Sporty SUVs: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, Range Rover Sport Supercharged, and BMW X5 4.8i

Brian Konoske

Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMGLike the Jeep, the Mercedes-Benz wouldn't be here but for the efforts of the brand's in-house skunk works crew to transform a suburban schlepper into something sporty. And like the Porsche, the ML63 takes the sporting theme to an extreme degree. In many ways, though, the AMG M-class is more successful than both.

Our admiration for what AMG has wrought here is somewhat surprising, considering we weren't fans of its first M-class effort, the ML55. It helps that we're completely smitten with AMG's new big-block V-8, which here pours out 503 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque without a turbocharger or a supercharger. Although our tests had the upstart (and 640-pound lighter) Grand Cherokee beating the ML63 to 60 mph by a razor-thin 0.1 second, the bad-boy Benz was clearly the acceleration champ in the run up to 100 mph. Best of all, the big V-8 was instantly responsive throughout the rev range, and it did it all to the accompaniment of an amazing sound track that's "manly yet exotic," as Noordeloos put it.

As is the case wherever it appears, AMG's 6.2-liter V-8 is backed up by Mercedes' seven-speed automatic with its easy-to-use shift buttons. The ML63's steering proved more linear than that of either of its German competitors, prompting senior editor Joe DeMatio to comment, "Imagine, Mercedes steering that's better than a BMW's or a Porsche's!" Like the Cayenne, the Mercedes is a fat boy, and it, too, relies on air springs with adaptive damping and three driver-selectable firmness settings to deliver inspired handling or a decent ride.

The high-powered Mercedes was a letdown mostly in the small details. Its cabin is roomy, but there's little that's special to the AMG version of the ML. The aero add-ons are a bit too aftermarket-looking; the rubber-dotted running boards are particularly unattractive and totally unnecessary. Steering that's pleasantly meaty when you're working fast corners out in Hill Country feels just plain heavy when you go to park. The brake pedal travels a ways before it begins to really bite. And the steep price looks reasonable only next to the ridiculously expensive Porsche. As copy editor Rusty Blackwell pointed out, "You don't receive twice the joy of a base X5 for (almost) twice the price."

Range Rover Sport SuperchargedIf the ML63 AMG, the Cayenne Turbo, and the Grand Cherokee SRT8 all attempt to push the sporting SUV theme much further than the X5 did, the Range Rover Sport only tries to match it. The result, in the words of DeMatio, is that the Range Rover is "in many ways the most satisfying vehicle here."

As you'd expect, the Range Rover has long suspension travel, but it also displayed very impressive wheel damping when hustling along the Hill Country back roads. The Range Rover achieves a comfortable ride/handling balance, without requiring the driver to make selections choosing one over the other. DeMatio again: "The steering has some feel and is predictable, and it's very easy to enter a wide sweeper on one of the Farm to Market roads, like 1623 out of Stonewall, and place the vehicle comfortably through the corner." The Range Rover's superb sight lines and upright driving position help here, too. The cabin materials, though, are closer to the cheaper Land Rover LR3 than to the more expensive senior Range Rover, but the high center console and the prominent center stack provide a pleasantly coupelike cockpit.

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