SUVs aren’t going away. It’s a fact that has progressively become all too clear over my last twenty-odd years of suburban and urban commuting. For decades I sat in traffic behind these rolling billboards advertising the driver’s overcompensation for something they were lacking, something that was too small, or perhaps something that just doesn’t work any more. Last year I finally gave in. The fact is I like to see ahead of the car in front of me. It’s partly a control thing, and partly a defensive driving thing. Yes folks, after years of decrying them as the spawn of de debbil himself, I drank the Kool-Aid.
It’s worse than that: I’ve actually bought two of them in the past year. My current daily commuting appliance is a very nice, ordinary, blends-in-with-the-scenery Toyota Highlander, bought specifically 1) so I could see in traffic, 2) so I could carry up to 7 people since the kids have outgrown the backwards seat in my wife’s wagon, and 3) because it’s a hybrid and I have one of Northern Virginia’s grandfathered plates that lets me drive in the carpool lane by myself – thus shaving about 30 minutes off my commute each way. But I only bought that after I’d dipped my toes in the SUV water with a 1999 Mercedes ML320, which is ten times the truck that the Toyota is, but was also as finicky as one would expect from a 14 year-old rusty German truck built in America. Now, as capable as the 320 was, the hot ticket in the original ML-Class was the monster-motored AMG ML55 just like this one available in Merritt Island, Florida. What’s more, at an astoundingly low $6,500, this could very well represent the cheapest path to ownership of a fully functional, non-train-wreck AMG Mercedes.
The Mercedes-Benz W163 ML-Class was the company’s first foray into the mass luxury SUV market. They were no strangers to the genre, having produced the Gelandewagen (or G-Class) since the 1970s, but that car – originally designed for military and more utilitarian use – was expensive and never produced in the numbers that Mercedes hoped to achieve with a vehicle specifically designed to compete in the same segment as the Grand Cherokee, Explorer, and Discovery, and aimed squarely at the United States. What Mercedes did very well, was to design and build a vehicle with competence as a “go anywhere” off-roader in mind, but knowing also that the majority would never see anything put the paved bliss of suburbia. Unfortunately, like much of the Mercedes range from the same time frame, there were electronic and body/hardware integrity issues that plagued the MLs and gave them a less than stellar reputation. I remember when I told my father that I bought the ML320, his response was “is that one of those made in Alabama? That really is totally stupid!”
To be honest, I’ve had better built cars than the ML, and mine was rusting and liked to throw the occasional “check engine” light for sport. But on the road I found that not only did I kind-of like sitting up high in the traffic, but the thing felt like it was glued to the street. Once I realized that I could still face myself in the mirror AND drive an SUV I decided to get one that would work for me as an everyday car, hence the Highlander. Although the Highlander really does feel like a car pretending to be a truck, where the ML felt like a truck that could pass as smaller truck. But none of that is what the ML55 AMG is about, is it? Here we have a wonderfully competent vehicle, rust free thanks to living in the sunbelt, that has AMG’s pounding 342hp M113 V8 that can hurtle it to 60mph in about 6 seconds and on to a top speed of 150.
And it can handle, too. The ML55 has a stiffer suspension than the run-of-the-mill MLs, combined with bigger anti-roll bars and wide AMG alloy wheels. For a truck, the stock 50-series tires are remarkably low-profile – especially if you have any intention of using it off-road – but they deliver feel that would put many contemporary sports sedans to shame. The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering also delivers feel, but can get a little fidgety on center. Brakes are upgraded from lesser MLs as well which is welcome given the friction needed to slow 2.5 tons of steel from 150mph to zilch. This thing is oodles of fun on any surface, yet does have the obligatory traction control should you overcook it – which is no easy task.
As a car guy, I never thought I would give a hoot about SUVs. But I have to admit that I think they do serve a purpose beyond simply announcing to the world how small or non-extant your privates are. I also think that an SUV can be a blast for people who enjoy driving, too. That is if, like this car, they can offer some punch you can play with while still doing those things that we really want our big cars to do like keep us cool in summer, keep our buns warm, cater to just about every whim at the touch of a button, and even tell us where to go. That last one, however, is a bit of a challenge here. With the old version Mercedes Nav, you’re better-off having an iPhone or a TomTom to get you where you need to go. The stereo sounds okay, though.
This car’s 185,000 miles should not frighten anyone who knows anything about the AMG M113 motor. They are nearly bulletproof if – as with most modern Mercs – they have had their oil service and regular maintenance on a regular basis. Beyond that, both interior and exterior condition would suggest much lower miles, as would the fact that the owner reports that “everything” seems to work, with the exception of the trip computer – but chances are you really don’t want to know the mileage this thing is giving you, do you? In sum, the ML55 is another testament to our assertion that people who enjoy driving can have fun in just about anything. In this case you can have fun just about anywhere, too.