This is a continuation of our two-part comparison between the Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45. For the road test component and finer details of the cars and this comparison’s setup, click here.
Less than a decade ago it would have been hard to imagine that a 2.0-litre engine would come from the factory with 280kW of power and offer a 0-100km/h time of 4.2 seconds, but it was obvious from how the A45 accelerated out of hairpin corners deep in Brisbane’s famous Mt Nebo, that times have changed. There is just so much mechanical grip out of corners in this thing that it makes you question the principles of physics.
Whatever fantasy the Mitsubishi Evolution (and Subaru WRX STI) fans are oh-so-dearly still holding on to – believing their car to be a pure mountain climber like no other - is now nothing but a nightmare from the inner depths of hell. The Japanese dream is over. The A45 and RS3 (as well as the new Focus RS) have started something that will take the Asian manufacturers – who once dominated this segment – a rather long time to catch up to.
But one man’s nightmare is another’s fantasy and you can’t help but smile as an A45 crackles and pops screaming from one hairpin corner to another, followed closely by an RS3. In some ways, this is the equivalent of automotive heaven. Putting two cars that are clearly at the forefront of their game head to head.
As customers, we should count ourselves very fortunate that extreme competition has led to the enormous R&D budgets required for the birth of these two super hatches, both of which are capable of shaming supercars from less than a decade ago.
Even so, as good as both these cars are around twisty mountainous roads, one is better than the other. So let's start with the Audi RS3.
Dynamically, the RS3 is very good. The extra 0.5L of capacity over the 2.0L AMG gives a nicer torque band mid-range in the real world with more pull in higher gears than the AMG can manage. The engine can feel almost lazy though, as if Audi has left it undertuned (tuners are already getting around 300kW with nothing more than an ECU flash).
The gearbox is rapid shifting and far more willing to listen to input commands than the AMG (even in manual mode) and given its more potent torque delivery mid-range, you find yourself shifting down less than you would in the AMG.
We found our RS3’s brakes lacking in consistent stopping power. Though there was no fade – despite plenty of hard use - it required far earlier application to garner the same results as the A45, which went through the same procedure.
Perhaps it has something to do with the system itself as while the front discs are RS specials (370mm), the rear utilise the same size as in the S3 (310mm), a notable difference to the A45’s more hardcore braking system (350mm front, 330mm rear), which is different to the A250 entirely. You can of course option the RS3 with carbon ceramic brakes (over $8,990), if you have completely lost your mind.
Around corners the RS3 is hurt by its braking performance as it takes away the ability to carry more speed in confidently. Thankfully, though, once you get in and position the car, the out-of-corner agility is very neutral with no hint of understeer, allowing for an earlier application of the accelerator. The traction and stability control systems (which we left in Dynamic/Sport+ mode) barely interrupted even at the limit, which is a good sign.
We found a surprising amount of body roll (in comparison to the AMG) when pushing hard into a corner, which also didn’t help the balance of the RS3 or that feeling of confidence you require when going flat out.
Further taking away from the drive experience was the Audi’s steering system, which lacked not only sufficient feedback but also adequate feel. It felt as though far more work was required to get the RS3 to go around a tight corner at the same speed as the A45.
Noticeable steering correction inputs were required mid-corner, as the feedback wasn’t there to continuously judge grip levels. This was a shame because it felt as though the RS3 had more front-end grip than the A45, but the lack of communication through the steering wheel (and the body roll) made it harder to exploit. This wasn’t the case when the road was more open, however.
Ultimately, it wasn’t so much that the RS3 was slower than the A45, it was more that it felt as though it required significantly more effort to extract the same result. And I don’t mean that in a good way such as a Porsche 911 GT3 requiring more work than a Mercedes-Benz AMG GT. It simply didn’t feel as sharp.
Moving on to the Mercedes-AMG A45, which in our case had the optional front-axle differential lock (a must at $1,995) to help both front wheels spin at the same speed when things really get serious, in the aim of limiting understeer.
Jumping out of the RS3 into the A45 was slightly confusing, it was as if we were going from one class to the next. The overall sharpness and general agility of the A45 was a whole level above the RS3. The brakes provided extreme stopping force and the corners were conquered with such fanaticism and ease that it made us question our particular RS3 test car’s state of being (which Audi later fixed with a brake fluid change which improved the stopping power noticeably, but still not the same level as the AMG).
Being able to brake so much later in the A45 and be confident that the steering would provide the required feedback and feel to get you in and out of a hairpin corner was vastly different to the Audi.
The steering system itself is exceptionally enjoyable to use. Every little input is rewarded with an output, making the need for corrections almost negligible. What we did find however, was that the AMG was far more prone to understeer than its rival.
Even with the front-axle differential lock, the tighter the corner, the more understeer you’d get from the AMG as you try to power out. It was certainly a case of braking as hard and late as possible in a straight line, easing it in, getting the angle right before gently squeezing the accelerator back on.
In that regard, the Audi was more composed and less punishing mid corner – allowing for earlier acceleration regardless of steering position - but the AMG’s manic nature was somewhat pleasing. It was the first time ever that I have actually enjoyed understeer at the limit, mainly as it presented itself ever so briefly before being replaced again with extreme grip. It was almost a form of feedback that the Audi so desperately needs.
Our biggest complaint against the A45 was the gearbox refusing to listen to command inputs. Perhaps the 40-degree heat and extremely humid day in which this test took place had an effect on our test car, but no matter, it simply would refuse downshift requests on numerous occasions even when it was obvious the speed and engine RPM was manageable for the task.
As we progressed further from Nebo to Glorious, the more open roads of the mountain certainly suited the Audi’s character better, allowing for smoother lines that helped it carry plenty of speed. The Audi felt more settled on those roads with the quattro system seemingly better able to manage its torque distribution at higher speeds than the AMG, Even still, the A45 never felt wholeheartedly outdone in any regard.
It’s hard to talk with finality about the differences, the ‘feel’ of piloting both cars at the limit around tight bends certainly goes to the AMG, which with its combination of a tighter chassis with minimal body roll, significantly better brakes and sharper steering felt far easier – and fun - to drive fast. The RS3 was also excellent, but just not as tight or focused around the proper twisty stuff.
Perhaps it would be best to say that everything felt as though it happened at 1.25x speed in the AMG with less effort than the RS3.
In that regard, and taking into consideration that the RS3 requires an additional $6,490 performance package to get the adaptive suspension, the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG is the winner here, but only by logic.
If it was my money, I would have to really dig deep to pick the A45 over the RS3, simply because I adore the exterior styling and exhaust note of the Audi, despite knowing full well that, ultimately, the Mercedes is the better car when it comes to being a super hatch.