2009 Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG

The Good:
– Tough handsome styling
– Very muscular engine
– Great handling for its size
The Bad:
– A bit twitchy at low speeds
– Firm ride quality
– No low-range gearing

Every time we drive a fast 4×4, we ask the same unanswered questions. We ask why anyone would need a fast 4×4. We ask why anyone would buy a 4×4 if they really wanted a fast car. We ask why anyone would buy a 4×4 that isn’t even built for offroading. But then we drive things like the Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG, and such concerns evaporate into thin air.

Despite being the most muscular version of the unibodied M-Class 4×4, the ML 63 AMG barely looks any different from the regular soccer-mom version, especially since the 2009 facelift. Indeed, we cannot think of any off-hand differences besides wheels, tailpipes and badges. It is a handsome vehicle though, much more so than the first-generation guppy that debuted a decade ago. It is also a rather large vehicle, but looks smaller than it is due to deft styling touches and oversized alloy rims.

The interior is a break from the usual Mercedes-Benz fare, although familiar elements still remain, such as the blocky steering wheel and the button-happy multimedia system. All materials are top-notch in this five-seater, incorporating stitched leather, metal trim and soft-touch plastics throughout. And being an American-built model, there is no shortage of cupholders, although we would’ve preferred a cover to hide the front ones.

Interior space is excellent, with ample front and rear legroom, and a large cargo area devoid of any third-row seating tricks. The rear passenger seat also folds flat to increase hauling volume. But entering and exiting the cabin can be chore. The side-steps are narrow and actually make it a stretch to enter comfortably if you try to step over them instead. The narrow rear doors don’t help back-seat access either. And the rear tailgate, without the power-operated option, is very heavy.

The list of features is extensive, as expected, although there are no new innovations. As featured in other recent Mercedes-Benz models, the gear-shifter has been replaced with a “P-R-N-D” stalk and paddle shifters, alongside three other stalks that includes one for cruise control too. Other features include keyless entry and start, a booming CD stereo, a multitude of airbags, fully-powered front seats, large sunroof, working Bluetooth phone and turning HID headlights, among others. The digital a/c was above-average during our June testing, and even had separate vents and digital controls for rear passengers.

Servicing the AMG-tuned ML is the corporate 6.2-litre naturally-aspirated V8 that we last experienced in the 457 hp C 63 AMG, to dramatic effect. Power is up in this application, with 510 hp at 6800 rpm and 630 Nm of torque at 5200 rpm. What these numbers don’t reveal is the enormous kick in the pants it gives right from the lowest revs. Even in our June summer testing, we managed a solid 0-100 kph time of 5.6 seconds, fairly close to the official manufacturer figure, and much quicker than our battle-weary C 63 AMG tester. Mated to a smooth 7-speed paddle-shifted automatic and all-wheel-drive, the “6.3” engine is unstoppable, and all the more impressive because it achieves its strong low-rev characteristics without resorting to turbo add-ons. Passing and merging in traffic becomes ridiculously easy. We managed a fuel-consumption figure of 18.1 litres per 100 km, which included a fair bit of highway driving.

Complimenting the monster engine is a solid air-suspension system that offers handling good enough to rival BMW and Porsche 4x4s. Body roll is limited in the curves, cornering is flat even in sharp turns, and grip is never-ending from the ultra-wide 295/35 tyres, all on optional 21-inch alloys. The all-wheel-drive ML simply understeers safely when pushed too hard, and the stability-control systems don’t have to do much work really. The steering is a bit firm to aid quick driving, but there isn’t much feedback. The brakes feature some of the largest drilled rotors we’ve ever seen, and stopping power is excellent, although it is easy to see that the ML’s 2310 kg weight takes a toll, as the calipers stink after every quick stop.

The luxury aspect suffers slightly in the quest to create this monstrosity. Tipping in the throttle pedal a bit too much at crawling speeds brings about a surge of acceleration that could catch novice drivers off-guard. And while the cabin is highly insulated from wind noise, the road noise from the wide tyres is noticeable, especially on newly-paved road surfaces. Also the ride is firm, even with the suspension in “comfort” mode, although the occasional jitteriness is largely bearable. All-round visibility is decent, and parking is made easy with a rear camera.

Interestingly, while the ML 63 rides low on the road, the air suspension can give the 4×4 a lift at the touch of a button, adding a considerable amount of ground clearance. While this may indicate a willingness to play off-road, the lack of low-range gearing and the abundance of easy-scratch chrome skid-plates meant that we didn’t venture beyond gravel trails and firm sand.

Even with its flaws, the ML 63 AMG makes a positive impression, simply because it does the impossible on the road. The addition of a height-adjustable suspension puts it on a plane higher than the BMW X5, and it looks much better than the Porsche Cayenne and the awful Audi Q7. While the purpose of overpowering road-going 4x4s will always be questionable, Mercedes-Benz has the right product to oblige those who have a hankering for these things.

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