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Mercedes-Benz ML63 2012 Review

Santa Barbara, California, is the home of liposuction, boob jobs and Botox ... so the lighter, pumped-up and cosmetically updated Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG is right at home. The glitzy seaside city was the site for the world launch last week of the fifth AMG to get the smaller but more powerful 5.5-litre V8 engine. Here the high-performance SUV is in its element with the beautiful people.

The good news for Aussie beautiful people is that when it arrives in June it will be more agile, more powerful, more efficient, slightly less ostentatious and probably about the same price.

VALUE

Mercedes-Benz spokesman David McCarthy says there will be "little or no change in price and if it does go up it will have a lot more kit". The current price is $175,815 which places it under its main rivals: BMW X5 M ($178,200) and X6 M ($185,400), Range Rover Vogue supercharged V8 ($202,800) and Porsche Cayenne turbo ($248,600). In terms of value, the third-generation AMG SUV now sits closer to the BMW for driving dynamics and closer to the Range Rover for comfort.

TECHNOLOGY

Everyone is raving about this new bi-turbo engine, which is smaller in capacity, but has the most power and torque in its class while also being substantially more economical. In standard trim it has peak output of 386kW/700Nm, but with the optional performance package that increases turbo pressure, they rise to 410kW/760Nm.

Fuel economy in both forms is now 11.8L/100km on the combined cycle, which is a 28 per cent improvement. It also now comes with an engine stop/start system to save fuel in commuter traffic. But the tech upgrade that raises the ML to new heights in dynamics is the new "active curve control" which uses active sway bars to resist roll in high-speed cornering.

It is packaged with a new sports-tuned air suspension with adjustment for comfort and handling. The seven-speed automatic transmission now has a quirky double-declutching function for downshifts which blips the throttle and smooths out the cog changes just like a racing driver. But it retains the torque converter for more than three-tonne towing performance.

STYLING

The "braces" are off and the AMG now looks all grown up. The previous model featured a snarling grille that looked like it was wearing braces. This has been replaced by a more sombre look with darker materials and a three-pointed star with less "bling". Changes to its smile are reflected in more muted styling throughout, from the matte silver chrome apron up front to the discrete quad tailpipes at the rear. Inside, the luxury materials have been upgraded, the layout has been finessed and there is more choice for buyers, including formalising its bespoke operations at the factory.

SAFETY

It's packed to the rafters with safety gear as we have come to expect with Benz. The active curve control feature should also be considered a safety feature as it keeps all four wheels on the ground in corners. There are up to nine airbags, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, a drowsiness detection system, tyre pressure monitors and it even automatically dabbed the brakes as a caution as we approached a cyclist from behind.

DRIVING

The canyon roads through the hills behind Santa Barbara are among the best I have ever driven. They are smooth and twisty with a wide variety of corners and dramatic semi-arid scenery. Our test drive in the ML 63 AMG highlighted the eerily flat handling characteristics of new active curve control technology and the smooth and quiet ride. It's the perfect blend of handling and ride for this type of vehicle. However, it didn't like the concrete joins in the highway, so it may not adapt too well to Australia's bumpier, coarse-chipped roads.

The extra power in the performance pack is hardly noticeable, but the extra torque makes it leap off the line. That is, when the turbo has finally kicked in. Overtaking is troublesome with the turbo lag and then sudden boost making it difficult to judge just how close to go to the vehicle in front before swinging out to pass. The steering lacks feel and feedback, while pulling strongly back toward centre. Cornering is a joy with sharp turn-in and more rear feel from the 60 per cent torque split biased to the tail. Yet it doesn't fire as strongly from the apex of the corner as the X6 with its split rear diff.

VERDICT

It may be the cheapest of the performance SUVs, but it sits right up there for driving dynamics and luxury with a near-perfect balance of handling agility and comfortable ride. As AMG boss Ola Groeneveld says, they have hit "the sweet spot". Benz has just about run out of current ML 63 AMGs in Australia and McCarthy reports there is already an order for 40. Expect these to sell like hot cakes among the Botox set.

MERCEDES-BENZ ML 63 AMG

On sale: June
Price: about $175,000
Engine: 5.5L biturbo V8, 386kW/700Nm (410kW/760Nm)
Transmission: 7G-Tronic Speedshift auto, AWD (60/40) Fuel economy: 11.8L/100km (combined)
CO2: 276g/km
Dimensions: 4817mm (L), 1940mm (W), 1750-1813mm (H), 2915mm (WB).

Pricing Guides

$38,990
Based on 112 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$26,990
Highest Price
$69,999

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
ML500 (4x4) 4.7L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $39,050 – 45,980 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML500 (4x4) Pricing and Specs
ML63 AMG (4x4) 5.5L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $45,980 – 69,999 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML63 AMG (4x4) Pricing and Specs
ML350 B.E. (4x4) 3.5L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $34,980 – 41,580 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML350 B.E. (4x4) Pricing and Specs
ML300 CDI (4x4) 3.0L, Diesel, 7 SP AUTO $27,390 – 33,000 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML300 CDI (4x4) Pricing and Specs