NZ exclusive: We test the Mercedes-AMG A45 S, the most powerful hot hatch ever made
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2020 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+
• Comprehensive gains on the old A45
• Incredible engine
• Feels truly premium
• Sports-car price
• Tech sometimes sterilizes the experience
• Rear space
It's 1976, and Volkswagen's engineers look over the first of the Golf GTIs heading out into the wide world. I like to think they knew that the brand had a revolution on its hands; not the world's first 'hot hatch', but at the very least the car that was going to popularise an entire genre.
Their eyes would fall clean out of their sockets if they could see this bright yellow bullet and what the hot hatch segment would become.
The new Mercedes-AMG A45 S feels the beginning of a new ultra-bruising hyper hatch chapter. A large chunk of that stems from its M139 twin-scroll turbocharged 2.0-litre, paired to a new 4MATIC all-wheel drive system (more on this later) and an 8-speed dual clutch transmission. With 310kW/500Nm on tap, it's the most powerful four-cylinder engine ever produced; sporting more power than a Ferrari 360 and more torque than most double-cab utes.
That's 85kW/100Nm more than its AMG A35 sibling, and — crucially — 16kW/20Nm more than the Audi RS3.
The S is the solitary A45 model offered to Kiwis, bringing with it a 270km/h top speed and 3.9-second 0-100km/h acceleration time. It also means a somewhat jaw-dropping $111,000 starting price, with the $7,990 AMG Edition 1 options pack attached to our tester bumping its bottom line to $118,990.
The extent of that price is enough to position the A45 S in the same monetary ballpark as bona-fide sports cars like the BMW M2 Competition, Porsche Cayman, and Chevrolet Camaro. Whether a hatch should be priced against these heavyweights is a conversation that could last forever. I wonder just how many people are truly cross-shopping between the two worlds. Probably not many.
Anyway, there’s a more pressing question here. How can a grocery getting, school-run performing, hatchback possibly put down such a wanton amount of power and torque without snapping in half or simply melting into the pavement?
It isn’t AMG’s first rodeo when it comes to stuffing illogical amounts of grunt into a hatchback of course, and the last-gen A45 was plenty capable of handling its horses. But this new A45 is a new lofty benchmark again.
Twirl the steering-wheel mounted drive-mode adjuster to 'Sports+' or 'Race', plant your left foot on the brake and your right foot on the throttle, and you're greeted with a red flashing tachometer and the words 'Race Start'. Side step the brake, and you're instantly teleported somewhere else.
The way the A45 handles its power off the line and out of corners is an equal parts clinic in brutality and efficiency. The SpeedShift 8-speed is as rapid as you'd expect — arguably more capable left to its own devices rather than when a human takes over via the paddles.
Inattentive passengers will have their heads violently slammed back into the leather buckets, but from the driver's seat it all feels very controlled and predictable. It doesn't matter whether it's a standing straight-line start or a generous hoof out of a slow corner; torque steer struggle is invisible in the little Merc. On public roads, at least.
The 2.0-litre, packed tightly in its engine-bay, is vocal and surprisingly rewarding in higher revs. Peak power hits at an uncharacteristically high 6750rpm ensuring that, despite it offering plenty of grunt down low, there's still reason to explore the rev range. And, all the while, speeds are capable of getting out of hand quite quickly if you're not paying attention.
This is definitely one of those cars where it pays to watch the speedo like a hawk.
Where the last A45 was quite heavy in its front end characteristics, things here are much more light. The A45 masks its weight (1635kg kerb, 2050kg gross) neatly on a Kiwi back-road thanks, in part, to a much friendlier front end. Steering is lighter than you might expect, but remains incredibly precise. Numb? Maybe a little, but electronic steering continues to get more communicative as engineers get smarter. Things certainly feel more lively in here than in its predecessor.
You can tell that AMG’s boffins paid special attention to giving their monstrous creation some kind of personable edge. When gunning down tighter, twistier fare it can feel like you’re controlling the thing with its rear wheels and the accelerator. At certain times it can almost feel rear driven, as the tail swings outwards on corner exits.
The secret weapon that has a finger in all of this is the 4MATIC all-wheel drive system; specifically, the trick AMG Torque Control rear differential. The nerdy, jargon-filled explanation is that the rear axle features two separately acting multi-disc clutches that allow variable distribution of torque depending on things like throttle percentage and speed. The non-nerdy, real world results of this are that the A45 always keenly sends a deluge of power to its outside rear wheel during high-speed cornering.
At medium speeds, this helps with stability. At high speeds, this creates that slightly rear-driven feel mentioned earlier. And, at speeds that should be confined to race tracks, this calls for the AMG Torque Control system's other party trick; Drift Mode. Much like the Ford Focus RS' feature of the same name, it will send even more power to the rear to make this car an on demand, skidding, Michelin-shredding machine.
There's something a little artificial about how the diff makes the car feel in practice. Part of me wonders how much of that is a genuine seat-of-the-pants reading or some kind of anti-placebo ... is my knowledge that the sensation is something created artificially knocking the satisfaction meter down one or two pegs? If someone handed me the keys, told me nothing, and I had more fun, then does it really matter?
Your views on 'Schrödinger's Differential' may vary. After a long day hooning through Waitakere bush it grew on me, but I still can't help but wonder how much fun the 310kW AMG would be to wrestle with without it. Maybe just two drive modes, too, instead of the currently available six.
Sadly for all those thoughts, the reality is electronic variable multi-disc clutches are never going to be front of mind for most A45 owners during the sort of daily commuting that these cars get recruited for. As such, this is an area where it also needs to shine.
Well, being based on the A-Class (a former AA DRIVEN New Zealand Car of the Year winner) helps things significantly. The interior quality is exceptional for a small car, and the dash layout remains a favourite in our team. It even features a much improved version of Mercedes-Benz's 'Hey Mercedes' MBUX interface — one much more capable of interpreting Māori place names (the A35 I drove late last year seemed to barely have a grasp on English, let alone Te Reo).
The trick to deploying complex brake and suspension systems in a hot hatch is an ability for them to adapt to everyday driving as well as the tough stuff.
The enormous six-piston front calipers (paired to 360mm discs up front, one-piston calipers and 330mm discs down back) feel just as comfortable dealing with stop-start traffic as they do when being abused in the pursuit of apexes. The dual-clutch is similarly versatile. Its damping could perhaps be a little more compliant at low speeds, but overall it's much softer for day-to-day usage than what featured in A45s of old.
If I were to be using this as a bonkers family car, my other concern would be the A-Class' oddly shaped rear-door apertures and lack of leg-room. But in a trade-off between the A45's high-revving, agile charms and the space of an AMG GLC43, the former would always be my winner.
The new AMG A45's wild reputation and wilder price inevitably leads to many heated discussions. Hatchback versus sports car, two doors versus four, loaded 2.0-litre versus straight six or V8.
The way I resolved my thoughts on the A45 was to simply appreciate the engineering masterclass under the bonnet. It reiterates that Mercedes-Benz is still an engineering benchmark in its field. Each of these incredible four-cylinder creations is still meticulously hand-built by a single person from start to finish. In our case, this press vehicle's engine proudly signed off by a fellow called Lukas Math.
Looking at his Instagram account, it appears he owns a Volkswagen Golf. Funny that.