Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG 2013: Road Test

words - Jeremy Bass
Faster, cleaner, tighter on fuel -- there's nothing the ML 63 doesn’t do better than its predecessor

Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG
Road Test

Price Guide (recommended price before statutory & delivery charges): $179,400
Options fitted to test car (not included in above price): Performance Package $10,950
Crash rating: Five-star (Euro NCAP)
Fuel: 95 RON PULP
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 11.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 276
Also consider: BMW X5 M (from $183,700); Porsche Cayenne Turbo (from $247,500); Range Rover Autobiography V8 Supercharged (from $240,100)

When Mercedes-Benz launched the third-generation W166-series M-Class in 2011, the top-shelf ML 63 AMG had a fair bit to live up to. Its 5.5-litre bi-turbo V8 supersedes one of history’s more charismatic mills, the atmo 6.3-litre V8 it’s already replaced in the S- and E-Class AMGs and now living on borrowed time in the C 63 until the next generation C-Class. That was – is – one fine engine.

This one doesn’t let the side down. It’s down in displacement but up in power, to 386kW/700Nm (from 375kW/630Nm). Importantly, it brings the peak torque threshold down from the 6.3’s rather shrill 5200rpm (albeit with most of it on tap much earlier) to a nice, relaxed 1750rpm – and it sticks around all the way up to 5000rpm. Despite an 83kg kerb weight gain to a beefy 2345kg, it’s enough to cut the zero to 100km/h dash down from 5.0 to 4.8 seconds.

More importantly for Europe and the US, it’s much tighter on fuel, and much cleaner. Around 40 per cent better on each front, in fact, with official combined-cycle thirst down to 11.8L/100km from 16.5, and corresponding CO2 emissions dropping to 276g/km from 392.

Our test vehicle came with a bit of extra kick from the optional Performance Package. Among other niceties, an extra $10,950 buys you 30 per cent more turbo boost, adding 24kW and 60Nm (410kW/760Nm). It cuts the nought to 100km/h sprint to 4.7 seconds, remarkably with no penalty in fuel consumption or emissions.

That’s the numbers out of the way. How do they translate through the seat of the trousers?

First, the downside. There’s a bit of lag. Less than most, but still enough hesitation to irritate. Past that, however, lies a performance ambit as broad as any this driver has ever sampled. Even without the three-way switchable engine/transmission mapping, this drivetrain is immensely flexible.

AMG resisted the DCT Benz uses in lesser 7G-TRONIC models on the grounds that the torque converter they’ve used in the ML 63’s seven-cog Speedshift auto is better for towing – a key consideration for SUV buyers (and you can presume this SUV will be towing some big boats). At any rate, it’s a beautifully smooth, intuitive unit.

At the demure end, Controlled Efficiency mode (I thought that C stood for Comfort, but no…) feels tailor-made for 50- and 60-kay suburban streets, harnessing all that low-end twist to get up through the gears quickly and stay high. Set the Distronic adaptive cruise control and it dispatches hills and bends with barely a murmur, keeping the revs so low you can almost count the bangs. But put your foot down and it’s down a cog or three and pouring on the velocity with alarming haste.

Do the same in Sport mode and it leaps forward with all the visceral thrall for which you pay the $60K-plus AMG premium, punctuating the fearsome quad-pipe bellow with porcine snorts on the upshift and double-shuffle blips on each step down.

Manual mode is essentially an out-of-town performance tool, with all the attendant caveats. Without a decent head of steam up, it’s pretty leisurely in its response to paddle commands. Unsurprisingly, in the auto modes it’s virtually always on the money.  

True to AMG’s formula, chassis and suspension are superbly integrated with the powertrain, making full use of the W166-series platform’s improved rigidity. Never mind those shipping container proportions – the ML 63 is as agile as it is fast. Save for the E 63, which retains coils at the front end, I’ve not driven an air-sprung car that so invites you to put it to the test round a decent bend when no one’s looking. Adaptive damping, a system of active anti-roll bars and monster 295/35 R21 Continentals conspire to pull g-forces one would think unfeasible in a vehicle of this ilk, slot-car flat and with extraordinary composure.

The steering inspires confidence, too, sharpening up palpably in Sport and remaining near neutral, even under what should be torturous interrogation for a vehicle putting this much distance between your bum and the road. This is what AMGs are all about, so it’s easy to forgive it for not attending to your bum with the grace of a stock ML. But if your priorities lie in ride over handling, the ML 500 is very swift, very sure-footed and $50K less.

Indoors, it’s airy and spacious in a German-sports kind of way; it’s nice that it breaks the blackness up with a standard glass sunroof. The kit list is decent even for a $180K base price, with electric everything extending to head restraints and tailgate, Benz’s well developed COMAND central control system taking in navigation, communications, vehicle settings and infotainment functions including the primo Harman Kardon audio. The terrific suede-trimmed steering wheel has the usual Benz formula of controls on it, allowing you to shift between a vast matrix of audio, navigation, trip and communication functions on the instrument panel before you. There are sensors for the wipers and the bi-xenon headlights, which also look round corners.

It’s filled with niceties like classy ambient lighting and LED bars providing visual support for the parking beepers – including a ceiling-mounted rear one you can look at in the mirror. With an excellent high-res reversing camera and wing mirrors that dip, parking’s a cinch.
Safety kit amounts to Benz’s usual raft of technology, extending to nine airbags, the marque’s Pre-Safe accident anticipation system, lane departure and blind-spot alerts and collision prevention sensors. It’s a tribute to the chassis engineering program that a car of this mass and muscle has a stability control package as gentle as this one.

Complaints? Seating is comfortable front and back, with heating, cooling and loads of side bolstering in the front ones, but the cushions could do with a bit more length under-thigh for this six-footer (BMW’s pop-out extensions provide an excellent compromise).

Fuel consumption is okay for an incredible hulk. Which is to say, you don’t have to live in fear and ration your time in Sport to sustain the official urban figure of 15.7L/100km round town. We didn’t get it far out of town, but we didn’t make the combined 11.8L/100km, either, even on 80-100km/h highway runs in Controlled Efficiency – it seemed to gravitate towards mid-12s.

One oddity lay in the moment we pulled it over for a couple of minutes and the range readout plummeted from 128km to 53km as it idled – after half an hour’s 60-70km/h night driving, mostly in high gears and uninterrupted by lights.

While this segment is about as sensitive on price as it is on fuel consumption, it can only help the ML 63’s cause that it’s priced competitively. As such, those looking for a mix of virility and versatility would be hard pressed to find better.

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Published : Tuesday, 26 March 2013
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