Beneath the latter’s muscular curves lies tweaks from Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations unit. The ride height for instance has been lowered by 8mm over the Sport for improved road holding. The air suspension has been further tweaked, damper tuning and stiffer bushes sharpening the setup by 20 percent. Even Land Rover’s excellent ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox – carried over from the Sport – has received software upgrades to slice upshift times in half. Up to 10,000km of development was conducted at the Nürburgring to perfect handling, which goes some way to explaining that Ferrari 355 GTB-equalling laptime.
Grip from the 22in Continentals for instance is impressively consistent, the compound altogether more stable than those found on the Sport: though still impressive, these had a tendency to surrender to understeer much earlier when properly leant on than our test model today. Similarly the steering is also heavier and more direct, an endorsement of the precision potential within the chassis and stronger grip at play.
It’s hard to forget though that, SVO tweaks and all, this is still a 2335kg SUV. Throw the SVR into a corner with the same enthusiasm one might with a hatchback and the balance just isn’t there, the build up of momentum and sudden weight transfer overwhelming the wheels under load. Ditch this approach for a smoother, more genteel entry into the corners though and the results will start to react positively. Pouring the momentum into the corner offers a much greater degree of agility, even if the SVR is still a little top heavy. It doesn’t quite perhaps offer the same sharpness as the segment headlining Porsche Cayenne Turbo – though until the twin-test arises, we can only speculate – but through the turns and with a thinking man’s approach, it’s a remarkable accomplishment.
While the drivability has impressed though, the interior has me narked. Gorgeous and modern, absolutely, and with a high ground clearance and softer suspension than the Mercedes, it’s a surprisingly comfortable setup for a Nürburgring record holder. Or it would be were it not for the seats, the new leather construction a multitude of curves, one of which manages to stick itself perfectly between my shoulder blades, and push out. It is not, as you can imagine, particularly convenient.
It’s also through the corners that the Mercedes starts to show its true colours. Boasting something called Active Curve System – active anti-roll bars that stiffen under load – the ML 63 also comes with adaptive dampers, which lower the body at higher road speeds to improve the aerodynamics. The result is a drive that’s good not just for an SUV, but good full stop. Even under extreme provocation through the tighter corners, those adaptive dampers can be felt at work, offering an impressive composure even despite the brutal delivery of that V8 power. The electromechanical steering is also more accurate than either of its rivals, allowing a more energetic corner entry than either the Jeep or Range Rover can – or indeed will – manage.
Coupled with a low centre of gravity and seriously taut suspension arms, there’s very little in the way of body roll into the sharper turns, rather extraordinary for the heaviest behemoth here. Greater cornering ability though has weakened the Mercedes’ ride comfort compared with that in the Jeep. It’s not the end of the world – “there’s a three-point star on the bonnet James” – but there are a few spine-tingling jostles en-route that do make me once again hanker for the Jeep. The seven-speed gearbox also starts to grate. Despite delivering with a wonderfully tangible rock of forward momentum, it is also rather dull-witted: ask for two downshifts in quick succession through the paddles and you’ll be gifted a maddening pause between each one.
Ultimately though, despite the Mercedes’ stellar performance through the turns, it doesn’t quite come out on top. The lunacy required for a muscle SUV is there in droves from an aesthetic point of view and the composure under cornering is also beyond that which could be reasonably expected from a behemoth weighing next to 2.5 tonnes. And yet even despite this, the Mercedes does lack some of the character indicative of its two rivals here today, its V8 power energetic rather than outwardly violent and the soundtrack that goes with it not quite at the same level either. Coupled to that are an agitating gearbox, an occasionally bone-rattling ride and an interior design that’s starting to show its age. It does make the prospect of the next generation ML all the more mouth-watering but doesn’t quite tip the hat in Stuttgart’s direction on this occasion.
Nor does my vote go to the Jeep, despite an admirable showing. The ballistic turns of speed from the Hemi V8 have easily been today’s show stealer and a price tag almost half that of its competition means this alone offers stellar value for money. Similarly ride comfort has somehow – incredibly – bettered that of its more refined German and British rivals and while it may not scream its muscular nature in the same way as the ML 63 or the SVR, it could be argued that the Jeep is also the best looking. Where the package does begin to come unglued though is with the handling. For a vehicle of this size the SRT is no soft-shelled blancmange, yet still it lacks the composure of both the Mercedes and the Range Rover, confidence to really lean into the corners more a mark of the driver himself than the ability of the SRT. Hardly a bad showing for an underdog though…
Which brings us to the Range Rover Sport SVR. Like the Jeep it boasts an aggressive, almost volcanic turns of speed accompanied by a truly sensational soundtrack, and like the Mercedes – as evidenced by its Nürburgring performance – the SVR handles the corners with a greater degree of delicacy than the Sport on which it is based. Adapt your driving style as applicable and the speed the SVR is capable of taking through the corners is scintillating. It may not be able to outhandle the Mercedes on the twisties, and might not exude the same sense of character as the Jeep, but as an all-rounder the SVR leaves its opponents standing.
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