If we had to place bets on only one hot hatch cracking the top-three this year, the odds would have been paying high for the Mercedes-AMG A45 S.
Yes, the hype around the Toyota GR Yaris would be a damning factor, but further doubt comes with the A45 S’s heart-stopping price tag. At $94,200, it towers above excellent hot hatches like the $52,900 Honda Civic Type R – which claimed the win in 2018.
Sure, while price only creeps into mind when positioning a car more broadly for Performance Car Of The Year, it’s reasonable to wonder how the A45 S would find the performance, dynamics and accessibility to justify that figure. But it was Andy Enright who leapt from the driver’s seat after a blast up Mansfield Whitfield road with the first idea of what the A45 S was. “I’d just wait at the bottom of a hill,” he explained between chuckles, “waiting to harass much faster cars.”
Overhauled for the latest generation A-Class, the new A45 S had to nail three objectives. Delivering the first-generation car’s accessibility and pace, fixing its one-dimensional handling – as well as a brittle ride – and, finally, blowing its competition out of the water.
Ballistic as it is, extracting 310kW from a 2.0-litre engine and then squeezing it through a weapons-grade all-wheel-drive system was what we expected AMG to do. Instead, it uses a limited-slip differential and two multi-plate clutches on the rear axle, so that it can actively divide torque not only between the front and rear axles (with up to 100 per cent rearwards if necessary), but also between the rear wheels.
Whereas the old A45 would activate its rear axle for traction and ultimately neutral-to-push understeer, with only a maximum of 50 per cent of torque going rearwards, the new A45 S is different, deploying an eager front-end that’s ready to call upon the rear to tweak your angle of attack upon demand.
Of course, this also creates the possibility for a Drift Mode, which Newman and Enright were happy to verify works a charm for photography.
It requires commitment, though, and counter-intuitively steering into the slide while smothering the loud pedal. A bit of space, and a dollop of common sense, also help.
Pin-sharp steering dials you into the front-end, but it is worth noting the suspension plays a large part in brightening the A45 S’s handling. Increased rear roll-stiffness tips the A45 S on its toes at corner entry, helping all-wheel-drive break rear traction ever so slightly. Crucially, while AMG could have called it a day on the A45 S’s dynamic repertoire then and there for a very capable hatch, what sets the A45 S apart is genuine compliance to go with its all-paw punch.
Things like solid mount subframes, along with long-stroke adaptive damping, let you dig in into its chassis while knowing there’s an underlying suppleness to forgive any ham-fisted inputs. However, this does compromise its secondary ride a touch.
The AMG tweaked interior also encourages having a go. The seating position is low for a hatch, while the steering wheel and shift paddles are just as ergonomically sound. The pedals are sturdy and well-sized. Full throttle fills the interior with a likeable rortiness, even if AMG saw the need to offer an amplifier, and the eight-speed dual-clutch ‘box keeps a tight leash on its 500Nm, shifting fast and precisely.
With launch control it’ll keep the 2.0-litre turbo engine on the boil to nail AMG’s 3.9sec 0-100km/h claim, leaving many cars above its price range in its wake.
With all this, it’s no surprise the A45 S is an absolute riot on track. Massive brakes for a hatch showed barely any fatigue. And judge Butler enjoyed the $2500 optional Pirelli P Zero Trofeo Rs we had on at Winton since we feared he would have run the tyres down to their belts on track if the A45 S had a bottomless fuel tank.
They were enough to help the A45 S thrash half the PCOTY field on a lap time. But after bouncing back from a brief transmission fault light, the car felt more alive, and natural, on its regular Pilot Sport 4 S tyres – at least at lower speeds.
And that’s a trait we’d happily have instead of bragging rights. This breadth of talent replaces any doubt for the A45 S, proving it as not only a successful development on the nameplate’s legacy but a cracking addition to the hot hatch category that can hold its own, whatever its price.
That’s why two of the judges, Newman and Enright, singled it out as the best, or equal best, of this year’s bunch. But it was the rest of the panel who unanimously ranked it fourth. Why? I found its price too hard to reconcile when the Honda Civic Type R still exists.
Most importantly, the third-place underscores one statement in the performance car landscape, to never underestimate the A45 S again. – LC
REVERTING TO TYPE?
True, an A45 S is significantly pricier than the last hot hatch to win PCOTY, the Honda Civic Type R. But just chew on this fact. The Honda recorded a 5.68s sprint to 100km/h, the AMG 3.96s. In an niche marked by minuscule degrees, the difference in the sprinting ability of the two best hatches to have ever graced PCOTY is more than 30 per cent. That’s massive.
0-100km/h: 3.96 sec
0-400km/h: 12.09 sec @ 186.53km/h
Lap Time: 1:34.9
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