Monday 16th January 2012


The progenitor of the 'sporty SUV' gets a third iteration. We find out what the latest 5.5-litre biturbo version is like

Mercedes' AMG brand has been going from strength to strength in recent years. The likes of the SLS and increasingly capable hot versions of the C-Class and E-Class have really raised the awareness of AMG.

But while the cooking M-Class might not be the most obvious AMG model in the showroom, it has been a quiet success story.

Mercedes claims to have been the 'inventor of the performance 4x4' with the 1999 ML55 AMG and it has sold more than 24,000 worldwide since, enjoying a loyal following.

The German firm will be hoping that success continues when this new ML63 AMG arrives in showrooms in July. It certainly looks the part, an improvement on the standard M-Class (not the prettiest of 4x4s - especially at the rear). The front wings are 10mm wider to accommodate the massive 20-inch 265/45 tyres and if any pedestrian was still in any doubt about the ML's intentions, there is V8 BITURBO in chrome lettering between the front wheel and door.

As that badging suggests, under the ML63's bonnet is the same 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 as seen in the AMG versions of the E-Class and CLS. That means 525hp, a 0 to 62mph time of 4.8 seconds and a 155mph limited top speed, not to be sniffed at considering the ML tips the scales at a shade over 2.3 tonnes.

There's also the optional AMG Performance package, giving you 557hp and lowering that 0-62mph time to 4.7 seconds, but denting your bank balance by an extra £6,500. It doesn't damage the 23.9mpg combined average fuel economy, though.

Of most interest among the changes are AMG's decision to alter the 4Matic four-wheel-drive system to deliver the power 40:60 to the front and rear axles (as opposed to 50:50 before) and also the new active anti-roll bars as part of Mercedes' Active Curve System.

It would be easy to dismiss both as small print on what is after all, still a big 4x4, but it doesn't need to say Vettel in your passport for you to notice the difference. Along with reasonably direct steering, the ML remains respectably flat even when cornering enthusiastically, and you rapidly forget just how big a car this is.

Few owners will throw their ML63 down a country road in the same manner as, say, a GT3, or expect the same kind of feedback, but the level of body control and pace that you can maintain remains astonishing. Encouraging you further to hustle the ML63 is the gorgeous engine note, which has a lovely full-throttle induction noise.

Even the ride quality is reasonable. That can't be said of cars with the Performance package though. It might get you an even more alluring exhaust note, but the larger 21-inch wheels and the liquorice-thin 295/35 tyres ruin the ride for little discernible gain.

Mercedes claims that it wanted to make a significant step up in terms of the interior feel and materials and it has succeeded. The dashboard and switchgear are a noticeable improvement on M-Classes of old (just as well, given the AMG's hefty price tag) and there's a good amount of space front and rear. A 1200-watt, 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen stereo is optional.

At double the price of the big-selling turbodiesel M-Class, nobody would pretend that the ML63 AMG isn't an extreme choice. Like the supercharged Range Rovers and Cayenne Turbos of this world, this is not a car for everyone. Which is exactly how we like it. If you can brave the fuel bills and are in the market for one, though, we reckon this is one of the best.

: 5461cc V8 twin-turbo
Power (hp): 525@5,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@1,750rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 2345kg
MPG: 23.9mpg (NEDC Combined)
CO2: 276g/km
Price: from £85,000 (est)

Author: Nat Barnes