Road test: Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG

There’s a new hot hatch on the block to rival VW, Audi et al, Kevin Hackett writes.

The Mercedes A45 AMG transforms the A-Class into the hottest of hot hatches, zooming from standstill to 100kph in 4.6 seconds. Christopher Pike / The National
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See those three little letters on the back of a Merc and usually they’re sat above four fat exhaust pipes that are fed by a whacking great big, turbocharged V8 or V12 engine. They spell out properly mental performance and booming, thoroughly muscular soundtracks that belie the oft understated physical appearance of cars manufactured by the evil geniuses that operate within Mercedes-Benz’s in-house tuning department.

But there’s an upstart in our midst; one that’s practically half the size of most AMGs, in dimensions as well as engine-cylinder count. Yes, to reach a potentially lucrative and much younger demographic than it’s used to dealing with, AMG has entered the small-car fray with a bona fide pocket rocket that’s more 30-something than 50-something.

But instead of going down the normal hot-hatch route with a 280hp, front-wheel-drive handful, it has turned the A-Class into a four-wheel-drive performance champion that doesn’t threaten to torque-steer you off this mortal coil at the first stab of the throttle, despite its frankly ludicrous 360hp and 450Nm output. The world’s most powerful four-cylinder engine for a production car is fitted underneath the bonnet of this little German and, after three days of hard charging in it, I am happy to report that it’s utterly stupendous.

Ignore the silly boy-racer stripes, decals and the stupid rear spoiler on this example and see beneath a car that would neither offend your grandmother nor attract undesired attention from the law. It looks, to all intents and purposes, like any normal A-Class – and that’s a good thing, because it’s one of the prettiest compact cars on the road right now. But once you’ve ignited that engine – hand-built by a single engineer, like any other proper AMG – any thoughts of “pretty” vanish in an instant. It may be a four-pot, but it likes to make its voice heard. A deep-chested rumble is always present but, while it’s not unpleasant, it’s still no sonic match for an M3’s straight-six or the rest of its stablemates’ V8s.

While you’re getting used to such a strange sound emerging from an AMG-monikered automobile, it might be prudent to familiarise yourself with the cabin architecture. The standard A-Class has a fairly sporting interior to begin with, so here it’s a mild tweaking rather than the full overhaul that we normally see on performance variants of hot hatchbacks. There’s a smattering of red stitching and trim on the seats, and the large ventilation orifices that dominate the dashboard are also lined in red. The dash itself is covered in a soft-touch material that impersonates carbon-fibre weave and the steering wheel is thick and chunky to hold. It’s a simple, intuitively designed cabin and incredibly well-screwed together.

On the move, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is an impressively quick machine. To be honest, when a compact car costs as much as this one does, you should expect nothing less, and this diminutive Merc will trounce the establishment at the lights with 100kph coming up from rest in an official 4.6 seconds, although some independent testers have significantly bettered even this blistering time. All out, it will be showing 250kph, unless you opt for the “Driver’s Package”, where the limiter kicks in at 270kph. So yes, it’s fast.

The transmission is a seven-speed, dual-clutch auto and it shifts seamlessly in normal driving situations – but select Sport mode and it sends a satisfying kick through the drivetrain. Drive is sent to the front wheels unless the car detects some loss of traction, whereupon the rears join in and, in extremis, the power is split evenly between both ends. And while that does mean oversteering power slides are difficult to come by, it also means that hard cornering at speed is a doddle, with huge amounts of grip that make for truly rapid progress on sweeping roads.

It’s not particularly delicate when it comes to handling, but the chassis displays taut, polished agility when it matters most and its incredible brakes wipe off enormous amounts of speed in an instant with no histrionics, just plenty of confidence-inspiring retardation. Altogether, it feels in a totally different league to anything that you might associate the term “hot hatch” with.

Natural rivals are Audi’s RS3 and BMW’s M135i, but the AMG outperforms them both. However, you might be wondering why, when the latest Golf GTI is just so incredibly good at everything, almost as thrilling and costs significantly less, you’d ever consider the A45. That’s a question that I can’t answer and, were it my money on the table, I’d probably take the Volkswagen or even a Ford Focus ST over the Merc. But this is a car that will undoubtedly appeal to those younger, well-at-heel buyers who simply want the maddest and the baddest of the lot. For now, this car meets those criteria and then some.

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