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Mercedes A45 AMG versus VW Golf R

  1. Drive to the end of Gas Works Road, dodge around the back of the Birds Eye processing plant and park by the concrete sea defences. Get out of the car, nod at the two council workers up to not much at all in their Transit and glance up and down one of the sorriest seafront stretches in the whole of the UK. You don’t come to an industrial port for the views. You come here for the plinth, the one that states this place at the arse end of a Lowestoft industrial estate is Britain’s most easterly point. It’s somehow fitting that the flat, concrete disc was placed there by an oil company. 

    For us, this is the start of a quest to drive across the breadth of the UK solely on B-roads, from here (52.48N, 01.76E) to Aberystwyth way over on the far side of Wales and handily just 0.07 of a degree more northerly in latitude. Between these two coastal points lie the Broads, the Fens, the Midlands, the borders and the hills and valleys of Wales – a geographical cross section through Great Britain, replete with a fat catalogue of B-roads of every size, shape, width, surface, angle, camber and lumpiness.

    Pictures: Howard Simmons 

    This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Top Gear magazine 

  2. B-roads are where we crown our heroes. They’re levellers, roads that punish excessive width and insufficient ground clearance, where too much power is sometimes a bad thing. They reward response and agility, visibility and traction. They are hot-hatch and rally-replica roads, and today they will echo to the sounds of not one of those types, but, well, both. Meet the brand-new VW Golf R. It has a vertical tailgate signalling its membership of the shopping class. It also has the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine de rigueur for any hot hatch worth its pedigree. And it comes with that rallying essential, four-wheel drive.

    Lined up next to it is its most direct rival, the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG. Ditto on all counts. They’re not created completely equal, of course. The Golf develops 296bhp and 280lb ft all the way from 1,800 to 5,500rpm; the A45 boasts a thunderous 355bhp and 332lb ft available anywhere between 2,250 and 5,000rpm. The Golf is 60kg lighter. 

  3. Both have double-clutch gearboxes, the Merc’s seven speeds outstripping the VW’s to the tune of one. Both have rear axles that are decoupled under light loads to improve efficiency, but while the AMG can only send a maximum of 50 per cent of torque rearwards, the R’s fifth-generation Haldex system can send everything to the back. Quite what sort of a mess you’d have to get yourself into for that to be the case I’m not sure, but it sounds good. 

    It’s certainly not a situation we happen across on the B1074 or B1136 (and to answer an inevitable question, yes, we did touch the occasional A-road. The only other way across the River Waveney on the Norfolk Broads would have been a boat). Norfolk, once outside of Lowestoft, turns out to be a genteel, pastoral place, a Constable painting come to life. The village of Seething seems ill-named, and the A45 strikes an incongruous sight. Blame the newly fitted rear wing. This does offset the visual weight of the nose, but – matched with black paint and wheels – appears capable of striking fear into the local populace, most of whom are of a Honda Jazz persuasion. The Golf is more acceptable – the body shape is more familiar, less contentious, the paintwork is Tory blue and the wheels shiny as a new pin. You could drive it while wearing a tie, and it wouldn’t be out of keeping. A tie-wearer driving the Merc would almost certainly have it wrapped around their head.

  4. B-roads 1527, 1113, 1077 and 1108 sweep us west, south of Norwich, north of Thetford Forest to Methwold. Neither car has yet raised so much as a sweat. Traffic has been light, but barring the odd tempting bend, the roads haven’t been alluring enough to really whet the appetite. We’re also struggling with navigation. Time spent plotting, planning and uploading on the Garmin website is time wasted if you forget the charge lead for the satnav… 

    Handily, the Golf turns out to have an excellent nav system. The haptic touchscreen is superfast, but better still is the My Tours function. Just tap in the name of each village, drag them into order and off you go – the R seems to have an instinctive intuition for the way you want to go, routing you down B-roads where the A45 is always rerouting to A-roads. For this reason, the Golf is leading when we reach the Fens. It’s a strange, bleak landscape here, the roads raised above agri-industrial fields, all rather George Orwell, with names to match: Ten Mile Bank, Hundred Foot Drain, Ramsey Forty Foot. 

  5. The roads jag and jar across this flat, sunken, depressing plain – electricity pylons and tall rushes the only things standing in the path of the mean east wind. But the roads aren’t all straight. Nor are they level. In fact, the sump-scarred surfaces here are the worst we encounter anywhere. By miles. There’s a section somewhere – I’ve honestly put it out of my mind – which is so ridged and lumpen, it kangaroos the Golf so viciously my backside leaves the seat. Behind, I watch the A45 plough into the same section and… cope. Hmm. 

    Truth be told, the Golf R rides pretty firmly. You don’t notice it too much because it does everything else so professionally. The action of the throttle, gearbox and steering are sharp and accurate; everything you interact with is delightfully predictable – it’s a car that places no demands on you whatsoever and is good enough in many areas to distract you from its weaknesses. But the ride is sharp. Not aggressively so, but it lacks the damping finesse to really take the sting out of roads such as the B1096. 

  6. But by that stage, we’re nearly out of the Fens and onto the B660. This is one of the 
great B-roads. Running from a little way south of Peterborough all the way down to Bedford, it somehow manages to dodge most villages as it weaves and carves along. Like many great B-roads, it contains surprises of the “Why on earth did they put a bend there?” variety, and is well-sighted and therefore quick. If we clarified one thing on this trip, it’s that progress is not only more entertaining on a B-road, but often faster than on a single-carriageway A-road where everyone travels at 45mph line-astern. Please note, from previous experience, I know this does not apply in the parts of Britain where they favour high hedgerows or dry-stone walls. Yes, Cornwall and Cumbria, we’re looking at you. 

    Both cars lap up the B660, allowing them to reveal their own character traits. The Golf, as expected, is the tidy sock drawer type. It’s efficient, ordered and incredibly rapid. It has less turbo lag, and works its chassis very evenly. The Merc has a looser grip on itself. There’s a bit more slack around the straight-ahead of the steering, a hint of torque-steer, a gearbox that hands out downshifts only when it’s good and ready. Drive it at 6/10ths, and it’s not really too bothered. Heap a couple more tenths on, and it’s suddenly all there. 

     

  7. The Golf’s coolness under pressure had it in a points lead until we hit the B660. By the time we turn off it at Kimbolton, the A45’s exhilaration has put it fully back into contention. So, lessons learnt: don’t leave the Merc’s gearbox in Comfort (it’s too sleepy), don’t meander around at low revs (the turbo takes an age to get going) and don’t guide it gently into corners (it’ll feel dull and nosey). 

    Unfortunately, we’ve learnt these lessons just as evening rush hour is looming on the most tedious leg of our journey: the Midlands. None of the B-roads seem to go in the right direction to start with, so we’re on minor roads picking a route south of Northampton and Daventry, before linking up with the B4100 near Gaydon. The Golf is better at this sort of stuff. Its more traditional hatchback packaging means it’s easier to see out of. It’s a taller, more upright car. You sit deep within the A-Class, hemmed in by pillars and narrow windscreen, and while the A45 has the more design-led cabin, it’s the Golf that feels better-built and, in places, from better materials. It also has a set of standard-fit xenons that reflect so vividly off distant signposts it’s almost blinding. 

  8. The B4100 and B4455 are fast, straight roads, the latter tracing the route of the 2,000-year-old Fosse Way. Traffic then blights the B4086 into Stratford-upon-Avon and the B439 out the far side and despite the best efforts of these cars, after 270 miles we’re getting tired. To be fair, I can’t think of another type of car that might have coped better with the stresses imparted by the thousands of corners and millions of bumps we must have dealt with today. Both do the daily grind stuff with aplomb, although the Golf’s seat is firm and could do with a few more planes of adjustment and the Merc’s lazier manners did give us a few nerve-racking moments pulling out of junctions. Highlights so far? The A45’s thumping engine (plus its associated noises) and the Golf’s security and handling balance. VW is winning the efficiency war so far, with 24.6mpg playing 22.9mpg.

    Spirits are high the next day. There are precisely three towns of noteworthy size in over 100 miles of B-road between here and Aberystwyth: Tenbury Wells, Presteigne and Rhayader. Fewer towns mean less traffic means more fun. The B4204 is wide enough in places to pass for an A-road, but beyond Martley reverts to type, as it rises and falls with the knotted countryside. We stage a diversion to Shelsley Walsh hill climb because, well, because we want to. It’s a crisp bright morning, and diversions such as this are automotive pilgrimages – later, we’ll do the same to the Phil Price Rally School. 

  9. The B4204 has been a belter, staying high on the crest of the hills with wonderful open views, a flowing third- and fourth-gear road that’s helped both cars shine. It’s been smooth enough not to upset the Golf and has allowed the A45’s punchiness to come to the fore. It does make the best set of noises of any four-cylinder: downshifts come with a flurry of soft backfires, and full throttle upshifts a hard crackle. OK, so it all happens at the exhaust end, but at least the sound is more genuine than the heavily synthesised Golf’s, which seems unable to decide whether it’s pretending to be a flat-four or a V6. 

    But that’s not enough to put us off the car. We’re having such a good time as we cross into Wales that we actually tab on an extra loop, sampling the B4355 as well as the B4356. We spend some time on the wonderful bit between Felindre and Dolfor, driving both cars back and forth, starting to finalise opinions. The Golf is the sharper, more responsive car. It seems to bring the rear axle into play sooner, has delightfully even-handed, well-managed traction and faster engine response, allowing it to pull out the hard yards from tight corners before the Merc’s hefty turbo spools up. It’s deft and neat, has sharper, more wristy steering and a pointy front end. You can really hustle it, and it’ll stay poised and eager. 

  10. The Merc requires more trust because it’s less instantly reactive. Here, it’s all about controlling the nose, keeping the weight on under braking, getting on the power early (both really relish a bit of left-foot braking, right-foot throttle if you’re up for it – the Merc’s stoppers are less grabby, too), surfing the wave of torque. The Merc’s nose is more supple – there’s a bit of roll there, a hint of softness and delay, which is great for absorbency on bumpy roads, but means it doesn’t pick out a line as cleanly as the R or dive into corners with quite the same alacrity. 

    But the A45 also has brilliant seats to go with that coupe driving environment and, perhaps more fundamentally, a naughtier vibe about it. While the Golf is Peter Perfect, the A45 is Taz the Tasmanian Devil, a roaring, yelping, spinning nutjob that you hang on to, knowing you’re going to have a good time.

  11. Put it this way: when we wanted to do a jump shot on the glorious mountain road beyond Rhayader, we choose the Golf because we knew it wouldn’t do anything nasty, but driving home that night, I was in the A45. It’s the car that more accurately channels the legacy of that earlier generation of 4WD heroes, the Evos and Imprezas. It’s a car that wants you to stay on the gas all the time, and only really comes alive when you do, engine chomping at cold air above 5,000rpm, rear axle finally getting involved. 

  12. Special mention for the stability control systems in both cars (which have barely ever needed to get involved) and another, more perplexed nod for the Merc’s standard tyre pressures, which are a whopping 10psi higher at the front than the back. Strange. Today’s fuel results don’t go the Merc’s way, either, the A45 AMG having averaged a frankly distressing 16.9mpg to the R’s 19.4mpg. 

  13. We finally roll into Aberystwyth at 5.15pm, having covered 406 miles on our B-road journey across Britain. Best road? Probably the one that wasn’t a B-road at all, the mountain road from Rhayader. But, to be fair, every B-road we touched was worth discovering – they’re just endlessly inventive, fascinating ways of getting around, demanding more of you and the car than bigger roads, but rewarding way, way more in return. Best car? You could pull that one both ways. 

     

  14. In the end, although I enjoyed the Mercedes more in extremis, I’m giving the nod to the Golf, not least because it’s nearly £7,000 cheaper and just as fast across country. And the journey itself? Well, parked up on Aberystwyth’s beachfront as the sun drops cleanly into the sea, we conclude that South Marine Terrace makes a much better end point than Gas Works Road.

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