisties, the 55AMG was balanced and could be aggressively thrown around. Green Valley Road, Latrobe Road, Cold Springs and every other curve El Dorado County could dish out was simply gobbled up. In the corners, it feels absolutely neutral and benign. I found no vices. As with the ML430, this sport ute is loaded with sport. Body roll is surprisingly limited.
The ML is full time all wheel drive with open differentials that use the ABS and traction control to prevent wheel slippage. The system provides the effect of locking axles without the mechanical complexity.
MBZ saw fit to reward the ML55 with a new interior. The good news is that is also standard in the 430. Gone is the cheap looking plastic wood and lower dash material. In place is a proper softer, denser upper dash material and lower dash material. The door paneling is fitting a $65,000 automobile and that same door paneling is also in the 430.
In the driver's instrument cowl contains a large center 160 mph speedo with a 7,000 rpm tach to the right and a combined fuel and temp gauge to the left. The gauges are black on white which turn to a whitish orange on black at night. Chrome bezel surrounds add a nice classy touch, a theme also used on the AC controls. The center vertical stack contains the GPS/radio center. Once mastered it is superb, but to learn it may earn the user at least three college credits in GPS 101.
The AC below are rotary knobs that work with precision. Nice job Mercedes.
To the rear is the gear shifter which when moved side to side activates the TouchShift, left for a downshift, one gear at a time and a quick move to the right will upshift one gear at a time. I usually left the unit in drive as the driver adaptive tranny gives you exactly the gear you are looking for anyway. TouchShift was excellent for downshifting when coming to a stop or decelerating. Actually this thing is so powerful, it will flatten you eyeballs just about anytime you put the pedal to the metal, gear selection notwithstanding.
Behind the shifter are the windows controls with express up and down and the rear windows full retract.
The front seats have been improved as well. Softer and more form fitting, it's a great place to spend some time listening to the music. The rear seats offer plenty of room for three with legroom fit for Chris Webber. The design has been slightly modified from last year's three individual semi buckets, but it is still quite roomy.
Storage behind the rear seats is a very big 45 cubic feet, 85 with the rear seats down. But because of the special exhaust, the spare tire is carried in the rear cargo area, which could be considered a real negative, unless you get a flat. But how about runflat's for the ML55?
But the real news is the new third seat that is available in the ML430 and 320. There is no spare tire, so the new split seats hold two. Leg room for this rear row is small so there is a lever that moves the second row forward so kids will have enough room. Adults take the bus, or if you can afford this car, charter a Lear or a Citation Jet. The easily removed third row is a pretty sizable hit at $1,350.
This is a complete package. No options are needed. Front and side airbags are standard as well as xenon headlamps, GPS, Bose sound system and moon roof. The price is $64,900 plus $645 for destination. And there is no hood prop rod anymore to hold the front hood open as with the last tested 1999 ML430. Could you imagine a $44,000 car that needed a hood prop? Mercedes got the message.
But maybe a better choice than the ML55 is the ML430. It too makes good V-8 sounds and offers plenty of performance. Is $21,000 worth getting to 60 1.5 seconds quicker and improved passing times of a second to two seconds up a grade. But the good news is that all the improvements to the interior have found their way to the new ML430 as well. The seats, dash, door panelling are just like its bigger brother.
Just add $605 in fender flares, maybe put on some trick driving lights and you can have the bonus of seven passenger seating if that Lear Jet is unavailable. There is one other factory dealer option to consider. MBZ has designed some trick lighted running boards for $1,295. The choice is yours or your bank's. The ML55 is a remarkable automobile and it will do a 144 mph whereas the ML430 hits 112 mph at which time big brother pulls the plug on fuel and ignition.
Van Housen has a selection of ML430's and every once in a while an ML55AMG. I am sure they can find you one of the 1,500 that are expected to be built for this market.
Specifications Price $65,545 Engine 5.4L SOHC 24 Valve V-8 342 hp @ 5,500 rpm 376 lbs-ft of Torque @ 3,000 rpm Redline 6,000 rpm Transmission Five speed electronically controlled driver adaptive automatic with TouchShift Transfer case Two speed electronically switch transfer case Configuration Front longitudinal engine, all wheel drive Dimensions Wheelbase 111.0 inches Length 180.6 inches Width 72.2 inches Height 69.1 inches Weight 4,861 pounds Turning Circle 37 feet Track (f/r) 60.4/60.4 inches Fuel Capacity 23.7 gallons Wheels 8X18 inch alloys Tires 285/50WR18 Brakes (f/r disc size) 13.6/13.0 inches Co-efficient of Drag 0.39 Tow Capacity 5,000 pounds Ground Clearance 7.6 inches Performance 0-60 6.45 seconds 50-70 3.19 seconds 50-70 uphill 4.26 seconds Top Speed 141 mph as by a tester who returned to tell us Fuel Economy EPA 14/17 mpg city/highway. Figure 15-16 in El Dorado County driving and 18-19 mpg on the highway at legal speeds. You will need to use the cruise control for that.