2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG First Drive

2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG First Drive

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2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV

(5.5L V8 Twin-turbo AWD 7-speed Automatic)

Mercedes-Benz's new 2012 ML63 AMG represents the sort of self-contradictory engineering challenge Germans love.

It's 2.5 tons of SUV thrown around by a 518-horsepower, twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 5.5-liter V8 — a granite boulder with a rocket engine. It's a family hauler for the family that wants to set a low lap time at the Nürburgring with five humans aboard and a golden retriever in the back. It's a pretend off-roader that can fly all day across pavement at an electronically limited 155 mph (or 174 if said family paid for the AMG Performance option package). There's enough torque aboard to pull Stuttgart across Germany and France into the English Channel, but it's dead-squirrel silent.

This is AMG's third shot at building a hyperdrive version of the M-Class, and it's getting better at it with every attempt. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 is ridiculous, and that's why it's so tasty.

Hello, Forced Induction
Mercedes already introduced the all-new "W166" 2012 M-Class that's available with direct-injected diesel and gasoline V6 engines. The ML550 is on its way, this time with a twin-turbo 4.7-liter V8. And when the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG goes on sale in April, it will be the king of one weird hill.

Like the CLS63 and E63 we drove recently, the ML63 trades in its glorious naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 for the automaker's new twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8.

Of course, the new engine is more powerful than the old one. Output rises from 503 to 518 hp in standard tune, but it's a foregone conclusion that most customers will add the AMG Performance package to get to 550 hp, plus the higher top speed. The seven-speed automatic transmission carries over from last year's ML63 with exactly the same gear ratios, but incorporates various friction-reduction measures along with a new torque converter that's locked up more of the time. As before, it drives all four wheels through the clutch-type 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.

Mercedes claims the ML63 will rip to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, with the performance pack model knocking a tenth off that — exactly what we got out of the previous ML63. We timed the Porsche Cayenne Turbo at 4.6 seconds to 60 (4.3 with rollout), while a BMW X5 M did it in 4.5 (4.2 with rollout).

Character Counts
It's the character of the power in the 2012 ML63 that's really startling.

The biturbo V8 only has a 6,400-rpm redline, but knocks out 516 pound-feet of torque consistently from 1,750-5,000 rpm — or properly equipped, 560 lb-ft from 2,000-5,000 rpm. That's diesel territory.

Where the 6.2-liter AMG V8 would bound up to its 7,200-rpm redline, at full throttle the new turbo 5.5-liter lays in like a freight locomotive and starts pulling through the seven gears of the automatic transmission behind it. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 feels as if it's being squeezed tight in the grip of some amazingly powerful fist — only to bounce back into shape like a superball after the next upshift.

If AMG's naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 was a can of Red Bull, the turbo 5.5 is a real bull. And with the Performance package, it's a real bull that's just downed a Red Bull.

At part throttle, the turbo V8 feels far more easygoing than that. It settles in around 2,000 rpm and lets the transmission do the work. The seven-speed is programmed to head for the highest gear possible in these moments, but there's simply so many pound-feet pulling the bulk that it's hard to notice the gearchanges at all.

The low-rev nature of the engine should, claims AMG, improve fuel economy significantly. The old ML63's lousy 11 city/15 highway/12 combined mpg EPA ratings should rise to about 13 city/18 highway and 16 mpg combined. Still crummy, but nearly defensible if you must drive your ML63 to a meeting of the Marin County Board of Supervisors to argue in favor of a new bikeway.

An Eyeful
Sitting high on its 265/45R20 tires and 20-by-9-inch alloy wheels, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG looks like an only slightly meaner version of the ML. There's some new matte silver trim around and under the grille and under the rear bumper, but there's nothing about the ML63 that might scare the neighbors or convince them that you're cutting an album with Eminem.

Running boards are optional, and some smaller owners may actually need them to step into the ML63 with dignity.

Inside, most of the instrumentation and basic design is, unsurprisingly, shared with other MLs. The two most significant changes are AMG sport seats and a thick-rimmed, flat-bottom sport steering wheel. Those seats start off feeling tight and get better and better as the miles pass; they're adjustable in about a million ways but seem to adapt to the driver's body without any tweaking. The steering wheel, on the other hand, is so good that you'd like to have an extra hand just so you could grip it with three hands.

It's a bit disconcerting to haul oneself behind the ML63's wheel. While the cockpit design and riot of buttons in front of you say "luxury performance machine," the view out front says "tall truck." It's like being in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 and seeing fish swim past the windows.

To get a machine that weighs so much, rides so high and has such gobs of torque to perform safely is the essential engineering challenge of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. And that's accomplished through the AWD system, enormous brakes and a suite of electronic nanny technologies.

The 4Matic system biases torque distribution 40/60 toward the rear for a sporting feel. That feel may in fact be there, but with the computer-controlled air suspension, dynamic shocks and active roll stabilization systems working on our behalf, it's hard to tell what exactly the ML63's true mechanical nature is. The same goes for the electronically assisted power rack-and-pinion steering, which is precise but not very informative.

Slam down the electronic throttle pedal and the ML63 thrusts forward in a flat trajectory. Of course there's no wheelspin, but there's also very little noise of any sort. Dampened by the turbos, exhaust noise is nonexistent except for the resonators mounted toward the back of the truck. And there is so much truck that tire noise has no chance of punching through it all and into the passenger cell.

Inside the Envelope
Driven within the parameters established by its electronic minders, the ML63 AMG is brilliantly capable. Its ride is beautifully controlled and it bites into corners without feeling tipsy or overwhelmed. It accelerates and brakes without any drama or dive. And it's splendidly quiet at all times.

But venture outside those electronic parameters and the laws of Newtonian physics interrupt the fun. As we chased a hard-driven Mini up twisty Decker Canyon Road (one of the iconic two-lanes that winds through the Malibu canyons), the traction and stability control systems brought the ML63 to a virtual stop in the tighter corners, and no amount of flapping on the manual shift paddles would get the transmission into a low enough gear. Suddenly, all 5,100 pounds of Benz felt as if they were pushing the nose forward toward the edge of the canyon road.

This truck is a big mother. And there's only so much that can be done to hide that.

With the arrival of the new ML63 AMG this spring, there are now three German high-performance, all-wheel-drive SUVs powered by turbocharged V8s — this new Merc, plus the Cayenne Turbo and X5 M. Considering how peculiar this breed is, it's stunning that three vehicles can survive within the market micro-niche. Wouldn't at least some of these buyers prefer E63 or M5 station wagons?

How well the Mercedes will stack up against the Porsche and BMW is open to speculation. But replacing those informed guesses with test data and back-to-back seat time ought to be a blast.

Until then, start saving. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG starts at $95,865 — $2,400 more than the old ML63. German engineers don't work cheap, after all.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class in VA is:

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