Ollie Marriage 12 June 2013

First drive: the new Mercedes A45 AMG

It’s the second hot Merc of the day: but is it any better than its CLA cousin? Ollie Marriage reports

Mercedes A45 AMG

So, you’re not blown away by the CLA 45 AMG. Why should the A45 be any different?

Because it’s been tweaked. Admittedly not by much, but the A receives marginally stiffer damper settings and uprated spring rates, plus a slightly noisier exhaust – it was felt that the rear passengers in the CLA would want a quieter experience. And then there were the options fitted to our test car – these made perhaps the more significant difference.

Which options exactly?

The £510 Performance exhaust and the £765 Performance suspension. About the only options worth having – although we’d be very tempted by the £1790 Mountain Grey Magno matt paint which looks particularly good when combined with the 19-inch black alloys – an inch larger and another £970 over standard. We’d also have to have the £570 Alcantara steering wheel. So there you go – the perfect A45 costs £37,845 plus £4,605, equals £42,450. You might have other ideas of course…

And can I indulge them?

Of course, but they will cost. The Aero Package (big rear wing etc) is £1,530, the exterior carbon fibre trim pack is £2,550, but in the UK we do get the infinitely superior sports seats as standard. And climate control and DAB and Bluetooth and parking sensors. Sat nav is only £495, too.

See more pictures of the new Mercedes A45 AMG on track

OK, enough spec stuff, tell me about the car.

Well, it’s AMGs first hot hatch, the first time it’s tinkered with a four cylinder in its 45 year history. The 2.0-litre turbo features direct injection and a single twin-scroll turbo. It’s amazingly clean – just 161g/km and 40.9mpg – and is Euro6 compliant, regs that don’t come into effect for another four years. But you don’t want to know that, you want to know that it has 354bhp at 6,000rpm and 332lb ft from 2,250rpm to 5,000rpm. From just 2.0 litres. AMG is claiming it’s got the highest ‘power density’ – i.e. bhp per litre of any current production engine – and 178bhp per litre is a suitably dazzling number.

It certainly takes the hot hatch to places not even the 276bhp Astra VXR can reach…

It does, and it copes with those forces because it’s able to distribute them between all four wheels via a seven-speed double clutch gearbox, some nifty electrics and new anti-roll bars, steering knuckles, springs and dampers. There is a but, though. The rear wheels can only take a maximum of 50 per cent of the torque and in normal driving the rear wheels are decoupled completely to boost efficiency. As soon as any slip is detected a clutch in the rear axle activates and brings the 4wd into action. It does this very well, because you’re never aware of any torque steer or unruliness from the front wheels. Even nailing the throttle mid-corner doesn’t upset the balance in the system – it’s very smooth reacting.

And that makes it fast, I assume?

Ridiculously. Even leaving aside the behaviour of the 4wd system, the chassis itself is wonderfully composed. We tried both normal and optional sports suspension versions and both are very effective – with the small caveat that I suspect the firmer sport might be too much in the UK. Both, however, give the A-Class a focus and appetite for corners that is lacking somewhat in the CLA. The A is sharper, more accurate, hungrier to punt you down the road at maximum attack velocities. Just make sure you’ve switched the gearbox out of Comfort mode – it’s way too sleepy otherwise. Ideally you’ll also have toned down the traction control as doing so also encourages the 4wd system to send more power to the back.

See more pictures of the new Mercedes A45 AMG on track

And then it grips and goes, right?

Right. Compact and agile (despite a 1530kg kerbweight), I reckon this might just be the quickest AMG of all on a country road. You have to keep the turbo on the boil, and that’s made harder by the chasm in the ratios between third and fourth, but there’s enough torque to fill the gap and the grip and balance is outstanding. It’s less nose-led than an Audi RS3 and although it’ll never indulge the notion of oversteer (unless you go mad on a race track – see pics…), it also resists understeer almost totally. The grip is exceptional and there’s enough communication through the chassis that you always know where you are with it and how much more you can push.

What about that old chestnut, steering feel?

It’s an electrically-assisted set-up so there’s no pure feel, but the weighting and accuracy is enough to help. The brakes are strong, really strong and the gearchange for the most part is rapid and prompt. There’s little to stem the flow of speed or get in the way of you enjoying it. And if you have the sports exhaust you get a soundtrack, too.

A proper soundtrack?

Well, given the aural attributes of AMGs V8’s, no. The noise here is almost exclusively from the exhaust, but it’s enough, with plentiful crackling pops and raspy whooshes. Synthesised, but that’s the way things are. You must have it, though – it’s the key option that makes the A45 AMG feel as sporting as it should.

So otherwise it isn’t that sporting?

No, it’s just that AMG’s superb engine calibration and Merc’s knowledge that it has to give owners the full Mercedes experience means that if you drive gently, you could easily be in a much lesser A-Class. It’s smooth, polished, comfortable. So have the Alcantara steering wheel, because it’s a reminder this is something more. Driving position is ace and the sports seats (standard in the UK) are firmer but huggy.

You haven’t got everything off your chest yet, have you?

No. As I alluded to earlier, the A45 is more closely aligned to the RS3 than the M135i. It likes to grip and go, it’s chief aim on going into a corner, is getting out the other side as quickly and efficiently as possible, not making the most of the experience on the way through. It’s a less mobile, less interactive car to drive than the BMW, and that will upset purists. But it is masterful in what it does and what it’s capable of. Personally I’d like the engine to have more character and the rear axle to get stuck in a bit more. To have more feel, in other words. It would also be nice if lag could be eradicated completely, but that’s just not possible in a turbocharged engine. Apart from that (and the price…), this is a tempting option for anyone upgrading from a Golf GTI or Focus ST and wanting something more individual than an Audi S3 and more practical than a Porsche Cayman or Nissan 350Z. Something to fit the kids in.

So, what’s the verdict?

Better than the CLA, that’s for certain. The A45 is less confused, has a bit more attitude and a more perky character. Eight out of ten. 

See more pictures of the new Mercedes A45 AMG on track

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