The Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG is the latest iteration of the first SUV to bring supercar-like performance to a segment more typically associated with soccer mums.
AMG, however, started tuning SUVs back in 1999, with the arrival of the ML55 AMG. Based on the first-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class, the formidable ML55 packed a 255kW 5.5-litre V8 by AMG plus a host of performance features and modified bodywork.
The ML55 AMG could accelerate from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds and had a top speed of 235km/h – then unprecedented figures in the SUV world.
AMG’s super-SUV found favour with plenty of willing customers, with more than 11,000 ML55s sold between 1999 and 2003.
The second-generation version of Mercedes-Benz high-performance SUV, the ML63 AMG, launched in 2007 with even more firepower on tap, with its 6.2-litre V8 engine producing 380kW and 630Nm.
It could accelerate from 0-100km/h in 5.0 seconds and was the most powerful naturally aspirated SUV in the world. It also proved more popular than its predecessor with more than 13,000 sold during its lifecycle.
Mercedes-Benz decided to continue with the same ML63 AMG nameplate with the third and latest generation ML63, despite reducing engine displacement to 5.5 litres. It develops slightly more power but significantly more torque thanks to a pair of turbochargers.
In standard guise, the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG bi-turbo powerplant generates 386kW of power and 700 Newton metres of torque from its 5.5-litre V8. But our test car was armed with the optional AMG Performance Package, which raises those numbers to 410kW and 760Nm by increasing the boost pressure from 1.0 to 1.3 bar.
Looking more like a full-size Hot Wheels creation than a family-friendly SUV, the latest-generation ML63 AMG is also blisteringly quick. It’ll cover a 0-100km/h sprint in 4.7 seconds (with the AMG Performance package), or about the same time it takes a BMW M3 Coupe to cover the same ground.
It’s phenomenal performance for what is a sizeable five-seat SUV weighing 2345 kilograms.
What sets the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG apart from its less powerful siblings are the conspicuous quad exhaust tips and massive 21-inch alloy wheels wrapped in equally large 295/35-series tyres at all four corners.
There’s plenty of beefed-up bodywork on the ML63, too, with deeper front and rear aprons and AMG-specific side sill panels. The lower front splitter is especially wide to accommodate the specialised wheel and tyre package.
Hit the start button and there’s no mistaking the ML63’s demonic V8 rumble that sounds like a main battle tank at idle.
Leave the ML63 AMG in ‘Drive’ and ‘Comfort’ suspension mode, though, and it can be a docile beast around town. There’s even a switchable, unobtrusive engine stop-start system to help save fuel.
And every litre will count, because you can expect high fuel running costs for this mighty Merc. The ML63 AMG’s official combined fuel consumption is already 11.8 litres per 100 kilometres but the best we could achieve using a wide mix of driving styles and different settings was 16.9L/100km.
The average Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG buyer is unlikely to flinch at such figures. Most, in fact, are likely to dial up the sport or manual mode along with the firmest suspension setting – and floor it.
It’s then that you will fully appreciate why anyone would want to pay the sizeable premium for an AMG SUV.
The whistling effect of the twin-turbochargers spooling up is immediate, but it’s quickly overridden by the ferocious, grin-inducing bark at each and every upshift from the seven-speed automatic.
It’s not as quick-shifting as a dual-clutch transmission, but the automatic double-declutching on the downshift (in the fastest-shifting sport or manual modes) combined with the seamless shifts is a major plus. Mercedes says the torque converter auto is also better for towing.
It might weigh close to two and a half-tonnes, but that doesn’t mean the ML63’s handling is compromised. Even in the ‘controlled efficiency’ mode - the least performance oriented setting - the ML63 AMG can capably carry huge speed through bends.
Its cornering abilities are helped by an arsenal of body-roll-cancelling technology to keep the ML63 bolt upright.
Equipped with AMG-tuned underpinnings with a sophisticated air suspension system, adaptive damping and Active Curve System, the ML63 employs active anti-roll bars on the front and rear axles to effectively eliminate body lean.
It’s also an exceptionally well-balanced chassis that never feels overcooked no matter how hard you push, supplemented by all-wheel-drive traction and plenty of grip from the Continental rubber.
However, the specially tuned AMG speed-sensitive sports steering is problematic. It’s an electromechanical set-up that can feel artificial and numb around town, though it’s accurate and responsive at speed.
The brakes are also epic. They need to be for this truck-size missile. With six-pot calipers on 390mm drilled and ventilated discs up front and four-pots at the rear on 345mm discs, the ML63 has remarkable stopping power. There’s no hint of brake fade, either, after hard, constant use.
While the ML63 doesn’t mind dawdling around schools and shopping centres with its biturbo V8 in ‘lazy’ mode and barely nudging 1500rpm at 60km/h in seventh, the ride can be a tad firm even in ‘comfort’ mode.
It’s no deal breaker, because the road surface has to be particularly poor to unsettle things.
Select sport or manual and the ML63 shows a distinct preference for smooth, unblemished surfaces, at least from a ride comfort perspective.
It’s easy to get carried away with the performance attributes of the ML63, but inside it’s a five-star luxury experience.
It starts with the ultra-soft sports leather seats – unsurpassed in the luxury SUV segment for their ability to provide superb comfort and bolstering in the same seat. They’re also double-stitched in a contrasting thread for a premium look.
The AMG sports steering wheel is especially good. It’s a four-spoke design covered in a combination of Nappa leather and Alcantara (suede-like) grip sections (these can wear), and there are aluminium shift paddles.
That same soft leather and stitch pattern covers the entire dash and door trim and there are multiple real metal accents throughout the cabin that accentuate the first-class look and feel inside the ML63 AMG
As the flagship Mercedes-Benz M-Class model, the ML63 comes fully-loaded with an exhaustive inventory of creature comforts from illuminated front door sill panels to a superb sounding audio system from Harman Kardon.
Other interior appointments include lashings of popular dark graphite wood trim, heated and ventilated front seats, automatic climate control (front and rear), TV tuner with digital and analogue coverage, AMG instrument cluster with animated start-up sequence and LED upshift indicator and racetimer, electrically operated tailgate, electric sunroof, active park assist with reversing camera, Bluetooth phone and music streaming and satellite navigation to list just a portion of the features in the ML63 AMG.
Safety-wise the list of active and passive safety measures on board the ML63 is just as extensive.
There are nine airbags, adaptive brake with hold function, hill start assist, anti-locking braking system with brake assist and brake drying in the wet, electronic stability program with traction control, downhill speed regulation, tyre pressure warning system, active blind spot assist and active lane keeping assist.
It also performs in its role as a practical SUV, with an enormous boot capacity of 690 litres expanding to 2010 litres with the rear seats folded flat.
There’s room enough for three adults in the rear seats with extra legroom to stretch out.
Despite a hefty price tag starting from $177,900 (before on-road costs) the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG remains the least expensive choice in the super-SUV segment that includes the Audi Q7 6.0-litre TDI quattro ($257,700), BMW X5 M ($178,200), BMW X6 M ($190,900) and Porsche Cayenne Turbo ($248,600).
If you’re looking for a vehicle that combines limo-like luxury, SUV practicality and epic performance, the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG is highly convincing.