First drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, E63 AMG & SLK55 AMG at Yas Marina Abu Dhabi

First drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, E63 AMG & SLK55 AMG at Yas Marina Abu Dhabi

My first car was a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.6 with an original AMG appearance package. I bought it in 2004, but back in 1990, AMG was an independent tuner specialising in Mercs, with the occasional work done on other brands. Eventually, Mercedes-Benz and AMG became partners, and then AMG completely became a subsidiary of the three-pointed star. Things have changed a lot since then, or maybe, things haven’t changed at all. AMG-badged cars continue to be hyper-active versions of regular luxury cars, but they are more powerful than ever. The latest cars we’ve tasted from the new-generation AMG line-up include the ML 63 AMG, the E 63 AMG and the SLK 55 AMG, compared alongside cars that we’ve driven before, the CLS 63 AMG, the C 63 AMG and the SLS AMG, all at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi during the 2012 AMG Performance Tour.

A free night’s stay at the Yas Viceroy Hotel was thrown in to sweeten the pot, but after checking in, we were heading out to the track already as the event was held in the evening. First up was the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG. It’d be hard to spot one of these nowadays, because an AMG-kitted ML 350 parked next to it looked just as aggressive.

The exercise with the ML 63 AMG was simply a run at Yas Marina’s own full-fledged drag-strip. This was the first time we ever drove on a proper drag-strip, so it was interesting to go through the motions. “Staging” requires creeping up ever-so-slowly to the starting line to make the yellow bulbs light up on the “Christmas Tree” signal lights, after which it is just a question of reaction time and flooring the throttle pedal while keeping the steering wheel straight. With all-wheel-drive and an automatic gearbox, there isn’t any other work needed. We were only doing a 1/8th-mile run from what we could figure out, with most times around the 8.5-second mark.

Our ML had the AMG Performance Package, so power from the turbocharged 5.5-litre V8 is increased to 557 hp. The thing takes off with an earthquake of an exhaust note, enough to pick up fines from cops a mile away. With all-wheel-drive, there is no drama as it just surges forward, and at the end of it all, the huge brakes bring it down to sane speeds pretty quickly. On the brief drive when returning to the starting line via side roads, the steering felt as light as a feather, with immense grip and no body roll on tight turns, giving the weird sensation of a severely-oversized hot hatch. The ML 63 AMG is as ridiculous as it is capable.

We got some time around the entire track as well as a tight course with the E 63 AMG, a four-door sedan that barely looks any different from the E 200, since we aren’t familiar with AMG’s latest design cues nowadays. The car is a turbocharged 5.5-litre V8-powered monster though, especially with the optional AMG Performance Package bumping up power to 549 hp. The package also adds stiffer suspension and a limited-slip diff, among other things. With the meaty tyres and the ESP left on, the car is unflappable no matter how hard we entered sharp corners. Zig-zagging through slalom courses and braking while turning did nothing to upset the chassis. It almost feels like a grippy all-wheel-drive car.

But then again, we felt the ESP was too restrictive even in “Sport” mode, because the rear tyres never broke traction, even when we piled on the power in the middle of turns. Driving it at the limit leaves nothing to chance as the ESP quietly scrubs off speed during the turn, barely allowing the tyres to squeal. Of course, turning off all electronic aids would probably result in smoky spin-outs in the hands of amateurs anyway. The CLS 63 AMG, which is based on the E-Class, also drives exactly the same way. The C63 AMG is not a whole lot different, although it seems to be able to swing its tail a wee bit.

We’d say the most sporting experience was had with the SLK 55 AMG. It is powered by a same 5.5-litre V8 as the other two, minus the turbos. So it makes “only” 422 hp, with the AMG Performance Package adding stiffer suspension but no extra juice. With firm sharp steering, low-slung body and a short wheelbase, it is the proper sports car of the group, second only to the SLS AMG we drove later on. Driving it on nearly the entire Grand Prix circuit, we were doing speeds in excess of 200 kph in the straights, ever-so-slightly swinging the tail out on tight corners, and generally feeling more communicative than its larger siblings.

The SLK isn’t the most spacious of cars though. For taller drivers, the seat doesn’t move far back enough, while their helmeted heads will nearly touch the ceiling. Still it isn’t nearly as tight inside as the SLS AMG, and we average-sized folks were fine. The glove-like seats in all the AMG cars were a bit too restrictive, as the thick side-bolsters kept catching our elbows when wrangling the steering wheel.

Of course, complaining about tight seats in performance cars is like whining about the air-conditioning while riding a camel. AMG cars have followed the same formula for the past two decades, to the point where even their smallest models have a V8 stuffed under the bonnet and their SUVs handles like smaller cars. If you have the money, AMG has an automatic easy-to-drive-fast car for you, in a whole bunch of shapes and sizes.

For our experiences with the Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG, C 63 AMG and SLS AMG, read our coverage on last year’s 2011 Mercedes-Benz AMG Performance Tour.

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