Seduction begins with flirtation and denial, and often ends in capitulation. The amount of guilt in surrender declines in direct proportion to damage done to conscience; and that often depends on the amount of pleasure derived from the affair.

More pleasure yields more rationalization, which yields more harm to the conscience.

It is the story of the ages, but that is no excuse. Father, forgive me, for I have sinned.

Here's how: A 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG sport-utility vehicle arrived in my driveway. Its body was muscular. Its interior was sumptuous. Chrome circled gauges with white analog faces. The steering wheel was a work of walnut wood and leather, a theme carried throughout the passenger cabin.

Everything about the ML55 said "excess." But I was smitten.

I put the key into the ignition, feeling a mixture of shame and glee. I gave it a twist. Oh, my! The ML55 AMG's 342-horsepower V8 roared to life. I kept the electronically controlled, five-speed automatic transmission in "Park," content to feel the engine's vibrations and listen to its growl.

But the vehicle wanted more. "Drive me," it said. I complied, and left my Northern Virginia home en route to the District of Columbia, where I was greeted with thumbs-up signs from sinners, and frowns from saints.

The sinners were wearing leather and driving sport-utility vehicles. Many saints were wearing cloth coats and sitting behind the wheels of cars like, well, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

What can I say? The sinners were more interesting. I enjoyed their company; but I didn't enjoy the District's congested roads. I re-crossed the Potomac River en route to God's country, Virginia's beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

It was a fateful decision.

The ML55 AMG moves fast. It goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 6.8 seconds. That is to be expected from anything engineered by Mercedes-AMG GmbH, the high-performance and racing arm of Mercedes-Benz. But it is not normal for something that is supposed to be a sport-utility vehicle. It's pure showboat, libidinous stuff. I didn't care. I acted the fool, ripping along selected back roads, grinning, kicking up lots of dust and having a good time.

I had erased every trace of guilt, and was feeling giddy with self-gratification, until I pulled into an Interstate 66 rest stop near Manassas.

There was a woman there, a sweet, grandmotherly type sitting in the front passenger's seat of an aging Ford Crown Victoria. I parked the dusty ML55 AMG next to her.

"I hate those things," she said, as I exited the vehicle. "Just tearing up the countryside, ruining everything."

Her face reminded me of Sister Vincent, Sister Irene, Sister Paul Mary, Holy Ghost and Blessed Sacrament nuns who taught me in my youth. Her eyes seemed to say, "Warren, you know better. What's the matter with you? What are you doing?"

She was still sitting in the parked Crown Vic when I returned from the restroom. She smiled. Guilt flowed like muddy water. I returned home, in the right lane, driving at 55 mph.

NUTS & BOLTS; 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG

Complaints: That woman was right. There is no need, let alone justification, for a sport-utility vehicle that weighs 4,653 pounds, clears the ground by 8.4 inches, and moves as fast as a Porsche. Mercedes-Benz has done much to improve the safety of its sport-utility models, including making them less dangerous in crashes with smaller vehicles. But the over-the-top performance of the ML55 AMG seems to negate those good intentions.

Praise: That woman was wrong. There is something intrinsically beautiful about nearly flawless peak performance. It is a work of art, as much as ballet well done. Such beauty need not reside in conflict with nature. Instead, it can be viewed as a celebration of nature, at least that part of it that flows from man's genius. (Hmph. That doesn't work, does it?)

Head-turning quotient: Aggressive, high and mighty with a slight nod toward vulgarity.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Aces all around. In fact, the ML55 AMG is far more "sport" than it is "utility."

Engine: A 5.5-liter, 24-valve (two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder) V8 designed to produce 342 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and a whopping 376 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm.

Capacities: Seats five people. Carries up to 85.4 cubic feet of cargo (with middle seats down). Holds 19 gallons of recommended premium unleaded. Can be equipped to pull a trailer weighing 5,000 lbs.

Mileage: About 14 miles per gallon.

Price: Base price is $64,900. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $60,357. Estimated price as tested is $68,685, including an estimated $3,190 in federal luxury taxes and a $595 transportation charge. Estimate does not include local taxes and fees.

Purse-strings note: Are you kidding? Get outta here. Happy New Year!

Join Warren Brown tomorrow at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/ liveonline for "Real Wheels," his live discussion about cars.