BLOWING ROCK, N.C. - The last remaining notion is dying fast that people might actually drive their luxury sport-utilities off-road.
How fast? Try 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, with a top speed of 145 mph. Those are performance numbers for the new Mercedes ML55.
The ML55 is the first entry in a growing new niche within a niche: the high-performance luxury sport-utility. Close behind speed, the ML55 also offers exclusivity. It goes on sale in January in the United States at a suggested retail price of $65,495, including a $595 destination charge.
That is $21,150 higher than the closest M-class model, the ML430. The ML55 also carries a $1,000 gas-guzzler penalty.
The U.S. subsidiary expects to sell about 1,500 ML55s in 2000. After 2000, annual volume is expected to be around 2,000 units. That is about half of expected worldwide volume, Mercedes officials said at a press introduction here. At that price, few people will be tempted to take the ML55 off-road. In fact, Mercedes does not recommend it - at least, not with the original-equipment tires, which are designed for high-speed, on-road performance.
Mercedes will advertise the ML55 as 'the world's fastest sport-utility.' That claim would have sounded like a joke five years ago, but it probably will be hotly contested a couple of years in the future.
The ML55 will face competitors from BMW and Porsche, and probably others yet to be identified. Even so, the ML55's 'world's fastest' claim probably will stand for more than a year - a long time, in terms of advertising hype.
According to Mercedes, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is the next-fastest sport-utility, at just under 8 seconds to go from 0 mph to 60 mph. Next is the Mercedes ML430, by a fraction of a second. The rival Lexus RX 300 is just over 8 seconds.
The BMW X5 has its U.S. debut in November. Like the ML55, its appeal will be strictly on-road performance. But the first version of the X5 will have a smaller V-8 engine than the ML55. In a drag race, the X5 will not seriously threaten the ML55's 0 to 60 mph time. It is a sure bet that BMW will add a high-performance 'M' version of the X5, but BMW's usual practice is to wait a model year or two before adding 'M' versions of new models.
Porsche AG will add its sport-utility in 2002, developed in a joint venture with Volkswagen AG. On the face of it, the Porsche seems like a good candidate to unseat the ML55. Bob Carlson, a spokesman for Porsche Cars North America Inc., said is too early to tell.
Porsche lovers will notice right away that the ML55 borrows a traditional Porsche styling cue: highly visible, bright-red brake calipers, to call attention to the beefed-up brakes. (Some ML55s will have black brake calipers, because the red ones clashed with the body color.) Ken Enders, general manager of product management for passenger cars and light trucks, said Mercedes expects buyers to cross-shop the ML55 and the Porsche 911.
ADS STRESS SPEED
In a press conference here, Mercedes officials previewed the lone TV ad in an upcoming ML55 ad campaign. In the ad, five men with heavy five o'clock shadows shoot themselves out of a giant slingshot. They zoom through the air, with their faces distorted by the acceleration, like those old rocket-sled movies.
That picture switches back and forth with a view of them inside the ML55, blazing down a perfectly straight road. Unlike typical sport-utility advertising, there are no streams to splash through or logs to climb over.
'Never before have five people gone from 0 to 60 mph so fast,' the ad says. That's for sure - at least not in a sport-utility.