It’s been a long time coming, but finally Mercedes-Benz has built its first proper hot hatchback. And it has laid down a challenge to every other hot-hatch maker on the market.
A few facts about the Mercedes A 45 AMG. Its engine produces more power per litre than any other 2-litre motor in a volume-production road car. With just one turbo and only four cylinders, it should be unfair to compare it with the 3-litre twin-turbo six-cylinder engine of BMW’s M135i hatchback. And it is unfair — to the BMW, whose 316bhp looks weedy alongside the 355bhp of the Mercedes. This is the most powerful four-cylinder engine on sale.
All logic suggests that such a tiny engine producing so much energy would turn whichever car it was powering into a nightmare of turbo lag and glacial throttle response, punctuated by short, frantic, overwhelming surges of boost. But this is not what happens: put your foot down at 2000rpm and the A 45 steps smartly forward. At 3000rpm it has become really rather exciting. By 4000rpm it’s thrilling, and between 5000rpm and the red line it’s accelerating like no shopping car I know. And no, I’ve not forgotten the VW Golf GTI or the Ford Focus RS.
Mercedes claims it does 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds, but it’s wrong. With its standard four-wheel drive, launch control and flappy-paddle gearshift, I informally timed it at 4.3 seconds. It’s even quicker over that measure than a C 63 AMG saloon, which has a 6.2-litre V8 motor. Other scalps include the Aston Martin DB9, Porsche 911 Carrera S and Audi R8 V8. Combined with the ease and civility with which such epic performance is delivered, it is safe to say there has never been another hatchback like it.
Its steroidal appearance and colossal power belie the fact that there’s actually very little of the boy racer in the A 45’s character. So long as you know what to avoid on the options list — specifically, ride-ruining “Carlos Fandango” 19in wheels, “performance” suspension and an absurd sports exhaust whose novelty will wear off within the hour — the base prospect is comfortable and, inside, really rather civilised. There’s woven cloth on the dash, Alcantara on the seats and steering wheel, and shiny finishing touches that look like metal because they really are metal.
Some of the failings of the standard A-class remain, though, particularly the paucity of space in the rear cabin and boot. And any potential buyer will have to be willing to pay some £5,000 more than is asked for the equivalent BMW M135i, and a whopping £12,000 more than VW wants for the Golf GTI. Mercedes is pushing barriers — not only in terms of how we expect a hot hatch to perform, but also what we should expect to pay for one.
Yet if it can get discerning buyers into the car, many will be sold. Once they have tasted that level of performance and how effortlessly it is deployed in such civilised surroundings, it’s hard to see customers settling for any less.
You may sense that all of this is building up to a “but”. It’s nothing serious, more of a niggle, but it’s there nonetheless. Let me first explain that the chassis is very capable and pleasingly responsive and it provides a far better quality of ride than most A-class models. The four-wheel-drive system means that traction out of even the slowest corners is a given, while in quicker curves the A 45 feels commendably stable and well balanced.
But the slightly numb feel of the steering still reduces corners to the role of connecting the straights, where the real fun is to be had.
The gearbox misses perfection by some margin too. Left to its own devices, Mercedes’ own seven-speed, dual-clutch, paddle-shift transmission is good enough to pass as a conventional automatic, but when you want to change gear yourself it can be inconsistent, sometimes requiring a second tug before it will shift up, and occasionally introducing a slight delay before delivering each downshift. I’d have preferred a manual gearbox but AMG’s engineers say that, unlike their rivals at Audi and BMW, they didn’t even consider providing one.
These issues might not even merit a mention under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances, as they are created by a car with one of the most remarkable engines ever built. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the rest of the car exists only as a support act to that engine.
The BMW M135i is at least fun to drive. With the howling soundtrack of its six-cylinder motor, its standard six-speed manual transmission and tail-happy, rear-wheel-drive handling, it makes up well in charm and driver appeal what it lacks in outright punch.
Were it not for its gearchange and steering — reasons for it to miss out (by a whisker) on a five-star rating — I would have no hesitation in saying the A 45 is far and away the best hatchback on sale today.
The quickest and most civilised of hatchbacks
Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG
- 1991cc, 4 cylinders
- 355bhp @ 6000rpm
- 332 lb ft @ 2250rpm
- 7-speed, dual clutch
- 0-62mph: 4.6sec
- Top speed:
- 40.9mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
- BMW M135i, £30,555
For Possibly the best driver’s car BMW makes Against Very thirsty; not exactly a looker
- (Check BMW M135i used car prices on driving.co.uk)
- Audi S3, £30,500
For Very quick; exceptional build quality; looks great Against Nothing like as much fun to drive as it looks
(Check Audi S3 used car prices on driving.co.uk)