Given enough social lubricant it's possible to mate the rough edges of performance with the loving constrictions of luxury. And as Mercedes-Benz AMG is now demonstrating so handsomely in its third generation ML, the trick can be done with that most difficult of platforms, the sport utility.
Already fast and comfortable, the 5-passenger mid-size ML has been thoroughly upgraded with improved fuel economy and refinement foremost, but as this is an AMG, with increased performance as well. Thus, the 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V-8 has been replaced with a more fuel-conscious, direct-injected, 4-cam 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 rated at 525 bhp. This slightly improves ML performance while gaining a third more fuel economy, now rated at 16 mpg combined. That's still dismal, of course, but in the ML's nearly six-figure price range saving at the pump is as much social statement as selling point.
More germane is the higher-boost performance package option offering 557 bhp and 560 lb.-ft. of torque. So equipped, our test car rocketed away from standing starts, its AMG-tuned 4MATIC all-wheel drive grabbing with cat-on-a-carpet traction. At street speeds the AMG's 4.7 zero-to-sixty acceleration is truly spectacular, flattening only slightly on the freeway as the SUV's 5000-lb. mass and wind resistance come in play.
AMG ensures the ML 63 plays the performance part with a sexily guttural exhaust note and a bit of mechanical busyness, while banishing wind noise and any other aural excitation that could be mistaken for exertion or intrusion.
The 7-speed automatic transmission offers paddle shifters or intuitive auto-shifting if left alone, a rapid-acting stop/start function which we enjoyed. Selecting Sport or Manual modes disables the start/stop function and speeds the already rapid and smooth shifts.
Even more impressive than the power is the ML's handling. Simply put, it has far more grip and poise than it has any right to, given its tall ride height and weight. Of course, a full array of sophisticated AMG-tuned components are helping. The permanent 40/60 torque split in the full-time awd, new active front anti-roll bar, adaptive damping, huge tires, air bag assist and characteristic Mercedes-AMG combination of long-travel suspension and seemingly magic shock tuning combine for handling that shames many sports sedans, much less SUVs.
Another highlight is the significantly upgraded and smartly redesigned interior. It's the sort of h, supportive, supple leather cocoon you wish your living room offered. The front seating is especially successful with its firm lateral support that somehow never pinches or impedes lounging on long straight roads. Belying the AMG's European roots, the seats are heated but not air conditioned, relying only on forced ventilation against the summer heat. Cabin climate control is automated dual zone, of course, and even the front drink holders are heated or chilled.
The Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG is one of a handful of highly competent, high-performance, luxury SUVs that can handle any weather or social situation. Now it's even faster, fuel efficient and pleasing to the eye. It goes on-sale this April. Prices are yet to be fixed; figure on the most capable ones approaching $100K.