What is it?
The new Mercedes A45 AMG, the car most determined to push the boundaries of hatchback performance. To call it a radical departure from the AMG formula is something of an understatement. It’s a transverse-engined hot hatch that directs its power to the front wheels by default and then sends up to 50 per cent of its torque to the rear axle when necessary. Furthermore, its engine is a 2-litre in-line four with a single twin-scroll turbocharger – a far cry from the large-capacity V8s of its stablemates. Prices start at £37,845.
That turbocharged 2-litre petrol engine is hand-built by one man, just like the 6.2-litre V8 in an SLS AMG Black Series or the 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 in an E63. It produces an astonishing 355bhp at 6000rpm and 332lb ft from 2250 to 5000rpm, and drives through the seven-speed AMG Speedshift dual-clutch gearbox. With the help of a launch control system dubbed ‘Race Start’, the A45 scrabbles to 62mph in a claimed 4.6sec, considerably quicker than the process of engaging LC itself.
First, you put the car into Drive and hold it on the brakes. Next you press the stability control button once to engage its Sport mode, then switch the transmission to its manual mode. Now pull back on both steering-wheel gearshift paddles simultaneously until the dash display reads ‘race start available’. Then pull the right paddle again to confirm go, and then floor the throttle and release the brake when you’re ready to blast off.
The result – for us – was a 0-60 time of 4.3sec, with 0-100mph taking 10.6sec, numbers that are near-identical to ones recorded for the V8-powered E92 BMW M3. This accelerative force can be replicated over and over again, and is available despite a chunky kerb weight of 1480kg, some 85kg more than an Audi S3. And if you’re prepared to pay £1940 for the AMG Driver’s Package, the A45 will hurtle all the way to 168mph before the electronic limiter cuts in.
What’s it like to drive?
You start the engine and it booms into life and settles into an oddly flat idle that could only be a four-cylinder engine droning through large-diameter exhaust pipes. It’s ugly but somehow exciting and unapologetically workmanlike. You just know it’s ready to deliver a big brawny punch to your kidneys.
They won’t be the only organs that might get bruised by the A45, however, because the ride is seriously stiff, jiggling and jolting at low speeds so badly that even a Renaultsport Megane Cup owner would baulk at the discomfort. Incredibly, there’s an AMG Performance suspension option that we presume is even stiffer. Needless to say, don’t take it.
But if the bucking ride quality is initially off-putting, the drivetrain is anything but. The twin-scroll turbocharger ensures that the engine isn’t particularly laggy and there’s real fun to be had extending it beyond the richly torquey mid-range, for it seems to gain renewed energy over 5000rpm, and howls to 6500rpm with the ferocity you’d expect from 355bhp, while each upchange of the twin-clutch paddle-shift is accompanied by a bird-scarer bang!
The A45 is blisteringly quick everywhere, especially with the transmission left in the more aggressive Sport auto mode, in which the gearbox sheds ratios in response to even the smallest throttle pressures. But this isn’t a car that gives more than cursory rewards beyond the thrill of pure speed. The steering is heavy and responses are keen, but there’s no encouragement to go and find the massively high limits, let alone try and breach them.
The balance is predominantly mild understeer even when you select the looser AMG Sport ESP mode, which in theory makes the four-wheel-drive system keener to send power rearwards. In low- and medium-speed corners you won’t notice, and it feels like a front-driver with strong traction but without the sense of agility of the best. It’s more exciting through quicker turns, where you can feel the tail start to come into play. But you emerge from it certain it would be a more rewarding car to drive if it had less grip and a chassis that enabled you to explore its limits, even if that meant less straight-line pace.
How does it compare?
Its nearest foes are the rear-drive, 316bhp BMW M135i (priced from £30,570 though £32,700 as an eight-speed automatic equipped five-door to match the A45) and the all-wheel-drive, 296bhp Audi S3 quattro (£30,640 basic/£32,740 as a five-door auto). Both are less powerful than the mad Merc, with more focused M Division and RS3 versions likely in the future, yet they manage to be more involving too. The BMW especially, which alongside the Renault Megane 265, is one of the best hot hatchbacks on sale. At over ten grand cheaper than the A45 in basic trim, the excellent new mk7 VW Golf GTI is worth a look too.
Anything else I need to know?
The Mercedes A45 AMG completes the quarter-mile sprint in 12.8sec at 110.6mph – the former figure 0.1sec closer to our recorded time for the Bugatti Veyron (10.5sec) than the Ford Focus ST (15.2sec). The A45 also has a four-door saloon sibling: Mercedes CLA45 AMG review here.