The Clarkson review: Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG (2013)

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For a hundred years Mercedes was a byword for solid, sensible engineering. While the rest of the world let its hair down and listened to Jimi Hendrix, the company plodded on with its doleful recipe of longevity with just a sprinkling of toughness. The men of Stuttgart built no-frills cars that were made to last. They were tortoises to counter the hares from BMW.

If you want to drive across Africa next weekend, then by all means get yourself a Toyota Land Cruiser. But if you actually want to get there, you’d be better off with the standard Mercedes from the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a world of thongs and briefs and frilly bits of nothing, this was a sturdy pair of games knickers. It was a car that simply didn’t know how to let you down. And still doesn’t today.

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But then one day the company chiefs got bored with making games knickers, so they got together with a little-known tuning company called AMG and went berserk.

The cars that resulted are stupid. They are too big, too loud, too crazy, too brash, too sideways most of the time and too scary as a result. I like them a lot.

I like the way that a BMW or a quick Audi is designed to put a fast lap time on the board, whereas an AMG Mercedes is designed to put a smile on your face, and most of its rear tyres into the atmosphere. In a world where fuel economy is king and the tall poppies are frowned upon, it’s refreshing to find a range of cars built purely for blood-and-guts savagery. They are not sniper rifles. They are dirty great artillery pieces.

If I may liken all of the world’s cars to weather, you have many that are drizzle and some that are lovely sunny afternoons. You have those that are precise and fast, like lightning. And some that are just Tupperware grey as far as the eye can see. Then you have the AMG Mercs. They are cracks of thunder. They are V8 muscle cars. A blend of the American dream and German engineering. They are tremendous.

But then several months ago I drove an AMG-badged A-class Mercedes, and that wasn’t a V8, or thunderous, or even very muscly. Its AMG badge was writing cheques the car simply couldn’t cash. I gave it two stars and wondered what on earth Mercedes was thinking of. Putting that badge on that car was . . . well, it would be like calling a small river launch HMS Ark Royal.

And now the company has done it again with the car you see pictured this morning. This is called the A 45 AMG, and, to be honest, I was expecting about 14ft of solid, chewy disappointment. However . . .Let’s start with the engine. It’s a turbocharged 2-litre unit that meets emissions legislation that the EU hasn’t even introduced yet. It’s quite frugal too. Despite this, it’s the most powerful four-cylinder engine in production.

The figures are fairly astonishing. You get 355 brake horsepower, which means you’re getting almost 178bhp a litre. To put that in perspective, the V8 in a Ferrari 458 Italia can manage only 125bhp a litre. There is some very clever engineering in here.

And because the A 45 is so clever and so potent, Mercedes decided it could not solely be front-wheel drive. Because asking the front wheels to do the steering while handling 355 rampaging German horses would be like asking a man who’s on fire to solve a crossword puzzle. So it has a system that sends up to half the power to the rear wheels should those up front become a bit flustered.

On top of this, Mercedes fitted big brakes, lowered the suspension and slotted in a fast-acting, double-clutch, flappy-paddle gearbox. And the result is .  . . quite boring.

It’s all so planted and neutral and benign that you wonder whether you’ve climbed into the diesel version by mistake. And then you look at the speedometer and what it’s saying is scarcely believable. Most of the time I was going almost exactly twice as fast as I’d guessed.

All previous AMG Mercs make you feel as if you’re going faster than you really are. This one does the exact opposite.

That said, Mercedes has tried to give it some of its big brothers’ traits. When you change up, the exhaust sounds like Rubeus Hagrid clearing his throat. And there’s a feel of great heaviness. Probably because that’s what the car is: heavy. But, whatever, you have to manhandle it through the bends as though you’re trying to get a piano up a back staircase. You have to work for your rewards.

And, boy oh boy, are they there. The engine has an uncanny knack of delivering lots of meaty torque right the way up to 5000rpm and then, just as you think it’s game over and time for another gear, you get a frantic burst of power. And then you are going three times faster than you’d guessed. Happily, then, the brakes are immense and the handling is sublime. Obviously it won’t stick its tail out and smoke like every other AMG product. But it doesn’t understeer unduly either. It just goes round the corner in such a way that you get the impression it wasn’t really trying.

I liked it enormously. It had more character than any hatchback since the Fiat Strada Abarth, the speed was immense and there’s no getting away from the fact that it looks really rather handsome. Many Mercs are overstyled these days, but on this one the creases and the fussy little details seem to work.

However, there are a few issues. Let’s start with the little ones. It’s needlessly bumpy. This has been done simply to make it feel sporty, not for any handling benefits. The chassis is so stiff that Mercedes could easily have softened the suspension without affecting the performance at all. It was a mistake.

Then there’s the width. Certainly you do not whizz through width restrictions the way you would in a 1-series BMW. You need to breathe in and grimace first.

Other stuff? The petrol tank is too small, which means you have to fill up every few minutes. And filling up with petrol is worse than trying on trousers.

Then there’s the interior styling, which is completely over the top. Who, for instance, thought that it would be a good idea to make the air vents red? This is a Mercedes-Benz, for heaven’s sake. Not a Gillette commercial. Red air vents are like red trousers. And there’s a blog for people who wear those. (Google it.)

But the big sticking point for me is the price. It’s £37,845. Of course, for an AMG Mercedes, this is extremely good value. But it’s a shedload for what, when all is said and done, is a hot hatchback.

It’s a whopping £9,000 more than you’re asked to pay for a range-topping Volkswagen Golf GTI. Yes, the Mercedes is a better car. But £9,000 better? With that ride, that fuel tank and those stupid vents? No. I’m afraid not.


Verdict ★★★★☆

The most fun you can have with less than 2 litres


Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG

Release date:
On sale now
1991cc, 4 cylinders
355bhp @ 6000rpm
332 lb ft @ 2250rpm
7-speed semi-auto
0-62mph in 4.6sec
Top speed:
155mph (limited)
40.9mpg (combined)
Road tax band:
G (£175 for first year)
L 4359mm, W 1780mm, H 1417mm

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Published on July 24, 2013

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