We all have our shortcomings and, among mine, is a knack for occasionally butchering automotive model designations. Maybe as a Yank I'm just pre-programmed to expect the sort of American model names that so clearly delineate a car's place in the market.
The late, not-so-lamented Ford Aspire is a good example; its owners almost always aspired to own a better car. Later, when that same buyer brought home a Ford Fiesta, a word that means ‘party' in Spanish, the mood would be appropriately celebratory. So you can see how, upon receiving an invitation to drive the new Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, I was a bit confused trying to call up an image of the SUV in my mind's eye — particularly since I didn't realise that it was an SUV at first go.
In my defence, Mercedes has one of the deepest product rosters of any car manufacturer and, while Detroit has wisely retreated into shallower but much more manageable portfolios, Merc has become the exception that proves the rule, offering an ever-growing range of fantastic products with obscure two- and three-letter model designations that this writer, frankly, has trouble keeping track of.
But before you summon the great petrol beast from its fiery garage beneath the earth's crust to roast my ignorant American flanks over a pit of red-hot exhaust manifolds — know this: the instant I saw AMG on the invite I started packing my bag. AMG stands for Awesome. Must. Go. Even in my ignorance I was aware that Merc's high-performance luxury subsidiary has amassed a particularly stellar reputation.
Unless you're as daft as I am, you're probably well aware that the ML63 is a midsized five-passenger SUV. As tested, the AMG badge takes the car well into superlative territory, marrying a 5.5-litre V8 biturbo engine to the AMG Speedshift Plus 7G-Tronic transmission in a permanent all-wheel drive configuration.
The 4Matic all-wheel drive system is set up to distribute torque in a 40:60 split from front to rear, giving the SUV a bit of rear-wheel drive mojo while retaining an incredible amount of control. Naturally, I opted for the Performance Package, which offers just a tad more power, producing a mighty 557bhp and maximum torque of 760Nm, achieving 0-100kph in just 4.7 seconds. Think about it; as you sit there reading this full sentence, the ML63 AMG has gone from a dead stop to highway speed. You might expect such performance in the finest, and lightest, supercars, but this vehicle has room for your (well, mine anyway) immediate family and all the literal and figurative baggage that goes with them.
I'm not saying that the ML63 AMG is the only Super SUV out there, I can think of a couple others and have already started concocting a potential shoot out, but this is actually quite a remarkable vehicle category if you stop to think about it.
Taking the wheel of the '63 for the first time you're greeted with all the proper amenities of a modern luxury vehicle, presented in an organised, elegant, and useful arrangement. The infotainment system is well thought out and, not unexpectedly, controlled via a multi-function knob on the centre console.
There are also a number of function buttons on the steering wheel, but as a right-hander I found it difficult to navigate the system using the directional buttons on the left side of the wheel. Once you have the hang of it though, navigating the various functions is relatively effortless and I have just one minor criticism; the skin used in the Merc's GUI is exceedingly bland. It's possible that sacrificing form to function has made their system easier to use, but it might be the only homely spot in this otherwise comely vehicle.
The sound system in the '63 is very high quality and, by virtue of the car's quiet ride characteristic, you're able to hear a wonderful level of detail in recorded music. In my case, I simply connected my iPhone to the Merc via the provided data cable, and had my music going almost immediately. The stereo image provided by the car's system is wide without losing balance from the driver's position, and the low, 60hz thump of a bass drum can be both heard and felt, even as you're gleefully revving the engine. And yet, this is just with the, er, "standard" OEM system produced for AMG by Harman Kardon; the optional B&O system, with its sculptural raised tweeters and copious wattage wasn't yet available for test.
Shifting the mighty ML63 AMG is achieved either from one of several steering column levers, or through paddle shifting and, while I found paddle shifting an engaging way to interface with the car, downshifting into the turns didn't yield quite as much engine braking as I'd expected. There's a tiny lag between hitting the paddle and feeling the transmission respond, and that was unexpected — especially when trying to skip a gear, dropping from, say, sixth to fourth. But here's the thing, the combination of throttle response in Sport mode and the incredibly wide rev band offered by the exceedingly torquey 7G-Tronic, make for a superior driving experience that, really doesn't need to be micromanaged — in fact I was several hours into the drive before it even occurred to me to try the paddles. I suspect that, given a week in the car I would have Manual mode nailed and enjoy it a good bit more, but on a shorter time table there was simply no reason to play around; Sport mode (fully automatic but with more aggressive shift points) was that satisfying.
And here's the other thing; this SUV is very firmly planted to the road, and the amount of body roll that would otherwise be endemic to this size class is well mitigated by AMG's Active Curve System, which uses active anti-roll bars on the front and rear axles to mechanically control body roll depending on lateral acceleration, road speed and suspension mode (Comfort, Sport or Sport Plus are all on offer).
By compensating for the roll angle of the body through bends, the vehicle is made more agile than its size would predict, enabling the driver to address corners with unseemly amounts of aggression, in contrast to the car's relaxed but exceedingly confident demeanour. In the ML63 AMG, it's not so much about how fast one can take a blind hairpin turn, because the vehicle seems ready to respond to any ridiculous request for speed and handling, but rather that little voice that begs you to consider the cluster of stray sheep that, for instance, greeted me as I came around one particular wooded bend. Had I been piloting the car at anywhere near its full potential around the curve, its excellent stopping power aside, I would have been eating mutton at every meal for quite some time to come.
As I drove the car, wending my way through mountain passes, in and out of populous areas, and through a variety of driving conditions the word that kept returning to me was ‘smooth'. The '63 boasts AMG ride control sports suspension with the Airmatic package consisting of air suspension, independent damper struts, automatic-level control and Adaptive Damping System, all of which lend the car an unflappable quality that meets even the most unexpected twists, turns, elevations, and evasive manoeuvres with a fluidity that is uncanny. What would normally have been jarring in a lesser vehicle, or perhaps something stiffer but equally peppy, is really only notable for its absence in this car; it's simply very difficult to unsettle the driver or passengers.
Driving the car is in some ways a deceptive experience: take your eye off the speedometer and you're suddenly speeding. The car is so amply powered, the ride so tranquil, and the road noise so well mitigated, that the indicators of excess are almost too remote. But ultimately how you drive is your responsibility, not the car's, and the sound- and vibration-dampened cab affords a level of luxury that is quite refined. At the same time the interior is not so isolated that you're cut off from the car's sonorous exhaust note.
Mash down the accelerator and you're greeted with the thundering music of motoring. But there's a difference between this super SUV and some of its challengers; the Merc is the pinnacle of refined control married to brutal power. It is fearless, but not showy. Where, for example, the X5 M has a hint of danger in its personality and driving dynamics (and that's not meant as a criticism) the ML63 AMG seems both more powerful (the specs back that up) and somehow less truculent. That might seem like an odd statement on the surface, but this is less about what the car is capable of — you'd have to take it on a closed track to find its limits because it displays essentially zero deficiency within the realm of sane, public driving.
Instead, the smoothness of the ride quality, effortless handling and incredibly quiet cabin combine to give the SUV a kind of Jekyll and Hyde quality — it can offer an almost Rolls-Royce-like mellowness, and then you step on it and it's transformed into a sports car in an SUV wrapper.
I went into this event thinking AMG was about all I needed to know and, while that's not a bad place to start, I don't think I'll soon forget the designation ML63 as the car has driven me into a sort of fever state.
To be honest, I'm feeling a bit ashamed of my ignorance, and I think the first step is a willingness to learn. As my penance, I propose that I drive every model in the AMG range as soon as possible, and for as long as possible. If they're anything like the ML63 AMG, I don't expect I'll be forgetting their names again, at least not after being properly introduced.