What would you do if someone handed you the keys to the world's fastest SUV? If you were in Copenhagen, Denmark, you'd do what we did on a recent trip: Take the 607-horsepower Kleemann ML55K out for a spin.
It was with some degree of hesitation that we put the pedal to the metal on a few selected Danish highways in the exact same Kleemann ML55K that the 2002 Danish touring-car champion Jason Watt used to set the world's SUV top-speed record last February at the Nardo test track in Italy (see sidebar).
Even knowing that, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer sensation of acceleration on tap with the ML55K. While cruising at 120 kph (about 70 mph), the first time we mashed the pedal, we got near-instant acceleration, which doubled our speed to more than 230 kph (142 mph). This is in what remains a truck and at 5300 pounds is no lightweight. When you think about it, the team at Kleemann built an SUV that nearly defies the laws of physics.
While we had no desire to push the ML55K to the upper reaches of its considerable limits, we did want to experience one certified blast over 150 mph, which meant the kilometer-calibrated special-edition Kleemann speedometer would need to exceed 240 kph. At mid-day, our section of highway west of Copenhagen was virtually devoid of traffic, making the mad dash to the magic 150-mph barrier a non-event. It was simple: We floored it and held on.
It was almost effortless, with the 5.5-liter supercharged V-8 gulping massive amounts of air, smoothly pushing the near-three-ton beast (with driver and passenger aboard) up through 210, 220, 230, and finally 240 kph. We quit when the 330-kph-limited speedometer read above 245 kph, which converts to 152.2 mph. The ML55K gave us every reason to believe that under the right conditions, with a long enough straightaway, this silver arrow could reach the same 175 mph it did at Nardo.
The heart of the ML55K is the capable 607-horsepower engine. The added power comes courtesy of a Kleemann-engineered kompressor system designed to optimize every last horsepower, without compromising the elegance expected in a Mercedes-Benz. Kleemann calls it Comfort Power, and, in our short but thorough evaluation, we were impressed. The ML55K didn't exhibit the lack of powertrain refinement found so often in tuner vehicles. As we walked away from the ML55K, we were convinced that if Mercedes-Benz or AMG wanted to extend the abilities of the current or future M-Class, they had a clear target to aim for in the ML55K.
The Kleemann ML55K benefited from a few other strategic improvements. Toyo supplied the tires, 295/40R20 Proxes S/Ts, mounted on Kleemann's own 20x9.5-inch wheels. The chassis was lowered two inches with Kleemann's M-Class lowering springs. To slow the ML55K's three tons of moving mass, a set of Kleemann KB 4 brakes were installed with six-piston calipers up front and four-piston units in the rear. The 15-inch front rotors (13.7 rear) were cross-drilled to maximize cooling. Inside, the world-record ML55K was essentially stock, save for the specialized handicapped controls installed for Jason Watt (who was severely injured in a motorcycle accident in 1999).
When we visited the Kleemann facilities outside of Copenhagen, we saw a half-dozen Mercedes-Benz sedans under construction, each in the process of receiving a custom leather interior. Kleemann representatives explained that a customer could personalize an interior in any trim available. The Kleemann signature combination of leather and Alcantara is mated to the customer's choice of stitching pattern, resulting in a one-of-a-kind interior. Kleemann also offers a variety of wood and carbon-fiber accents.
As it turned out, we didn't need to fly all the way to Copenhagen to sample Kleemann's charms, since a U.S. subsidiary has been established in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Kleemann USA (719/473-6441; www.kleemann-usa.com) can personalize any current Mercedes-Benz vehicle using a host of Kleemann-engineered components, from vehicles equipped with the 3.2-liter V-6 up to the 6.0-liter V-12 models. If you currently own an ML55 and want to upgrade it to ML55K specs, Brandon Grantham at Kleemann USA says the world-record ML55K can be duplicated in a U.S.-legal and certified version for approximately $34,600 above the cost of the donor M-Class, labor included. Certainly not cheap, but you'll get an incredibly fast vehicle.
In the years since its introduction (a replacement model is expected for the '05 model year), the M-Class has become very popular, selling 60,000 units annually. While it was considered the class leader when Mercedes-Benz introduced in '98, it's been clearly eclipsed by later introductions like the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne. While these competitors may boast of a more contemporary chassis with additional levels of refinement, neither can make the claim now being the world's fastest SUV. And for some, that's all that matters.
With the exception of a few interior modifications to accommodate world-record test driver
Kleemann ML55K World-Record Attempt
by Richard Truesdell
There's a healthy rivalry among Europe's top-tier tuners, each taking the best vehicles from Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes and building something extraordinary. The title of fastest four-door sedan constantly rotates between Alpina, AMG, Brabus, Kleemann, and a host of others. While SUVs don't command the kind of attention in Europe that they do here in the U.S., they do provide fertile ground, and a battlefield, for Europe's best tuners.
In the case of the SUV record, previously set at 266 kph (165 mph) in an '03 Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the Kleemann team enlisted the aid of 2002 Danish touring-car champion Jason Watt and ventured to southern Italy to the 7.8-mile Speed Bowl at the Nardo Proving Grounds, where, on February 9, 2003, they shattered the old record and posted the new mark of 282 kph. In addition to its ultimate top speed, the Kleemann upgrades enable the ML55K to sprint to 60 mph in less than five seconds and cover the quarter-mile benchmark in 12.9 seconds at a trap speed of 129 mph (the same time as a stock 3270-pound '02 Corvette Z06). These numbers are all the more remarkable given the 5291-pound curb weight of the ML55K, a vehicle not known for its state-of-the-art aerodynamics--it's like a giant silver brick and requires massive amounts of thrust to post these numbers.