First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG

More power. It's just what every two-and-a-half-ton SUV needs. Not. For that reason, if you had asked us a few weeks ago to pick a sensible vehicle for touring the winding mountain roads around Santa Barbara, California, chances are excellent we'd probably have neglected to mention Mercedes-Benz's ML series, much less its top-of-the-line ML63 AMG. Fettled by the company's in-house tuning department, the extra-picante version of the weighty SUV has only just reemerged in a third edition with more power than ever: 518 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, from the now-ubiquitous AMG 5.5-liter, twin-turbo V-8.

High-riding vehicles with mad amounts of horsepower have never struck us as a good idea, even if there's clearly money to be made by offering them to those whose bank accounts trump their understanding of vehicle dynamics. And more muscle, in a vehicle that upon our last visitation was already content to write checks its chassis couldn't cash, hardly recommended the 2012 ML63.

All that, of course, was before we'd driven it, and before Mercedes brought its best technology to bear on the question of how to make something this tall (70.7 inches) and heavy (5093 pounds in its stocking feet) not only go fast -- really big engines have long been known to take care of that chore -- but actually go around corners. And in this sense, the new ML63 is a revelation. Thanks to Mercedes-Benz's Active Curve System, which curbs roll like nobody's business, and the ML63's air suspension with its adaptive dampers, the ML changes direction while remaining so flat and level that you begin to realize that you're having fun on a winding road -- in an SUV. While the ML63 probably won't fully convince you, a knowledgeable enthusiast, that you're in a sports car, wicked exhaust burble notwithstanding, it won't cause you or your passengers to evacuate lunch when you're carving back roads. And in this class of vehicle, that, friends, marks significant progress.

If you want a Mercedes SUV that scares you, you'll want to wait for the new G63 AMG, whose antique chassis is never going to be a match for its new, speedier motor. Opt for the ML63 AMG, though, and while you may not make the same psychographic statement, you will benefit from electromechanical, speed-sensitive power steering and giant brakes. If the standard AMG body kit and interior accoutrements are not ostentatious enough for you, you may choose an optional Performance Package, which not only injects an additional 32 hp and 44 pound-feet of torque, but also buys the carbon fiber engine cover, special steering wheel, and red-painted calipers our test vehicle sported. Twenty-one-inch wheels may replace the standard twenties, which to our eyes are plenty big enough.

So what we have in the ML63 is an SUV that defies the laws of physics and in so doing becomes the new class of its class. While we might still question the need for this breed of animal, we do think it worthy of mention. Finally, it seems, you can make pigs fly.

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