Hot rod SUVs seem to be a contradiction in terms, but they sure are fun. Take the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG, for example. With a specially crafted 5.5-liter aluminum V-8 that cranks out a whopping 342 horsepower, it launches the ML55's rather hefty profile to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. There are sports cars out there that can't do that, much less haul five people in four-wheel-drive security over snowy roads or gravel lanes.At $66,565, the ML55 is a very special version of the M-Class SUV. By way of comparison, the V-6-powered ML320 starts at $36,965 and the V-8-powered ML500 begins at $45,615. The ML55's price, power and performance automatically limit its appeal to a narrow audience, but it is an audience willing to pay a premium price for exclusivity, cachet and an uncanny ability to swallow the road like a python. Moving a 4,913-pound vehicle this quickly requires serious muscle. AMG, the Mercedes-Benz performance shop in Affalterbach, Germany, builds each ML55 engine by hand. Derived from the standard three-valve, twin-sparkplug aluminum 5.0-liter V-8, the AMG's longer stroke enables it to produce 376 foot-pounds of torque, which is why it leaps forward at the slightest nudge of the throttle. A variable intake manifold maximizes both low- and high-speed power. Roll into the throttle to pick up speed on a freeway entry ramp and you're thrust forward with a bellow and a blur. Mercedes-Benz says ML55's top track speed is in the neighborhood of 150 mph. Pushing a vehicle this big through the air that fast takes a bunch of power, and this brawny V-8 has plenty. The penalty is fuel mileage rated at 14 miles per gallon city and 17 mpg highway. The ML55 is not just a straight-line bullet, although it certainly excels at that. With a firmed-up suspension and monster 18-inch wheels, it dances through turns with the agility of a football player in toeshoes. There is a price to pay for being able to haul this SUV through turns like a sports sedan. The big tires contribute considerable feedback through the steering wheel, while the tighter springs and shocks make the ride choppy on rough pavement. The ride smooths out on the highway, however, where it feels solid and secure. Because of its high-performance street tires and reduced ground clearance, the ML55 is not really off-road capable, but its electronic four-wheel-drive system enables it to negotiate primitive roads or paths with ease. For 2002, all M-Class SUVs received an upgraded interior, revised front and rear bumpers and clear headlamps with optional bi-xenon lights. They are standard on the ML55. Outside mirrors have turn indicators. Standard equipment includes front and side-curtain airbags, 17-inch wheels, the ESP vehicle stability program, electronic traction control and anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist. The automatic climate control system gets newly designed rotary controls whose action mimics manual controls. Chrome trim rings give them an upscale look. A new center co nsole houses climate controls for the rear seats, a double cupholder and a power outlet. As one would expect, the ML55's interior is more luxurious than the rest of the M-Class. Dark wood trim, a wood-and-leather steering wheel and deeply contoured leather seats create an aura of luxury that sets it a notch above the standard vehicle. Our test vehicle's GPS navigation system shares its LED screen with the audio system. This system is complicated to learn and not much easier to use. In a clever touch, the CD and cassette players are hidden behind the LED screen. Price
The ML55 lists for $66,565. Warranty
Four years or 50,000 miles. Point: The ML55 is a pricey, powerful SUV that accelerates like a sports car, handles like a sports sedan and is targeted at wealthy enthusiasts who can afford its exclusivity. It bombs down the highway like an autobahn bult and cossets its occupants in luxury-car comfort. Counterpoint: The bi tires react to bumps by transmitting feedback through the steering wheel, the ride is choppy on bad roads and the engine guzzles fuel. SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 5.5-liter, 342-hp V-8
Transmission: automatic Four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 111 inches
Curb weight: 4,913 lbs.
Base price: $66,565
As driven: $66,565
Mpg rating: 14 city, 17 hwy.
> > SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 1.6-liter, 4-cyl.
Transmission: manual or automatic Front-wheel drive
Curb weight: N/A
Base price: $18,000
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