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The Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG uber-hatch caused a storm when it arrived in Australia in 2013.
A sharp design, an aspirational badge and the world’s most powerful series production 2.0-litre engine saw demand way outstrip supply. Yet, hundreds of people proved more than happy to wait six months (or more) to get their sticky hands on one.
Now a fairly significant mid-life update is here, two years following the launch of the original A45, which is a rapid turnaround by auto industry standards.
The 2016 Mercedes-AMG A45, as it is now called, is part of a brand-wide naming restructure that saw the formation of a dedicated Mercedes-AMG brand. This has brought a number of important new items to the table that in large part address the shortfalls of the old car.
These include a more advanced driving mode select system with in-built track setting and the all-important addition of adjustable dampers. There’s also a larger infotainment screen with better software and more features, along with a subtly revised design.
Additionally, those madcap engineers at Affalterbach have tweaked that boundary-smashing engine to produce even more power and torque, ensuring that the pesky new Audi RS3 remains behind in the output stakes, despite its bigger five-pot engine.
Considering this new package, there are a few questions to answer. Should you trade in your old car for new? Are the changes sufficient to justify the $2200 price hike to $77,900 plus on-road costs? Is the A45 better than the cosmetically austere but equally manic, $78,900 RS3?
You’ll have to wait until early 2016 for our answer to that final question, but as for the first two — and we base that on back-to-back wheel time in new and old — the answers are yes and yes. Let’s start at the top: that revised engine.
Still just 1991cc, it now produces an extra 15kW of power and 25Nm of torque. This means outputs of 280kW (still at 6000rpm) and 475Nm (still between 2250 and 5000rpm). Frankly, that’s an insane output of 141kW per litre of capacity.
That power/torque bump is credited to a redesigned valve assembly. Furthermore, there’s reconfigured timing and turbocharging (from the familiar twin-scroll setup), although the maximum charge pressure continues to be 1.8 bar. It’s hard to believe there was room to move.
It is faster? Impressively so. When using launch control, the new 0-100km/h sprint time of 4.2 seconds is four-tenths quicker than the previous model, which is greatly assisted by revised gearing. This outstrips the RS3 by one-tenth, which is… convenient.
In all honesty, the real world differences between the A45 AMG and the RS3 aren’t huge, and outside of a race track you’re not going to feel them much. But it’s good to have bragging rights. Either way, it remains a simply great engine, brimming with venomous character and eliciting all sorts of pops, whines and growls.
No four-cylinder sounds meaner on the overrun, and it's stunning that the car is not spitting fire at pedestrians, given the aural sensation. There’s still that great, barely perceptible whine that emanates, particularity when you lift off the throttle.
What really makes the 2016 version is the AMG Dynamic Select driving mode adjustment system, which is lifted from the C63. The old system in the previous model had only had two modes, Comfort and Sport, and one extra for the gearbox’s manual mode. The new one? No fewer than five modes.
Each of these modes — Individual, Comfort, Sport, Sport +, and Race — is chosen via a slick little dial near the gear shifter and displays in nice graphics on the new floating interface. However, this dial apes the larger unit that controls the infotainment and sits in close proximity, which isn't ideal in the world of ergonomics.
Each mode still modulates the throttle, the engine note, the exhaust note, and the gearbox, which is the same excellent seven-speed dual-clutch unit as before, albeit with a revised, and closer, ratio spread. Race mode also gets a looser ESC tune.
The new modes also mess about with the dampers, which is a huge addition. There are now two ride settings: the stiff dampers in Sport + and above, and the softer C mode in Comfort and Sport. This means the new A45 doesn’t ride like a plank of wood over a Güiro, as the dampers really take the edge off. Use either Sport + or Race modes, and you'll feel every crease in the road.
Better still, it’s not just the Individual mode (in where the driver can make custom presets) that promises bespoke driving. Buttons on the dash mean you can engage the soft damper tune, even when in Sport + mode, or you can add the burbling exhaust in C mode. Fantastic.
In other words, the A45 now has a little Jekyll to go with the Hyde it always offered. Don't mistake us, it's still a firm car. But it can be much more comfortable when you want it to be.
Rest assured, that wild Hyde side remains. Grows, in fact. Beyond the orchestral engine and the hugely effective 350mm/330mm ventilated brakes, there’s the 4Matic on-demand all-wheel drive system with infinitely variable torque distribution that can send torque to the rear axle via an AMG electro-hydraulic clutch.
The on-board sensors determine where to send the torque by measuring things such as vehicle speed, the lateral/linear acceleration, the steering angle, the difference in rotational speed between the individual wheels, the gear selected and the accelerator position. As with any on-demand AWD system, the more proactive and less reactive it is, the better.
In reality, and unlike the RS3, only 50 per cent of engine torque can be sent rearward, meaning the A45 remains ferociously glued to the road without a whole lot of theatre. There's no tail-happy shimmering here, like in an M135i. But the A45 never feels anodyne. It’s a precision tool disguised as a muscle car.
If you spend $2000 to option up to the newly developed, mechanical front axle locking diff, this will only become more marked. Lateral acceleration and grip levels can be expected to improve should you shell out the extra. Should you? Of course you should. It’s chump change at this price point.
If there were one dynamic criticism, it would be the electromechanical steering. There's no gripes with the levels of resistance, or the alacrity of its turn-in, but it still feels a touch disconnected at times. It's hugely competent, but not quite as characterful.
What else is there to expect? From a cosmetic perspective, the changes are limited but meaningful. The basic silhouette remains, but there’s a more purposeful new nose, different tail-lights, a new set of 19-inch alloy wheels, and a new rear apron. Mercedes-AMG is claiming better aero, so take note, track-goers.
Ditto in the cabin. The same, slightly messy centre stack labours on, though gets a few new nice silver buttons. But there are some welcome additions, such as the new, larger screen with better graphics — it’s the same 8.3-inch unit as the C-Class and GLC — though COMAND is still no BMW iDrive, in my eyes.
You also get DAB+, and cars from December production (ie if you order now) will get Apple CarPlay. Standard equipment includes radar cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, autonomous braking, lane assist, heated seats, a Harmon Kardon sound system (that's a touch muddy at the top end), and hard-backed AMG performance seats that feel part-racecar.
The lairy red seat belts carry over, along with some of those downright sexy AMG instruments. That familiar racing-style suede/leather racing wheel feature a new set of metal paddle-shifters, which fall more nicely to hand than before. It’s clearly a more resolved cabin, although some may not find that on first impression. Give it time…
So the questions posed at the top are fairly simple to answer. The MY16 updates to the A45 AMG go beyond a new badge. Indeed, they address most of the grievances we had before.
This iteration of Affalterbach’s smallest hot rod is a better daily driver than before, but also has more edge when you want it. Given the likes of the RS3, updated M135i and incoming Ford Focus RS are on the hunt, that was the bar AMG's team had to leap.
The company has done everything you could reasonably expect of a mid-life update.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.