The Mercedes-Benz A-Class has never been a car to excite the enthusiast driver. The AMG-engineered A45 4MATIC model comprehensively rewrites those rules. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
With all-wheel drive and a massive 381bhp power output, the improved AMG-engineered A45 4MATIC suer-hatch is the giant killer we'd been waiting for from Mercedes-Benz. If you want a devastatingly quick hatchback that can do it all, this is where you should start your search.
There's never been a Mercedes quite like the AMG-enineered A45 4MATIC. It arrived in 2013 as flagship to the rejuvenated third generation A-Class line-up and offered 355bhp, four wheel drive and performance that stunned previous class-leading super-hatches like the Volkswagen Golf R. Now it's been improved, with power up to an even headier 381bhp. "We never rest on our laurels, but constantly strive to develop our products further," says Tobias Moers, Chairman of Mercedes-AMG GmbH. "The A45 still had so much improvement potential that we felt compelled to realise it to the full. Our brand claim simply obliges us to."
As before, this car throws down a challenge that's tough to answer. Mercedes has redefined the hot hatch in its own form.
Of course, there will be some who accuse Mercedes of little originality. A small, expensive, German hatch that directs over 350bhp through all four wheels is, to many, an Audi RS3. That may well be the case, but if there's one thing that Mercedes has discovered in its competition with Audi, and indeed BMW, it's that there's usually space in the market for all three brands, as they all have different buyer profiles. This A45 is a niche sell for sure, but that's only because of its price. Any petrolhead worth their salt would want to get behind the wheel of this one.
It's technically intriguing. The engine is a version of the 1991cc four-cylinder powerplant that's found in the humbler A250 model, but so much has been changed to reliably achieve that 381bhp power output and 475Nm of torque - more than a Porsche 911 Carrera S. There are two radiators instead of one, a larger intercooler and variable-vane turbocharger, plus the exhaust system is uprated and features a 'loud' mode. The suspension gets firm springing, meaty fixed-rate dampers and big anti-roll bars. Plus it's all finished off with reassuringly huge brakes, a wide track, and gumball 235/35YR-19 tyres.
The steering features firm bushings offering strong feedback. The transmission is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic which has been tweaked to offer quicker shift times and aggressive automatic shift modes. The AMG 4MATIC all-wheel drive system directs up to 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheel to ensure a playful bias to the car's handling and guarantees a rapid getaway. The 62mph benchmark comes and goes in just 4.2s on the way to 62mph (nearly half a second quicker than before) en route to an electronically limited 155mph maximum, although some markets get an option of a 175mph top end. New for this improved version is a 'DYNAMIC SELECT' driving modes system borrowed from the AMG-GT sportscar, with "Comfort", "Sport", "Sport +" and "Individual" settings. An option is the 'AMG DYNAMIC PLUS package that also includes the 'AMG RIDE CONTROL' sport suspension.
Design and Build
The styling changes that differentiate the A45 model from its standard range stablemates are actually quite subtle. Too subtle perhaps, bearing in mind that there's already an AMG Sport trim level available for the ordinary A-Class models that ramps the aggression up several notches. Still, if you know what you're looking for, you'll recognise this car's "twin blade" radiator grille and the cross strut in the front apron, both painted in matt titanium grey. Black 'flics' surround the large cooling air intakes at the sides. From the side, you'll spot the light-alloy wheels in a twin-spoke design and the side sill panels with inserts in matt titanium grey. The rear apron with its highlighted air outlet openings at the sides features a diffuser insert and trim in matt titanium grey. Two square, chrome-plated tailpipes of the sports exhaust system finish the rear end appropriately.
Jump inside and you're bound to like the sports seats in Artico man-made leather and Dinamica microfibre. It's not some cheap leather-alike finish either. This feels like leather and is extremely hardwearing. The steering wheel gets red contrasting top-stitching, while the dashboard trim is finished in a somewhat cheesy carbon-fibre look, one of the rare off-keys. A classier touch are the SLS-style air vents in black/red, the red seat belts and the AMG door sill panels. The instrument cluster presents information by means of a central colour display with a race timer mode.
Market and Model
The A45 gets a specially-tuned ESP stability control system with three modes; On, 'Sport Handling' and Off. Jump onto the brakes in either of the latter modes and the full ESP protection kicks back in. There's also an additional function called 'ESP Curve Dynamic Assist' that nips the brakes on the inside rear wheel to increase agility through bends.
It also gets a radar-based collision warning system. Working with Adaptive Brake Assist, which lowers the risk of rear-end collisions, the Collision Prevention Assist system gives a visual and acoustic warning to alert a distracted driver to identified obstacles and prepares Brake Assist for the most precise braking response possible. This is initiated as soon as the driver steps firmly on the brake pedal. It's all very clever but like the best technology, doesn't impose itself until it's actually needed.
Options that buyers might like to consider include 19-inch wheels, a carbon-fibre exterior package, the Night package with black trimmings, AMG Performance seats and the AMG Performance suspension set-up, which delivers an even more focused ride and handling balance.
Cost of Ownership
You might need to keep some self-control when faced with the options list if you're not to put the kibosh on residual values. BMW and Audi have both realised that their super high performance smaller cars tend to be in big demand on the used markets, despite being relatively expensive to run in terms of fuel and other consumables. Mercedes bills this engine 'the most powerful series production four-cylinder engine in the world' and while the old Mitsubishi Evo in FQ-400 or the Subaru Impreza in SC400 guise were both more powerful, they're no longer with us, so for a likely brief period, that's a valid claim. It's also surprisingly efficient as well.
Whereas both of those aforementioned cars would be lucky to see 20mpg on a good day with a favourable slope and a following wind, Mercedes claims an average fuel economy figure of 40.9mpg for the A45. Clearly this figure will head south if you use the throttle pedal as intended, but it's hard to argue with the 162g/km emissions figure. Insurance cover may well be a different matter.
It wasn't so very long ago that a sporty Mercedes A-Class sounded like some sort of industry in-joke. This was a car that just didn't do sporty at all. That all changed with the introduction of the third-generation car, which furnished Mercedes with a platform to go stalking the likes of BMW and Audi. The A45 4MATIC model has managed to do just that and this uprated version's higher 381bhp output should enable it to continue to offer a strong challenge to cars like Audi's RS3. Everything's been beautifully engineered, from the AMG 4MATIC four-wheel drive system to the seven-speed twin-clutch gearchange and the fiendishly clever multi-mode ESP stability control system: it all combines to offer the driver time and space to act.
This is automotive evolution happening before us, the distillation of everything Mercedes knows about performance cars into one small package. It's all there. The hand-built AMG engine, the manic performance balanced with class-leading safety systems. An interior that looks as if you've spent over £50,000 on your car. All-weather ability that leaves the rest standing. If you want the ultimate hot hatch and can afford this one, then you have to consider it.