Mercedes-Benz is no Johnny-come-lately to the performance SUV game with the M-Class. All three generations of the brand's midsize SUV have received the Affalterbach treatment, beginning with the ML55 AMG in 2000. Although its 342 hp seems tame by current standards, at the time, the ML55 was without peer. BMW countered with the X5 4.6is in 2002, but AMG has ample experience tweaking and tuning SUVs. The 2012 ML63 AMG, representing the third generation, is near the zenith of the tuning arm's SUV efforts.

Thanks to its 21-inch wheels, 295-width tires, quad exhaust tips, and dual intercooler openings, the ML63 is clearly not your standard midsize Mercedes SUV. These visual cues aren't the first thing you notice when the ML63 is on the road, however. Whether in sport or comfort mode, the 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 makes its presence known. Many vehicles claim to have a "head-turning" exhaust note, but this one unequivocally earns the distinction. Anything more than one-third throttle produces sharp, metallic, staccato machine gun fire and at full throttle; this beast can easily be heard from a quarter mile away.

Despite the impressive volume level, the twin-turbo 5.5 doesn't have the same raw, organic sound as its naturally aspirated 6.2-liter predecessor. Whereas the 6.2 would spontaneously pop and crackle, the 5.5 has a digital, almost synthetic sound character, with throttle inputs producing consistent, predictable sonic signatures. Even the exhaust pop between shifts is predictably reliable in its cadence and tone, almost like a video game soundtrack.

The new V-8 may not have the same raucous sound quality as its forebear, but with 550 hp and 560 lb-ft on tap in our Performance Package-equipped model, power was never an issue. To fully appreciate the brute force this engine is capable of, it helps to have the vehicle in Sport mode. The Comfort setting moves the ML off the line in second gear unless you floor it from a stop.

First-gear starts in Sport get things moving in a hurry. In our testing, the ML63 laid down a properly quick 4.3-second 0-60-mph run and flew through the quarter mile in 12.8 seconds at 110.6 mph. Hawk-eyed readers may note the Benz trails archrival BMW X5 M's numbers by 0.2 second in the 0-60 sprint and its quarter-mile time by a scant 0.1 second, though it beat the Bimmer's trap speed by 0.5 mph. The ML also runs nearly neck and neck with its other Black Forest rival, the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S.

The on-by-default stop-start function in Comfort mode seems an amusing affectation considering the ML63's ample power output and thirsty 14/18 mpg fuel economy figure, but whenever you combine 550 hp with 5243 pounds, something's got to give. We observed an unscientific average of 13.6 mpg during our evaluation period.

The interior of the ML63 is the biggest visual differences from non-AMG MLs. The steering wheel gets AMG's characteristic flat-bottom treatment and Alcantara grips along with satisfying-feeling cast aluminum paddle shifters. The aggressively bolstered yet comfortable, perforated-leather front bucket seats and high-gloss piano-black accents result in an austere but purposeful look, but it's not the burled bird's-eye look many expect in a luxury model. The one unequivocally upscale touch in the interior is the stitched leather dash top.

Mercedes' COMAND knob-controlled interface is not immediately intuitive, but starts to make sense once you've spent a few minutes acquainting yourself with it. The navigation system can be puzzling, though. It started to give guidance to a presumably previously entered destination as soon as I got into it. I had to pull off the road into a parking lot and spend five minutes to de-program the route and silence the guidance. Also, if you somehow get off the real-time visual map guidance, it's almost impossible to get back to it while driving.

Clearly, anyone seriously considering the ML63 does not regard a vehicle as simply a transportation appliance to reliably and efficiently go from point A to point B. There are dozens of comfortable, competent choices out there costing under $30,000 that will manage that task just fine. To get into this example of European muscle, be prepared to shell out more than triple that sum. As equipped, including the Performance Package, aforementioned Piano Black interior trim, and accessory 21-inch alloy wheels, the price tag on our tester came to a gulp-inducing $107,725, including destination. Is it worth it? Only you can answer that question. The last X5 M we tested came in about $16,000 less than that, while the Cayenne Turbo runs about $13,000 more. The heavier, less powerful Range Rover Sport Supercharged will likely also crest the six-figure mark when comparably equipped.

If you've had the chance to drive an AMG model, you know what a singular character these vehicles have. There's something incredibly ballsy, proudly politically incorrect, and self-indulgent about them. As if owning a Mercedes weren't enough of a statement, an AMG says you also have the loudest, fastest, most expensive Mercedes in your neighborhood. If the thought of a four-figure monthly car payment or, more likely, emptying your bank or brokerage account of six figures in one sitting for a midsize SUV doesn't faze you, the ML may be your ideal ride.


2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG
BASE PRICE $95,865
PRICE AS TESTED $107,725
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 5.5L/550-hp/560-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 5243 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 114.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 188.2 x 77.8 x 73.3
0-60 MPH 4.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 12.8 sec @ 110.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 106 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.85 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 25.6 sec @ 13.87 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 14/18 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY241/187 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.25 lb/mi