To a Mercedes-Benz fan, the letters AMG mean just one thing….potent performance! And over the years, the wizards at this famous German tuning house have turned some of Mercedes’ most opulent luxury cars into fire-breathing monsters that rival the world’s most potent sports cars for all-out performance. But what happens when Mercedes-Benz asked AMG to work their magic on a most unlikely machine, a family-hauling sport-ute, like this ML430 perhaps?
What happens is a muscular mid-size sport ute that rockets off the same Alabama assembly line as its more docile brethren the ML320 and 430, and straight into the record books as the world’s fastest sport utility vehicle.
And for those who find that kind of thing meaningful, that means the 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 can whip your family-packin’ fanny to 60 in just 6.4 seconds and down the quarter mile strip in 15 seconds at 95 mph! And it has a top speed of nearly 150 mph! Couple that kind of thrust with the ML55’s meaner, more hunkered down stance, and no one will dare challenge you to that lone, empty space in the parking lot.
The ML’s bad boy posture comes courtesy of a sculpted hood with twin “power domes” that flows back from the one-piece bumper/lower facia, housing bullet-style fog lamps. Bulging fender flares, racy-looking rocker panels, large 8x18 inch AMG alloys, and twin chromed exhaust tips also provide some extra attitudinal adjustment.
Of course it helps to have a little muscle to back up your bad-to-the-bone disposition and the ML55 has no shortage of that! For wedged tightly under its bulging bonnet is a 5.4 liter, SOHC, aluminum V-8 just waiting to pack its 342 horsepower and 376 pound-feet-of-torque punch in any direction you wish.
This assault of the asphalt begins when AMG takes a 5.0 liter Mercedes V-8 and installs a “stroker” crankshaft that gives each piston nearly a 1/3 of an inch more stroke. The magnesium intake manifold is re-worked with longer runners and hollow, lightweight camshafts are brought on board. The “stroked” engine is then sent to Alabama where it’s mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission that, like those of all 2000 M-Class models, comes standard with TouchShift manual control.
But while entertaining, our drivers found the TouchShift mode did little to enhance the quarter mile performance. We also felt the 5,800 rpm redline comes a little too quickly to fully exploit the ML55’s broad powerband.
The TouchShift does come in handy when the need arises to hold the ML55 in a particular gear for some spirited back road driving or a run through our low speed slalom. Where we found the speed-sensitive rack and pinion steering to be accurate but a bit heavy feeling and enough body roll to remind you that you’re still in a hefty sporty vehicle.
But the modified independent, double wishbone suspension with coil springs, stiffened gas shocks and torsion bars front and rear, and an Electronic Stability Program, keep the ML firmly planted and composed in a wide variety of road conditions and terrain. Including those off-road! Because with a full-time 4X4 system, electronic traction control, and 7.8 inches of ground clearance, you can go off road.
But if you’ve got to try the rough stuff, we suggest you drive to the nearest trail head as fast as you can, and hook up with some alternative transportation. Of course, after enjoying the ML55’s luxurious wood-trimmed cabin on the drive there, you might not want to get out once you arrive.
Like all Mercedes/AMG collaborations, the ML55 comes with a pair of aggressively bolstered, AMG-specific, leather buckets for the front seat occupants with 8-way power adjustments.
The driver faces a walnut and leather tilting steering wheel and a set of chrome-trimmed analog gauges. To the right, the center stack is topped by a new 5 inch LCD screen that serves as the display for the standard GPS navigation system, the 80-watt AM/FM/Cassette/CD player audio system, and the add-on CD changer and telephone systems as well. The three rotary switches that control the ML’s atmosphere are just below. We found them rather slow to react and there’s no automatic operation.
But, with a step-in height of only 18 inches, access to the rear quarters is painless, and once there you’ll find plenty of room for two adults, a tight fit for three.
New enhancements for comfort and safety include rear door-mounted airbags, and a more user-friendly 60/40 split folding rear seat that, when folded, expands cargo capacity from 33.5 to 71.0 cubic feet. The ML55’s spare is mounted inside so the gas tank can be enlarged to hold 25 gallons. Which moderately expands the ML’s driving range between fill-ups, depending of course, upon your driving style. Government estimates are 14 City and 18 Highway. We were right in the middle at 16 mpg on a rather brisk test loop.
And with the ML55’s meaty brakes, you can briskly bring things to a halt, too. With 13.6 inch vented discs up front, 13.0 inch solids in the rear, and 4-piston calipers worked by a 4-channel ABS system with Brake Assist, we averaged stops from 60 in 125 feet.
And, that may include a stop by the local bank to make sure you can handle the ML55’s lofty listed price of $65,495. But then, AMG tuning is exclusive and with only 1500 ML55s available in the U.S. next year, this is SUV exclusivity at its best.
With its exhilarating speed, road hugging handling, and four-star interior appointments, the 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 has raised the bar for entry into a prestigious club with very few members. And once joined, the perks are immensely rewarding. But its price of admission can be steep on several fronts. There’s the obvious big budget price. And then there are the speeding tickets. Because you won’t be able to keep this ML at 55, or 65, or even 75.
Engine: 5.4 Liter Sohc V-8
Torque: 376 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.4 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15 Seconds @ 95 MPH
60-0 MPH: 125 Feet
EPA Mileage: 14 MPG City 18 MPG Highway