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BLOWING ROCK, North Carolina — Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a local legend claims that star-crossed American Indian lovers sought to end it all by leaping off a prominent cliff. When the young man took the plunge, a strong gust lifted him back into the arms of his lady.
The U.S. performance-car market seemed to be on the verge of suicide a few years back, with sales of sports cars and coupes falling to untenable levels and large V-8s disappearing due to fuel economy standards. Then some bright marketeers took the popularity and relaxed fuel economy restrictions on trucks and applied the performance-car treatment. The gale of public enthusiasm has blown the sales figures of these highway hulks up into the stratosphere.
Mercedes has a long reputation for refinement and engineering but has never been renowned for its high-performance cars. True, it produced limited numbers of virtually hand-built 300SL models during the 1950s, and it has had some fantastic racing successes, but its day-to-day products built its reputation on engineering and elegance. During the same time, BMW, Porsche, Audi and even VW have built reputations based on sporty models.
To get a sportier image, Benz has called upon its most successful aftermarket modifier, AMG. For about 30 years, AMG (now owned by DaimlerChrysler) has produced unofficial performance versions of most Mercedes products. With the popularity of sport-utility vehicles, it was only natural that the ML430 V-8 should get the AMG treatment.
Sizzling SUV power….?
Do we really need a 342-horsepower sport-ute that rides on 50-series 18-inch tires, goes from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, and reaches a top speed estimated around 145 mph? The public says yes.
Most SUV buyers at least try to convince themselves they'll be going off-road, but that is one thing that you'll have to put on hold with the ML55. Its forte is handling treacherous conditions, and with the addition of the proper winter tires, it will be great on ski trips. But don't take it into the boonies with these thin-walled performance tires. It can be embarrassing walking out of the woods after sticks and rocks rip your tires apart.