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2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG: First Drive

Here’s how the engine for the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG is made. A technician at the AMG facility in Affalterbach, Germany, wheels a cart down a line where all the components are stacked separately, adding each part by hand. By the time the end of the line is reached, the engine is complete and a plaque bearing the tech’s name is the last thing to go on.

Every engine that goes into an AMG car, the performance division of Mercedes-Benz, is made in exactly the same way. These technicians are immensely proud of their work, considering each V8 (or V12) as their "children." Sometimes AMG owners will get in touch with the person who made the engine for their car and even send them presents.

Although the M-Class is assembled only in Alabama, the AMG versions have hand-built engines that come from Affalterbach and 7-speed automatic transmissions from Stuttgart.

The ML63 AMG is more than the go-faster version of the new generation of M-Class premium mid-size crossover SUV (that debuted late last year). Sure, the engine bay now thrums with a twin-turbocharged, 5.5-liter V8 that makes at least 518 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque: enough energy to blast this 5,159-pound machine from standstill to 60 mph in only 4.7 seconds. But that’s nothing like the full picture.

Instead, think of this gloriously rapid vehicle as the top of the M-Class range, with a dashboard covered in fine leather, the choice of brushed aluminum, classy wood or piano black trim accents, 10-way power-adjustable front seats with four-way lumbar support, and an infotainment system offering navigation (including real-time traffic and weather updates) as standard, along with a high-end Harmon Kardon audio system that features satellite radio, Bluetooth, and iPod integration.

The cabin is luxurious and tranquil. An absence of wind and road noise allows occupants to savor the subtle hint of V8 induction snort at high revs, but otherwise it might engender the uneasy feeling that the speedometer can’t be working properly. There might be several occasions when the driver will check the speed and feel sure the gauge is overly optimistic. But it’s not. Let’s hope there aren’t any law enforcement types around when that happens. The brakes, upgraded from the regular M-Class with larger discs, are perfectly able to do the arresting anyway. Grip and traction from the permanent all-wheel drive system also work to provide an unshakeable confidence through corners.

This vehicle is not some nerve-rattling, stiff-riding white elephant; its adaptive air suspension can go from comfort to much sportier modes. And it’s not the gas-guzzler that V8-powered SUVs once were, thanks not only to the efficiency of the engine but also to a start/stop feature. Sit at a stoplight and the engine cuts out. Step on the gas to move off and it starts itself back up again.

There are only about two downsides to this vehicle, neither of which will probably bother a Mercedes-Benz buyer too much. The first and most obvious is the MSRP, a hefty $95,865 (including $875 delivery and destination charges). That includes a generous list of standard equipment, including safety features like driver attention and blind spot assistance, but then there are tempting options like night vision, a sonorous Bang & Olufsen audio system ("a concert hall on wheels" is how Mercedes-Benz describes it) and the Performance Package.

The performance pack ($6,050) adds another 32 hp and 44 lb-ft, shaves a tenth of a second from the zero-to-60 mph time and raises top speed to 174 mph. Look for versions with red brake calipers, that’s the telltale sign in the parking lot. It could be argued that no one really needs to get to 60 mph that much quicker, that no one needs to exceed even 100 mph – let alone 174. But it does make a difference, there’s a noticeable punch to the low-end power delivery and it’s fun.

The second issue is not unusual with three-pointed star cars. Although the flat-bottomed steering wheel feels simultaneously substantial and luxurious by virtue of its dimensions and half-leather/half-Alcantara (faux suede) covering, there’s also an artificiality to it. As soon as the wheel is turned away from the straight-ahead position, the electrical assistance comes on too quickly and forcefully. It takes some getting used to.

Mercedes-Benz credits itself for inventing the performance SUV and other makers have followed suit. BMW has the X5M, Porsche has the Cayenne Turbo and Jeep has an SRT8 version of the Grand Cherokee. With the performance pack, a 2012 ML63 AMG is claimed to be the most powerful production SUV in the world. It’s certainly one of the most desirable and it also has that extra bit of soul in the engine department.

 
Colin Ryan
Colin Ryan specializes in writing about new cars. But he has also covered trucks, vans, 3-wheelers, even the occasional motorbike. That’s the kind of thing that happens while contributing to the Los Angeles Times, Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Popular Mechanics, Variety, Mazda and Lexus customer magazines, as well as many enthusiast sites and publications. He was also a staff writer at BBC Top... Read More about Colin Ryan

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