The 150-MPH SUV


In addition to their infamous problems of thirst and girth, today’s sport-utility vehicles are mechanically challenged in two additional areas.

One: Suspension is always a compromise, owing to their on-road/off-road, pavement-hugging/sod-hopping, grocery-carrying/lumber-hauling multiple personalities. Thus, when asked to handle even mild maneuvering emergencies, most bulky SUVs change lanes with the finesse of a three-legged hippo.

Two: They are typically propelled by an engine borrowed from a passenger sedan sibling. Even when modified upward, the amount of honk produced by a 200-horsepower V-6 is never quite enough to move a 2-ton truck with much authority.


So we settle for less pace than a subcompact and call it majestic, and accept marginal agility, which we choose to believe is purposeful.

But no more.

Not if you have $65,000 left over from holiday spending, the patience to wait until early next year when the 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG goes on sale and the courage to defend its really odd credentials.

For the ML55 may look a little like a Mazda MPV minivan, but it can accelerate alongside a Jaguar XJ8, runs out faster than a Porsche Boxster and costs more than a Range Rover 4.6 HSE. That makes the ML55 the world’s only high-performance sport-utility vehicle, as well as the segment’s most expensive off-roader, at least until Ferrari announces it will build a four-wheel-drive Terra Traverso.


Only one question: Why?

Well, Mercedes-Benz explains that this cart horse in racing shoes was developed to offer sporty utilitarians the brawn of a cargo hauler combined with the raucous performance and deep luxury of an expensive sports car. Not incidentally, says the company’s literature on the subject, the ML55, as the third addition to the M-Class line, gives its creator the bragging rights to a “sport-utility vehicle for three distinct market segments and in three distinct price ranges.”

There’s baby bear: the V-6-powered, 215-horsepower ML320 with a base price of $35,000. There’s mama bear for those interested in slightly heavier performance: the ML430 wagon with a 268-horsepower V-8 and a sticker of $45,000. And now there’s papa bear: the ML55 with a 5.5-liter V-8, 342 horsepower (close to what you get with a Chevrolet Corvette) and a top speed of 150 mph, which is fast enough to eat just about everybody’s porridge.

We choose to see an alternative method in Mercedes-Benz’s apparent madness in building a schnell wagen instead of a high-performance, all-wheel-drive E-Class station wagon. It’s that old “Field of Dreams” bit. Build only 1,500 units a year, and you can bet the elitists will come. Next, offer a high-performance model in a market turgid with low-performance vehicles, and the edge is definitely yours.


AMG--if spelled out and your conversational German is better than mine, which is military Berlitz--combines the initials and birthplaces of the founders of a suspension- and powertrain-tuning team.

It used to be an independent speed shop that, with factory blessing, performed major miracles on the somewhat doughy performance of Mercedes-Benz’s earlier sedans and coupes. The company recently bought controlling interest in AMG and made it an official division, and its magic is slowly being applied to just about everything in the Mercedes lineup. Especially to the company’s race cars, which AMG has been preparing for three decades.


There can be no visual doubts that the ML55 isn’t your neighbor’s ML430. And Mercedes-Benz certainly wouldn’t want you spending $65K on a vehicle your neighbors wouldn’t regard with instant envy. So there are AMG badges inside and out, large wheels and obviously speed-rated tires, bulbous fender flares and decorator power bulges in the hood.

The extraordinary oomph of the ML55 AMG comes from an all-aluminum, 5.5-liter V-8 developed from the 5.0-liter engine found in the SL500 roadster. A forged steel crankshaft, longer passages for the intake manifold and a sharper engine-management system complete the performance massage and make the ML55 a one-car tug of war with 376 foot-pounds of torque.

Compare that to 320 foot-pounds for the Toyota Land Cruiser, 222 for the Range Rover 4.6, 230 for the Lexus LX 470 and 350 for the bruiser of ‘em all, the V-8 version of the new Ford Excursion. Here’s the cruelest comparison: A Lincoln Navigator runs the zero-to-60-mph sprint in 10 seconds. The ML55 makes the same trip in just under seven seconds.

Still, what do you get with all that power without modified underpinnings? Just another runaway freight train. So the AMG meisters have lowered the ML55’s suspension by more than half an inch and stiffened the front torsion bars. It is equipped with 18-inch wheels, low-profile tires for better stick, larger, four-piston brake calipers for additional grabbing and tougher shock absorbers.


The result is confident, flat, responsive handling tuned for fast touring--and a noticeably stiffer ride than any other SUV in captivity. But there’s a little roll to the vehicle. This is still a tall truck with a high center of gravity, and one never loses the sense that this machine will still turn turtle at the hands of an unthinking driver.


Off road, with a battery of sophisticated traction controls in perfect sync, the ML55 is as good as the M-Class has ever been, which is very, very good.

But on road, a single nag really never goes away.

If going places quickly is your need, and getting there as quick as 130 mph is your want, you’d really rather have a comfy, lower-riding E430 sedan. And for about $10,000 less, which would buy you a good used Chevy pickup for bringing home the Christmas tree.

Paul Dean can be reached at


2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG


* Base, $65,000: includes five-speed automatic transmission, front and side air bags, leather seats, Global Positioning Satellite System navigator, trip computer, cruise control, roof rails, retractable cargo cover, seven-speaker Bose stereo with CD player, automatic air, black burl walnut trim, glass sunroof, xenon headlights, fender flares, 18-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel drive, dual chrome exhaust tips, heated power seats with memory.


* 5.5-liter V-8 developing 342 horsepower.


* Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, mid-size, high-performance sport-utility vehicle.


* 0 to 60 mph, as tested: 6.9 seconds, with five-speed automatic.

* Top speed, as measured by manufacturer: 150 mph.

* Fuel consumption, as tested: 14 miles per gallon, city and highway average.

Curb Weight

* 4,700 pounds.

The Good: Exceptional performance for a relatively unexceptional type of vehicle. Fastest, most expensive sport-utility for those interested in the rarest and best. Suspension, brakes and steering able to handle the pace. Certainly the world’s finest handling sport-ute.

The Bad: An AMG Mercedes without a six-speed manual? Still feels a little tippy at speed. Why this instead of an all-wheel-drive AMG station wagon?


The Ugly: $1,000 gas guzzler tax.