“SuperSUVs” exist and are relevant because they represent the pinnacle in terms of performance, technology, safety, comfort, and, yes, prestige – or plain old boasting rights if you will. Which wins the test of the stopwatch?
Vehicles like the ML63 AMG and Range Rover Sport SC may as well have a huge roundel painted on their flanks. They’ve become – granted, more so overseas than here – perfect targets for those who despise top-end 4x4s, and what they ostensibly represent.
They’re big, heavy, expensive, thirsty and – allegedly – unnecessary. But then so is a watch that costs more than a generic digital from China, or whisky in a square bottle with a blue label.
Both vehicles have overtly muscular looks, one of them quite svelte and aerodynamic by the standards of the genre; the other with the square countenance and fairly upright flanks that are trademarks of the marque. The ML is the newer design and has flowing lines, in the case of the AMG version the sense of visual drama heightened by details such as a bespoke grille, metal-look under-bumper bash-plates, wider wheelarches, side sills and tinted rear light clusters.
The Sport’s Swiss cheese grille is its defining feature, as are the blacked-out pillars which give the roof a floating effect – a Range Rover trademark since the first generation. Funny, then, that the Sport is based on the Disco, and it is lower, sleeker and generally more compact than a full-blown Rangy.
Rantings of fanatical bunny-huggers aside, they do need to be examined closely in terms of how well they actually do their jobs. Does the Landy really need to weigh more than 2600kg sans driver? Does the Benz really need 375 kW?
And can anyone drive something that will use as much fuel as two family compacts – whether the financial implications matter to that person or not – with a clear conscience?
Features and equipment
ML63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sport SC ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The ML range has been on the local market since the end of 2005, and answered all criticism of its underachieving predecessor in one fell swoop. Which means refinement and quality is exactly what you would expect of the three-pointed star.
This version arrived a year later and is unashamedly the performance flagship – the AMG badge says it all. Merc’s whollyowned hot car department has built an astonishing, 6208cc powerplant, notable not only for incredible attention to detail but also because it is virtually hand-built by a single technician. The result is the planet’s most powerful normally aspirated production V8.
The drivetrain has been beefed up considerably to cope, too, but the fundamentals stay the same: drive goes to all the wheels all the time via a seven-speed transmission, with torque split 40:60 front to rear in normal use – which means it is slightly more rear-drive biased than other ML models.
The Landy uses a supercharger to make its engine numbers, which are 287 kW and 560 Nm from 4,2 litres, also divided among eight cylinders. It has one gear ratio less in its auto box, and while that hardly seems to matter thanks to its fantastic torque spread, unlike the Benz it doesn’t enable the driver to go through the ratios via buttons on the steering wheel, though sequential shifts can be executed via the gear lever.
Air suspension and fat, 20-inch tall tyres are designed to ensure flat, high-speed cornering ability, while both confirm their sporty bent further with uprated braking systems, the Brits going to Brembo for their stoppers. Both have huge, ventilated discs front and rear with an array of electronic stopping aids.
There’s a host of electronic driving aids, too. Both are fitted with stability and traction control systems that regulate and modulate engine and brakes, whether accelerating or trying to slow down on or off the road. Additionally, the Rover has Hill Descent Control and the Merc’s equivalent is termed Downhill Speed Regulation.
ML63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sport SC ★ ★ ★ ★
These are ultimately compact sport-utility vehicles (with the emphasis very much on the “sport”), and the Sport is some 17cm shorter overall and 14cm shy in the wheelbase compared to a normal Range Rover. Therefore it should come as no surprise that it is purely a five-seater.
The Merc is too, and is even stubbier than the Sport, though it has a considerably longer wheelbase.
Low-slung (at least in highway mode), these are the SUVs as sports cars, cosy driving positions and cockpit- like environments blended impressively – more so in the case of the Range Rover – with the commanding driving position of a traditional SUV.
But comfort for all is hard to fault, with both having excellent front seats, the Merc extending comfort to the rear pew more than its rival does. It is also slightly more spacious across the cabin if a quintet of adults is on the menu, though both cope equally well with luggage requirements: there is little to choose between them, whether rear seats are folded or not.
The mix of Alcantara synthetic suede and plush Nappa leather used for the ML63’s upholstery is spectacular, giving the cabin a very stylish and purposeful look and feel.
Electric seats, satellite navigation, CD shuttle and dual zone climate control are just some of the common luxury items, but both have lists of features and equipment too long to mention here. It is worth noting the lack of onetouch windows other than for the driver of the Landy, however, and that the Benz also has a cassette player – just the thing for those who like to combine the latest technology with one that has fast become almost redundant.
ML63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sport SC ★ ★ ★ ★
With almost 90 kW more and a couple of hundred kilograms less, the Benz has a far superior power-to-weight ratio, though in reality that gap narrows somewhat at Reef altitude where the supercharger fitted to its rivals means it loses less due to the thinner air. The Sport appears to have a broader spread of torque, too: 560 Nm at 3500 r/min versus 630 at a heady 5200 r/min, so on paper it could be expected to be a little more driveable.
The reality is that the Benz already has 550 Nm at 3000, so whichever way you slice or dice it, the Benz is faster: it reaches its 250 km/h speed limiter in sixth gear, storms to 120 km/h in just 8,7 seconds (versus almost 12 seconds for its rival), and goes from 60 to 100 km/h with a spine-tingling kickdown surge in just 3,2 seconds.
Full throttle efforts are hugely satisfying in either, the Merc a high revving symphony, the Rover a more visceral thundering accompanied by the whine of the Eaton belt-driven supercharger.
They settle down to a muted sound when cruising at the legal limit in top gear, both ticking over at some 2200 r/min.
Our steady 120km/h fuel test showed the lighter, sleeker Benz – unsurprisingly – to be more frugal at 14,2 versus 15,7 litres per 100 km. In the real world, don’t expect much better than 18 per 100 km overall from either, though we’d give the Benz the edge if driven intelligently.
When it comes to stopping ability the Benz also reigns supreme. While our 80 to zero numbers don’t highlight a significant advantage, it is the way the brakes feel that characterises the differences.
The Range Rover has a fair amount of travel before they bite, and when they do, there is a slightly wooden feel to the pedal, which is uninspiring. By comparison, the Merc has instant bite, and meatier feedback, as well as better outright stopping ability – which would become more apparent when stopping from higher velocities.
With its hefty kerb weight, it isn’t surprising that we were also able to get the stoppers of the Range Rover to start to fade towards the end of our test sequence.
Head for the dirt and the Landy product comes into its own, though, thanks to two things. It is equipped with low-range gearing (it isn’t even an option on the AMG offering, unlike on lesser MLs where you pay an additional R16 000 for a reduction ratio) that is mated to Land Rover’s acclaimed Terrain Response engine/drivetrain management system. This re-tunes various aspects of the vehicle’s dynamics as well as the responses of certain driving controls, and thanks to a mellowed torque delivery which comes with these settings, off-road progress, even in extremely challenging conditions, is made much easier.
Ride and handling
ML63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sport SC ★ ★ ★ ★
So low-range and Terrain Response make the Range Rover the more talented all-rounder, though just how many buyers of this radical kind of SUV could give a hoot about off-road ability is hard to say.
But there is a huge amount of satisfaction in checking out the terrain through the front windscreen, and from a pop-up knurled wheel between the seats selecting which of the five pre-programmed “maps” suits the prevailing conditions best. The setting will determine which differentials (rear and middle) are locked or unlocked, and also how the throttle and gearbox react, among other things.
Throw in the air suspension and the Sport has off-roading ability to rival the Discovery.
Maximum ground clearance can be as much as 227mm, and with a 34 degree approach angle (some three degrees better than that of its rival) it has no problem tackling extreme terrain.
But the star from Stuttgart can put even more air between its belly and terra firma. With Airmatic suspension puffed up to its max there is 260mm of ground clearance and an impressive 29-degree departure angle (better by some two degrees), though drivers will be less likely to try to exploit these measures because of the lack of low range.
Crank the AMG right back down and ground clearance drops to 180mm, changing the character of the beast substantially. It suddenly feels much more agile and responsive, giving the driver a high level of confidence. The driver can also choose from two suspension settings – comfort or sport, though the latter can make it feel jittery over mid-corner bumps. We preferred to leave it in Comfort, which is still firm and controlled.
With Dynamic Response – the in-house name for Landy’s electronically controlled anti-roll system – the Sport can also go round corners flat and fast, while retaining a haughty level of comfort. But the Merc will generally go through bends quicker, thanks to similar technology and the benefit of slightly more generous rubber – 295/40s versus 275s of a similar profile. It seems to resist the onset of understeer better, too, and its longer wheelbase makes it more stable and relaxing on smooth hardtop.
The final verdict
ML63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Sport SC ★ ★ ★ ★
When you consider how well the Sport does almost everything – both on and off road – its three-quarters-of-a-million price tag looks like surprisingly good value. A full-size spare, better underbody protection, and the effortless effectiveness of Terrain Response make it a better SUV for South African conditions. It certainly looks the part, too – all stubby and belligerent – with plenty of street cred in the poised way it squats over those big 20-inch wheels.
The Landy is hardly a dated design, but if you’re after owning the personification of modern high-tech, the ML has more appeal. The engine and gearbox package represents the cutting edge, which translates into more efficiency on both the performance and fuel consumption fronts: it goes farther on a smaller tank.
It also has a remarkable array of groundbreaking safety equipment. These include Pre- Safe, which applies the brakes on the driver’s behalf in critical situations, Neck-Pro head restraints in the first seat row, an additional two airbags and belt tensioners and belt force limiters for all the seats.
On the downside, you’re paying about R140K more for a vehicle that doesn’t have low range, and makes do with a spacesaver spare for those (hopefully) rare occasions when a R5000 tyre is destroyed by a chunk of building rubble falling off the back of an unroadworthy, unlicensed bakkie driven by an unlicensed, illegal immigrant.
But the bottom line is that these two are, to use a term from the press pack for the Range Rover Sport, “sports tourers”. And in that regard the Merc is better by virtue of being more comfortable, more refined, more stable at speed and safer, both on an active and passive level.
And based on the assumption that very little real off-roading will be done by either, we’d opt for its ability to accelerate like the proverbial sh.. off a shovel ahead of the Landy’s mountain goat ability.