Like bacon-laced ice cream or deep-fried turducken, the ultra high performance SUV is a curious amalgam of ingredients governed by an inscrutable raison d’Ãªtre. How does this mutant automotive strain survive the vagaries of the market, and what draws drivers to this genre like a spacecraft to a black hole?
Rather than ponder the why, let’s consider the how.
The ass-kicking SUV was unofficially inaugurated in the automotive heyday of the mid-’80s, when the Lamborghini LM002 ignited passion among the oil sheikh set with its carbureted V12 and angularly ginormous bodywork. The Italian curiosity only sold 328 examples, but paved the way (ahem!) for the niche-within-a-niche: the supercar trapped in the sport ute’s body.
Contemporary examples include the BMW X5M ($87,250) and Porsche Cayenne Turbo ($107,100), and though these evolved specimens may not look as cartoonishly delicious or devilishly despicable as the “Rambo Lambo,” they stand as wonderfully improbable achievements within a richly regulated, petroleum-endangered zeitgeist that harbors fear and loathing for the insensible.
This is not a supercar or sport coupe, but rather a four-wheeled frivolity cloaked under the guise of usable space and cargo hauling utility.
Since I’ve recently criss-crossed the rambling backroads of central California in Mercedes-Benz’s newest such offering — the $95,865 ML63 AMG — allow me to explicate, or at least try to make sense of this pre-apocalyptic, muscle-engined madness. For starters, let’s play devil’s advocate and recall that a nice, base model ML350 can be had for nearly half the dough. It will transport you from A to B in commendable efficacy and decent luxury, even if Mercedes-Benz deems it reasonable to make real leather an option. Seriously.
But the standard ML is incapable of inducing lung-emptying bliss on every onramp, or responding to steering input with anything remotely resembling obedience. The off-the-rack donor car, though vastly improved over its predecessor in numerous ways including a lighter, stronger chassis, a quieter ride, and the lowest aerodynamic drag coefficient of any sport ute, is an achievement in satisfying the fat middle of the bell curve of buyers, not the edgy extreme of enthusiasts. So while Mercedes-Benz engineers clearly worked overtime to enhance the function-oriented ML, it took the mad scientists at AMG to get its freak on.
Still skeptical? Once the ball of your right foot reaches for the wool carpet beneath, you just might be charged with instant comprehension of the indelible charms of this rolling contradiction, as though the knowledge transferred directly from the accelerator pedal to your hippocampus. This is not a supercar or sport coupe, but rather a four-wheeled frivolity cloaked under the guise of usable space and cargo hauling utility. Call it cognitive dissonance or just plain silly, but the way this weighty vehicle presses you against its perforated leather is unexpected at the very least, and delightfully counterintuitive, at best.
The power source is a twin-turbocharged, 5.5-liter V8 that replaces the naturally aspirated 6.2-liter lump. In a textbook case of less-is-more, the smaller mill churns more power — 518 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque — while also yielding 28 percent better fuel economy, though it’s still only expected to average 16 mpg, combined.
Add the $6,050 AMG Development Package, and output is boosted to 550 horsepower and 560 pound-feet, and top speed is raised to 174 mph — proof there’s always a little more to squeeze from these already hard-working engines. Expect to reach 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, or 4.6 with the optional engine boost. Those rates of acceleration are accompanied by a deep, heartwarming exhaust note that sounds like the feeling of whiskey going down your gullet, punctuated by snorty “braps” as the 7-speed transmission changes gears.
Attack a winding highway, and this Merc becomes a merciless accomplice, squirting, punching, and dancing its way through the twists until you or your companion reaches for the barf bag.
Apart from badges and model-specific trim, there’s little within the ML63’s heavily upholstered leather interior to suggest what lurks beneath the gently raked bonnet. But there is more texture and detail to behold than the non-AMG iteration, thanks to the standard Designo package which brings supple cowhide to the dashboard, armrests, and door trim, and offers more aggressively bolstered seats for your cornering enjoyment.
When the road kinks, that padding proves integral to the experience: stiffer shock and spring rates work with an “Active Curve” system that uses a hydraulic pump to selectively firm up the suspension and de-couple the roll bars when necessary. As a result, the ML63 combines a buttery ride with shockingly sticky and responsive roadholding, allowing you to easily forget its multi-ton curb weight. Attack a winding highway, and this Merc becomes a merciless accomplice, squirting, punching, and dancing its way through the twists until you or your companion reaches for the barf bag.
Should AMG sully its race-bred name by slapping its badge on absolutely anything that rolls out of Mercedes-Benz’s product lineup? Does a 550 horsepower SUV have a logical place in the automotive universe? And is the ML63 even worth mentioning in the same breath as a brilliant achievement like the SLS AMG?
At the end of the day, a car like the ML63 can be distilled down to a simple ratio of want versus need: You may not deem it necessary to hurtle down the highway in such a profligate, high-profile chariot, and you’re certainly entitled to raise an eyebrow as this bad boy blasts past you on the interstate.
But if you have the means and are appropriately corruptible by the curiosity of physics-altering power-to-weight ratios and muscular interpretations of otherwise function-oriented SUVs, you may just find that the ML63 — like a juicy slice of turducken — scratches an itch you never knew you had.
Photos by Basem Wasef/get-gadget