► A Hungarian test, with hot laps
► Recap test of Affalterbach's smallest car
► Delving deep on road and on an F1 circuit
In 2018 Mercedes will launch an all-new compact car platform to underpin the next A-Class, meaning the current version – which has sold strongly since its launch in 2012 – is on the way out.
That also means replacement time for the Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic – the car that set the hot hatch horsepower bar, with its heavily boosted 2.0-litre motor producing prodigious power for a production four-pot. No other on sale offers as much horsepower per litre.
Given the opportunity to take one final drive in the A45, we travelled to Hungary to hit road and track. Has evolution been kind to this £50k rival to the Audi RS3 and BMW M2?
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Turning on the charm
In Race Red with optional aero kit (carbon here, air-carving winglet there), combined with Mercedes’ already angular, aggressive styling language, the A45 looks plain angry. And that’s before you’ve prodded the engine-start mushroomoid.
Equipped with the sports exhaust (an absolute essential AMG upgrade), that four-banger barks into life with a purposeful rev blip before settling into a steady quad-cylinder simmer.
Immediately apparent is the higher-than-ideal driving position – it’s not as pronounced as that in the Ford Focus RS, but you certainly feel noticeably closer to the sky than in a BMW M2. Our car’s lack of glass roof (available as an optional extra) doesn’t help here, making the cabin feel all the more cramped, but we hope it’ll pay dividends in the handling stakes later on in our adventure.
The seats themselves are brilliant, however. They’re a snug fit and have enough adjustment (via neat-looking controls on the doors) to find an ideal driving position in seconds.
Nosing the 45 out of its space in its default Comfort mode we found the throttle response well-judged for lower-speed driving, and the softened suspension gait it carries in this configuration is a must for speed bumps.
Sharpening the A45’s claws
As soon as we could, of course, Sport mode was engaged using the rotary control behind the AMG-logo’d gear selector. The exhaust tone deepens further, the steering gets heavier, and with the engine’s vital temperatures showing warm on the bespoke AMG menu on the trip computer, the first sweeping bend leading to a motorway slip road offered a chance to really get the hammer down.
Turn in, balance the car and apply much throttle, and the A45 shoots rapidly up to Hungary’s 81mph speed limit without much in the way of fanfare. A damp squib? It’s going to take more provocation than that to get under this AMG’s skin.
After 500 metres or so in Sport mode the dial was turned back down to Comfort – there’s a knobbly resonance that infects the entire cabin otherwise. The car just won’t settle down on its adaptive dampers on the motorway and it gets tedious very quickly.
Ideally we’d spend time configuring the Individual driving mode precisely for such situations, because you’ll most likely want the engine noise and steering heft without the fidgeting chassis.
Anyway, where’s the fun in staying on the highway? We were aiming for Hungary’s national race track, the Hungaroring, where Lewis and Nico scored a 1-2 in 2016. Time to head cross-country. Leaving the exit ramp the rotary dial was turned again, this time to Sport+.
We found a set of incredible bends, allowing the A45 to settle into a rhythm. Its suspension shone here, allowing a predictability to the handling that lets you concentrate on your driving inputs. It’s firm, but not so much that it jars.
It’s also here that we began to appreciate the sports diff on the front axle. Available following the A45’s facelift in 2015, it’s had a dramatic effect on turn-in and mid-corner traction. There’s still less communication about under-tyre events than we’d like through the steering wheel, but then this is predominantly a front-driven platform with added all-wheel drive, so there’s a lot going on down there.
That same update in 2015 also ushered in shorter gear ratios to replace the previous meant-for-a-diesel ones, which come into their own on this back-road. Sharp, loud cracks punctuate every cogswap. The neighbours must hate us.
Our biggest issue with the A-Class is…
The sad-looking dash-mounted screen’s positioning. If something has to look like a removable tablet then at least have the good grace to make it removable.
Instead it’s fixed, somewhat precariously it feels, and doesn’t integrate with the cabin’s design. Compared with the Audi A3’s neat folding solution, it’s a blot on the copybook that afflicts all A-Classes. In fact the entire cabin doesn’t really pass muster against the Audi.
Still, time for some circuit action. Lining up in the pitlane we grabbed a lid and climbed back aboard. The temperature was nearing 30 degrees now so the air-con was more than welcome, but these seats haven’t been designed for helmet-wearing trackdayers. Adjustment was required so our spine wasn’t completely C-shaped and we never really felt comfortable behind the wheel in the same way we did on the road.
Did that put a dampener on proceedings?
Not really. Once the seat had been tweaked for our larger cranium we headed out onto the track for a warm-up. Race mode sets all the driving controls to their most aggressive settings and dials back on the stability control a little, which has the effect of allowing you to tip-toe around the car’s limits without worrying about a spectacular backwards barrier entry.
There is a titanic amount of grip on offer here. The 19-inch Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber coupled with 4Matic makes for neck-stretching cornering forces before traction is broken.
Unlike larger non-SUV AMGs like the C and E 63s, it’s only when the limits are exceeded that the fun begins the fade. Given a little too much enthusiasm for the front end to handle, there’s no rescuing the A45 from understeer with your right foot. There isn’t enough rear bias dialled in to rotate the rear to help out, so you’re stuck with tyre-torturing front-end wash until more grip becomes available.
There’s no hint of a powerslide unless you’re abusing the car, Scandi-flicking before each bend, and even then it won’t maintain a consistent slide.
We found the greatest enjoyment to be had by exploring just how early in bends you can get on the throttle, but beware: getting this wrong is not a good look as you clatter over exit kerbs. It’s fair to say this AMG is to be treated as a front-driven car first and foremost.
On longer corners when fully committed there’s a decent amount of off-throttle adjustability, so if you’ve missed the clipping point then a brief lift will tighten your trajectory accordingly. The same method can help eradicate some understeer, albeit in a manner not quite as entertaining as painting your tyres across the asphalt.
It isn’t the cheapest hot hatch by some margin, and thanks to the Audi RS3’s five-cylinder motor’s extra headroom it isn’t the most powerful either. The BMW M2 is a better steer without a doubt too – especially on track – which leaves the A in automotive no-man’s-land.
However, its hard-as-nails styling and raucous performance do endear it as an everyday weapon, and we’ve no doubt on most B-roads it would be just as quick as the above protagonists. That’s why despite its price it’s been a success.
Bring on the next one.