Kevin Hackett finds that the best Mercedes-Benz off-roader isn't necessarily the most popular one.
Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG is a capable dune basher
Love them or loathe them, you cannot ignore Mercedes-Benz's cars in this part of the world. The company manufactures practically every kind of vehicle, from the diminutive A-Class through to the SLS AMG supercar, the perennial Middle East favourite, the G-Class, to the S-Class limo and the R-Class people carrier. There's even a luxury van available and almost all models are a common sight on our roads, particularly those with those three little letters attached: AMG.
The reason is quite simple. AMG models are, in the eyes of many, the ultimate examples of the best cars in the world. I can't quite bring myself to agree with this line of thought but I do love them for their brutish performance, their rock solid build quality and the truly fantastic sounds that emerge from their exhaust pipes. Petrol being so cheap here obviously helps sales, too, mind you. Throughout Europe, the majority of Mercs are diesel-powered and, to be honest, they're pretty impressive machines, too.
To look at the off-roader Mercs here, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there's only one: the G-Class. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, famously drives his white G63 AMG around and the car has become a celebrity in its own right. The G-Class was always going to be viewed as a status symbol of sorts, but there's another capable dune basher in the Merc line-up: the M-Class. And its AMG incarnation is a seriously good piece of kit.
It's now in its third generation and is a massive improvement over the outgoing model in every single respect. An afternoon at the Dubai Autodrome proved that beyond doubt, as there were a number of the old ones on hand for comparison purposes. The new model looks better, handles better and brakes better. I was extremely impressed, but the one model I didn't get a chance to try for size was the bad boy AMG. And, after a couple of days behind its wheel (nasty shade of brown interior notwithstanding), I've fallen for its bounteous charms. It's a blast.
So it should be, with a whacking great big price of Dh480,774. This one has been fully specced and comes with the "Performance Package", meaning it packs a 558hp punch and carries itself on a 760Nm tsunami of torque. The engine, as with any AMG machine, is the centerpiece. At a standstill it burbles away, like some malevolent psychopath waiting to strike, and when you're on the move, it roars, coughs, burps and spits. I keep checking my mirrors, expecting flames to be erupting from the tail pipes.
The faster it goes, the more composed it seems to be. There's an enormous amount of electronic trickery at work under its boxy body panels, that's a given. But unlike so many computer-controlled vehicles these days, all the tech comes together to provide the driver with an entertaining experience. Its Active Curve Assist System has anti-roll bars that stiffen up when cornering at speed and the active dampers automatically lower the car's ride height when you're pressing on. Yet none of this intrudes, simply working away seamlessly to make sure this behemoth behaves just how it should at all times.
Another thing that impresses me is that the safety systems I normally decry as being totally unnecessary are, in this car, helpful and intuitive. The ML's B-pillars are quite thick, meaning vision is impaired when overtaking or pulling back into lane. But the large mirrors are fitted with warning lights that blink furiously when another car is either pulling alongside or just about to. Rather than annoy, it's a feature that actually benefits driver and other road users alike.
The interior of this car is coated in a rather hideous shade of brown leather upholstery but the brown ash wood trim is tasteful and all the metallic bits of trim are gorgeous to the touch. The Harmon Kardon Logic 7 sound system is superb and the seats have thankfully been fitted with cooling fans. There's plenty of room for adult passengers, both fore and aft, and the rear load bay offers generous luggage capacity, making it a supercar all the family can enjoy at the same time.
This car's obvious rival is the Porsche Cayenne Turbo - a model that has also improved with each successive generation - but the Cayenne just doesn't offer the same levels of character as the AMG. Both are highly competent either on or off-road, both are extremely well built and both are insanely fast. But the Merc, with its crazy sound effects and its more subtle road presence, nails it. It's easily the more charismatic of the two and personality goes a long way when you're shelling out the best part of half a million for any car.
Price, base / as tested Dh364,640 / Dh480,774
Engine 5.5L V8-cylinder, twin turbo
Gearbox Seven-speed automatic
Power 558hp @ 5,250rpm
Torque 760Nm @ 2,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined 11.8L/100km