Soccer moms in the country's more exclusive neighborhoods will rejoice at the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, making its world debut at the L.A. Auto Show this week. Upgraded with the usual improvements to justify the R&D money, the third generation of the German manufacturer's pioneering high-performance SUV ups the fuel economy, drops some weight and significantly improves horsepower and torque -- emboldening parents of means to floor it out of schools' valet drop-offs with less guilt.
A sports car in SUV clothing, the ML63 AMG is anabolic in its athleticism. It's outfitted with a smaller engine than the 6.3-liter outgoing model, but it makes more power. Stock, the 5.5-liter V-8 biturbo cranks 518 horses and 516 pound-feet of torque -- or 550 horses and 560 pound-feet with an optional AMG performance package. Its estimated fuel economy rating is a combined 16 mpg in the base model.
Whether that's perceived as outrageously lousy or impressive is relative.
The ML63 AMG seats five and has enough room left over for a pile of snowboards bound for the Squaw Creek Lodge at Lake Tahoe. Still, it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 4.7 seconds and reaches a top speed of 155 mph. Try that with a Toyota Land Cruiser.
The ML63 adopts many of the tricks employed on the updated CLS 63 AMG Mercedes introduced earlier this year, including a piezo fuel injection system that sprays as many as five short bursts of fuel into each cylinder with each combustion cycle, instead of the usual single spurt, for faster, more fuel-efficient combustion.
The 13th model year ML63 AMG also uses a similar three-mode drive system and start/stop technology that, in its default "controlled" mode, shuts down the engine to save fuel when the car's stopped and restarts it as soon as the brake pedal is released. Stepping on the gas in this mode actually starts the car in second gear. It reaches its seventh and top gear at speeds as low as 30 mph to save gas.
In "sport" and "manual" modes, the AMG Speedshift Plus 7-speed automatic transmission is designed to be more dynamic and responsive and can be operated with paddle shifters. That more involved driving experience is enhanced with an electromechanical speed-sensitive sports steering feature and Mercedes' new active curve system, making its debut here as an improvement to the all-wheel-drive SUV.
On the ML63 AMG, the air suspension, independent damper struts, automatic level control and adaptive damping system are all combined for more active roll stabilization when cornering and traveling at high speeds. Drivers have the option of choosing between three different suspension modes -- comfort, manual and sport.
An athlete both inside and out, the ML63 AMG's exterior styling has been enhanced but only slightly. Mercedes has added a matte silver chrome trim and wider front fenders to accommodate 20-inch AMG alloy wheels. A Mercedes spokeswoman said ML customers were already pleased with the exterior design, so the most significant design change took place inside the cabin. The designer premium leather, in auburn brown, porcelain or black – is now standard rather than a factory option.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG will be available at U.S. dealers in March. Pricing hasn’t yet been set, but the outgoing model has an MSRP of $92,590.