Secondhand Gems: $50K Fast Sport Utes

By Christopher Smith

March 15, 2011

High-performance sport utility vehicles are a lot like veggie burgers. Yes, they can be tasty, but the whole time there’s this sense that the meal is trying to be something it’s not, which of course, is the exact truth. That doesn’t automatically mean the feast is destined to be a bad experience, just don’t take a bite expecting it to taste like a medium-rare hamburger.

For beefy SUVs, this creates something of a dilemma. First, you have the segment of enthusiasts who’ve tasted the blood of purebred performance machines. They might get a kick out of a 5000-pound people mover, but the whole time they’ll be thinking how much more fun they could be having if this engine were in something half the size. Second, you have the segment that has never sampled the graces of a superbly balanced cornering machine, yet desire the naughty nature of something that can suck wet leaves off the pavement. They’re a rare breed, but they exist. Finally, you have the affluent drivers who’ve pretty much done everything; they can afford to have a purebred car, the steroid-popping sport ute, and probably about a dozen other cars just for the fun of it. They’re also a rare breed, especially in today’s post-econolyptic society.

Point being, these are high-dollar, niche vehicles for a continually shrinking slice of the automotive pie. It’s hard to justify more than $50,000 for a used vehicle that’s not an investment or a specialty weekender, so that’s where we’ll set our price point. A performance benchmark of 400 horsepower should deliver plenty of straight-line thrust, and with the filters in place we find three well-qualified candidates to vie for the title of most politically incorrect muscle SUV. If that sounds like a whole bunch of fun, you’ve come to the right place.

2007 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG
Back when the ML63 AMG was just a name mentioned in leaked corporate emails, there was some concern that AMG’s reputation for brutal performance might be compromised by this two-ton SUV. Then news of the 503-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8 emerged, and the concern was no more. It’s the drag race champion of this comparison, ripping 60 miles per hour in the mid-four-second range, and tripping quarter-mile lights a couple ticks over thirteen seconds. That’s fast for a modern muscle car, never mind a machine with actual ground clearance, comfortable seating for five adults, room for the family dog, and enough space in surplus to pick up a vintage Pac Man machine at the local flea market. The ML63 is even more surprising on the other end of the accelerometer, thanks to front brakes larger than the wheels on many modern compact cars. Because of this, it can actually pull up quicker than said compact cars—seriously impressive for something of this heft.

We wish the same could be said for the ML63’s handling prowess, which isn’t so much with the prowess. Actually, it hangs on quite well for its size, though we’d prefer to have less of the hanging on and more of the gripping confidently. Body roll is a bit excessive, and understeer is rather prevalent in virtually any situation not involving a straight line, and though it’s a product of AMG, driver feedback isn’t as communicative as we’d like to have in something that can move this quick. Nor are we particularly impressed with the seven-speed gearbox, which seems to do its job just fine, but so does the five-speed box of the yet-to-be named victor. Aside from a minor bump in fuel mileage (which is generally a moot point among shoppers in this segment anyway), we simply don’t see the point of having so many cogs.

In many ways, sitting behind the wheel of the ML during aggressive driving is like watching pro football from a luxury suite. It’s comfortable and luxurious, it gives you a great taste of the action, and one can’t help but feel like a big shot among the plebian fans forced to sit on plastic seats and bump elbows with drunken strangers. The downside is that it also muffles the noise and keeps you muted to the action taking place just in front of you, which isn’t a big deal until Chris Johnson busts out a 60-yard touchdown run and jumps into the stands to celebrate. Sure, you can watch the series of 35-mph switchbacks from a comfortable distance, but in the ML63, you’re better off just waiting for another straightaway.

2008 Porsche Cayenne GTS
Since many of you are probably wondering why the 405-horsepower GTS is listed here instead of the 500-horsepower turbo, the answer is simple: price. Actually, it’s not that simple. Step back to 2006 and you can pick up the turbo for around 50 large, but folks with that kind of money to invest in a vehicle aren’t generally interested in a four-year-old SUV that has likely been (and likely will be) used as a daily driver. Plus, the GTS sports the slightly revamped exterior styling normally reserved for the turbo, and it also offers a six-speed manual gearbox that comes with a clutch pedal and everything. For those of us who refuse to get behind the wheel without donning leather driving gloves, exchanging horsepower for manual gear selection is a worthy sacrifice.

Of course, 405 horsepower is still nothing to scoff at. Even saddled with the Cayenne’s 5000-plus-pound curb weight, this machine gobbles 0-60 in roughly five and a half seconds with the stick. If that sounds suspiciously close to the times posted by the half-price Subaru Forester XT from last month’s Gems review, you’d be right. The Cayenne, however, doesn’t require a merciless clutch drop to achieve these figures, and it doesn’t stop pulling until roughly 160 mph.

That alone might not be worth an extra $25,000, but listening to the Cayenne’s silky V-8 makes up half that amount all on its own. The handling characteristics account for the rest, lowered and stiffened as they are. We have to give the Stuttgart crew some credit here—driver feedback is exceptional, body roll is minimal, cornering grip is on par with many sports cars hauling half the Cayenne’s heft, and though it still feels heavy, the weight is nonetheless managed quite well. Confidence behind the wheel is really the limiting factor here, and that’s not entirely the Porsche’s fault. Coercing two tons of Cayenne to change direction will never be as effortless as flipping the wheel of a Lotus Elise, but our hang-ups tend to be mental, as in can this thing really take a 25-mph bend at 50? That’s an experience not to be taken lightly, and to be honest, we’re not sure if we could ever get used to it. But it sure would be fun to try.

2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Sitting next to the rounded love-it-or-hate-it styling of the Porsche or the downright sinister stance of the Benz, the SRT8 seems more like the rowdy uncle bringing strippers to a quiet dinner party. Its squared-off proportions and SRT add-ons appeal to our sense of how a muscular machine should look, and who doesn’t like twin exhaust pipes exiting the center of the rear bumper? The squarish treatment doesn’t carry over quite as refreshing inside, with controls and instrumentation neatly tucked into their own cubicles. That’s not to say being inside the SRT8 is detestable—it’s easily a pleasant atmosphere in which to exist on a daily basis for sure—but compared to the two Germans sharing this space, the SRT8 may as well be lined with a plastic shower curtain.

The thing is, none of that really matters to us. What does matter is the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 producing 420 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque the old fashioned way—with a single camshaft, pushrods, a handful of valves, and a Chuck Norris-spec iron block. The Hemi is fairly low-tech as far as modern engines are concerned, which only illustrates just how capable Detroit engineering can be when all the right buttons are pushed. There is one technological exception worth mentioning—the exhaust system on the SRT8 employs a flux capacitor, literally opening a rift in the space-time continuum to sample actual 426 Hemi engine sounds from 1969. How else can we explain the mind-warping tunnel vision we get from flooring the accelerator? And when that happens, even the 503-horsepower ML63 needs to bring its A-game to the party, because ye old Jeep will generally run door-to-door with the Benz despite a rather significant horsepower deficit. Chalk that up to a 400-pound difference in curb weight between the two, and though we feel odd calling a 4700-pound SUV a light-weight, in this particular company the SRT8 is exactly that.

The reduced mass also makes a difference in how the Jeep handles. For starters, it actually does handle, and though its live axle can get a bit hairy when pushed on rougher roads, the overall stability and responsiveness of the SRT8 is quite impressive. Body roll is handled reasonably well, grip levels are high, and despite a fairly numb steering feel, diving through corners (smooth corners) isn’t so bad. Neither are the big fourteen-inch Brembos up front, which deliver the Jeep back from warp speed with outstanding pedal feel. It doesn’t clamp as hard as the Porsche or Benz, but it still has the ability to detach retinas.

These aren’t the reasons why we like the SRT8 over the rest. Once again, it comes back to price, and though all these vehicles can be had for $50,000 or less, the Jeep was actually $50,000 when new. We dug up a slightly used (10,000 miles) 2010 Grand Cherokee SRT8 on eBay Motors for just $40,000, with other slightly older models commonly fetching around $30,000. The ML63 and the Cayenne GTS are superb sport-utility performers, but are they worth an extra $10,000 to $20,000, not to mention an additional couple years of use? Not according to our slide rule.

Whether or not this segment has a future in a cash-strapped, climate-changing world remains to be seen. The SRT8 is on hiatus for 2011 but scheduled to return in 2012 with even more power. BMW and Land Rover recently unveiled new muscle movers of their own (both far too expensive for this comparo), and the Cayenne Turbo is now a 550-horsepower sumo wrestler with a skyrocketing six-figure price tag to match. Perhaps there’s a future for these macho machines after all, and that is just fine with us.