There’s a new breed of performance car on the market that we’re calling the super-hatch – and the undisputed king of the clan is the 2016 Mercedes-AMG A45.
The stats speak for themselves: 280kW of power and 475Nm of torque, 0-100km/h in 4.2 seconds with an electronically limited top speed of 250km/h.
All this power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.
It’s simply mind blowing when you consider this level of performance was the rarefied domain of bona fide supercars just a few years ago. Now you can have this kind of pace in a five-door hatchback.
On paper, it’s the fastest hatch in the world, edging out its arch rival, the fresh-out-of-the-box Audi RS3, which packs a similarly potent 270kW and 465Nm, but is one-tenth off the pace getting to 100km/h.
To add some perspective, that’s significantly faster than Maserati’s quickest model, the V8-powered GranTurismo MC Stradale that needs 4.5 seconds, while matching Porsche’s current 911 Carrera S with PDK transmission (before the updated 991 911s arrive).
It’s also the kind of performance that unashamedly stomps on the very best from the world’s most revered hot hatcheries, including the Megane RS 275 Trophy-R and the all-new Peugeot 308 GTi, both of which offer exceptional dynamic performance.
Even the hard-core all-wheel-drive Golf R, with its quick-shifting DSG transmission (5.0 sec) is no match for the full-blown AMG hatchback.
But all that extra poke doesn’t come cheap. Priced from $77,900 (before on-road costs), it commands a sizeable $24,400 over the next-in-line Mercedes A250 Sport 4Matic, which gets the same 2.0-litre displacement direct-injection turbo-four, only in this guise it’s tuned to deliver 160kW and 350Nm and is good for 6.3 seconds 0-100km/h.
But it’s not just the tuning, the A45’s engine is hand made, meaning a single AMG technician assembles the complete engine, from the installation of the crankshaft in the engine block to the assembly of the camshaft and the cables. Even filling the engine oil is the technician’s responsibility.
The power and torque lift is courtesy of a redesigned valve assembly, while there’s also reconfigured timing and turbocharging, though maximum charge pressure is still 1.8 bar.
That said, it’s not just the engine modifications that have produced such a devastatingly quick hatchback, it’s as much to do with the shorter gear ratios from third to seventh, which have enabled the latest A45 to accelerate out of the gate with such determined ferocity.
Even if you don’t engage the launch control function (we chose not to on public roads), there really is no discernible lag from the twin-scroll turbo set-up. That’s because peak torque comes on song between 2250rpm-5000rpm, so it feels potent right from the get go, and it carries on relentlessly.
The instantaneous throttle response is addictive, and it’s available in full strength from anywhere in the rev range. Full throttle moments will need to be measured though, as this feels like a highly-tuned engine and speed builds so quickly from the mid-range it can take you by surprise, at least in 'Sport+' and 'Race' modes.
All up, there are five driving settings that make up the standard-fit AMG Dynamic Select system, which modifies mapping for the engine, transmission, suspension, steering and air-con unit.
The seven-speed dual-clutch DCT gearbox is mostly brilliant, matching the engine’s quick response times, either in auto or manual mode. That said, for the most fun, you’ll want to play with the crafted aluminium paddle shifters, where each upshift is met with a proper crack-of-the-whip sound effect. And there’s more fireworks on the downshift, or basically, whenever you come off the throttle in those high-performance modes.
It’s one of the quickest shifting gearboxes in the business too, banging through the gears with racecar-like speed and precision. However, it’s not without its quirks, at least when you switch from auto to manual drive, which in 'Sport' mode seems to confuse the electronics.
Pull a paddle to upshift just as the car is about to do the same, and it’ll jump two gears. Same on the downshift. For total control, hit the manual-only button on the console, which puts all the shifting responsibility back in the hands of the driver.
There’s also a ‘extra-loud’ button for the exhaust, for those that want even more bang out of their exhaust note, but a word of warning, it’s silly loud and can draw some unwanted attention from angry neighbours.
But for all its mechanical brilliance, the engine itself isn’t very charismatic, at least in terms of a suitably matching exhaust note. And what there is seems a bit contrived, and a total mismatch for such a mighty powertrain.
All is forgotten, though, the moment you thread your first series of corners together. If you thought the A45’s straight-line pace was impressive, it’s road holding prowess takes modern hatchback performance to another realm altogether – beyond the likes of even Renault’s brilliant Megane RS Trophy-R.
On any given day, on any B-road anywhere in the world, this is a car capable of taking on very best in exotic machinery. It’s much less of a handful in the tight, twisty stuff, particularly if it’s equipped with the optional AMG Dynamic Plus package (as our tester was), which adds a mechanical front axle locking differential to its ground-hugging arsenal.
The benefits aren’t properly felt unless you’re really pushing, and when you do, the acceleration out of the bends is simply astonishing. Even then, you realise there’s so much grip on offer, you feel like hitting the rewind button, only this time, jumping on the throttle earlier and with even greater commitment. It’s a massive confidence boost.
The all-wheel-drive system also offers outstanding traction from all four corners, while body control is equally unflappable. It’s just so hooked-up all the time, you find yourself continually upping the ante through the bends. Even mid-corner bumps fail to knock AMG’s hatchback off it’s intended line.
I’d previously read reports suggesting the steering lacked feel but I disagree, certainly there’s enough feedback through the AMG wheel to enable subtle tweaks in my quest to clip the apexes perfectly. It feels a lot like the latest C63 in this regard.
The brakes, too, are super dependable in their ability to wipe off huge pace without fade, even after hostile treatment, though we’re yet to track test the car, where we can really lean on it.
If there’s a downside to such ballistic performance and corner-carving expertise, it’s the hard-riding nature of this car. It doesn’t seem to matter what suspension setting you choose, the ride is always hard – there’s no other way to describe it. It’s the kind of trade-off enthusiasts will gladly accept because there’s no body roll. Zilch.
The Recaro sports seats are another A45 highlight. They certainly look the business, while providing comfortable seat cushioning with highly aggressive side bolstering – perfect for the kind of g-force-inducing charging this Benz thrives on.
So it’s got huge performance, handles brilliantly and is a proper hard-core AMG machine, but styling wise, I’m in two minds. Initially, I thought it’s for cashed-up boy racers, especially when sporting AMG’s aero package, with that conspicuous rear wing and DTM-style carbon-fibre winglets up front.
But once you’ve driven it, you soon forget about all those add-ons. In fact, the pace at which this thing devours tarmac, I welcome as much aero as AMG deems necessary – no argument from me, whatsoever.
Inside, it’s an A-Class at heart, but with a blend of high-end materials, real metal accents and plenty of the latest tech, which all help the car feel a bit more special and a closer match to its top-shelf price tag. Mind, any perceived shortcomings with the A45’s interior or price point are largely extinguished by the car’s ballistic performance and race car-like handling. It’s also likely to be justifiably exclusive and cult-like in its following.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.