Thump-thump-thump goes the heart. I can feel the pulse in the fingertips and along the temples. At last the time has come to put this awesome car to the real test. I have explored Sport+ ad infinitum.
Qualified for Master in the AMG Dynamics hierarchy. Dialled in the Supersport display with a big fat gear indicator circled by the rev counter that in turn is flanked by two rainbow bar graphs. Sampled Race Start, which performs ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, allegedly without impairing the warranty. Set the Real Performance Sound processor on blaring Dynamic (which will no longer be legal from next year)...
But all the above steps were merely a prelude to the accolade advertised as Drift Mode. It can only be locked in with the transmission in manual, the drive program in Race, and ESP switched off. Next, you must pull both shift paddles simultaneously, then confirm powerslide mode by a quick flick of the Up paddle. Ready? Ready! S-MB 1001 to ground control: we are going to burn some rubber now.
El Circuito del Jarama, a mere stone’s throw from Madrid airport, hosted the Spanish F1 Grand Prix between 1968 and 1981, alternating with Barcelona. Nowadays surrounded by gated communities, the tight and short Mickey Mouse track boasts plenty of elevation changes, three swirly bends that make the adrenalin flow a little bit faster, and two taxing superfast corners.
On a hot day like today, the sizzling tarmac is eating tyres for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which isn’t that much of a bother to the Mercedes-AMG A45 S – as long as you adjust your driving style to its quite special power-oversteer antics. After all, the tarted-up pocket rocket sporting the trademark vertical Panamericana grille is all-wheel drive, not rear-wheel drive.
Although the system can shift most of its 500Nm of maximum torque to the hind legs when required, one must wind on an extra hand’s breadth of lock or two to keep the slide alive. The normal gut response – a decent measure of opposite lock – would push the car wide and stifle the act.
Like the bigger C63 AMG, its baby brother responds without delay to full-throttle orders. The tail swings round in a creamy arc, and as long as the driver maintains a tighter than usual steering angle and the punchier than normal torque flow, the winged five-door hatch will behave like a pedigree drift machine.
Just for the heck of it, we took the yellow bird to the skid-pad, where it duly performed all sorts of 360s from smelly virtually stationary donuts to a supercool third-gear tap dance along a line plotted by imaginary pylons. What a car! Not once did we spin, veer off the trajectory or upset the flow.
Having said that, there would have certainly come a point at which the scorching, shredded front tyres lost grip at time-warp speed and it would be game over. But this is too good a plaything to overdrive it. What I’m looking for instead is the replay button, or a spare car shod with fresh rubber, and extra track time while the other journos here are having lunch...
The AMG A45 S – due in Australia in the first quarter of next year, priced a little above the current model’s $78K – is not merely an extreme evolution of the A-class, it is also powered by the world’s most powerful volume-production four-cylinder engine, and comes dressed up as five-door hatch, four-door coupe or even a wagon, at least in Europe.
Although even the base model – rated at 285kW and also slated for the Australian market – eclipses the competition in one easy lesson, the S version churns out a mind-boggling 310kW at 6750rpm, which is simply incredible in view of the fact that these incredible numbers are generated by four cylinders and an aggregate displacement of just 1991cc. Amazing what a twin-scroll turbocharger and some engineering wizardry can do.
Geek Speak: AMG A45's M139 engine explained
In combination with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and a trick all-wheel-drive system, this exceptional engine can propel the 1635kg crackerjack from rest to 100km/h in only 3.9sec. Although the top speed is restricted to 272km/h, the new A45 S easily qualifies for a free fast-lane season ticket.
As usual, the official fuel consumption has been computed in the wishful thinking department. Mercedes claims a combined figure as low as 8.1L/100km, but the hard-charging test car averaged 16.9 with some serious right-foot treatment. And, yes, every drop of premium unleaded was burnt for a very good cause called exceptional driving pleasure.
The secret behind the A45’s radical on-demand change of handling attitude is known as AMG Torque Control, and the heart of the system sits inside the rear axle. On each side of the differential, we find electronically controlled multi-disc clutches, one for each driveshaft.
In combination with the fully variable electro-mechanical front-to-rear torque split, the fully variable rear side-to-side torque distribution ensures optimum traction in all weather and road conditions – except of course in Drift Mode, when the outer rear wheel is fed all the oomph it needs to put on a waltz while the inner wheel takes some time off.
Sounds straightforward, but the chip-controlled network of sensors and control units could in fact not be more complex. The ergonomic wonderland created to address all these talents is equally challenging, offering a selection of hard keys, a touchpad and a multi-functional steering wheel, complete with several sub-menus and multiple redundancies.
In a nutshell, the AMG A45 comes equipped with three scalable dynamic interfaces. Level 1 defines the 4Matic set-up. With the AMG Dynamics menu in Basic or Advanced, all-wheel drive works in Comfort mode. Upgrade to Plus or Master, and Sport mode will automatically take over. Level 2 offers three different ESP activities: On, Sport handling mode and Off. Level 3 lets you choose from six different driving programs labelled Ice, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Race and Individual.
The related software masterminds all drivetrain-related functions such as throttle response, shift points and speed, sound processor and exhaust note in Reduced, Moderate, Sporty or Dynamic fashion.
Other flexible tools are the available adjustable dampers, active torque split, ESP calibration and steering action. Devoid of air suspension and rear-wheel steering, the new A-class on steroids is only a couple of steps away from total overkill.
But it’s time to leave behind the fun of the skid-pad and head back into the real world. The hinterland of Madrid is inhabited by cattle, sheep, goats and the odd human being. Most of the roads were built before General Franco was even born, when vehicles were a lot narrower and slower. With not enough room to put a wheel wrong, the attack mode of choice is Sport+, Dynamics in Master, the shock absorbers in Sport and the transmission in manual.
Ten kilometres down the road, though, it’s back into Drive, which does a fine job holding the appropriate gear, shifting down just in time and making full use of all 7200rpm to the redline. The in-between ESP channel encourages the odd lift-off tail-wagging antics as well as a momentary trace of exit oversteer, which is all you feel comfortable with in an environment dominated by blind corners, question-mark crests and unannounced surface changes.
At speeds of up to 120km/h, the steel brakes have no problem reeling us in, apex by apex, but on the track we had noticed that pedal travel and pressure are liable to increase under stress.
The electro-mechanical rack-and-pinion steering is of the variable-effort and variable-rate kind. While the effort changes progressively, the calibration alters from swift and stiff to relaxed and balanced in accordance with the selected drive mode. The latter set-up is okay for city slickers, but a little too vague for comrades in arms.
Just as BMW promised us no more understeer and no more steering fight when they released the latest M135i, Mercedes claims a totally neutral handling attitude and zero torque-steer for the AMG 45 S.
True or false? With an extra 85kW wedged in between its broad buttocks compared to the Bee-Em, the AMG is pardoned for a few centimetres of third-gear understeer at the limit. Although discreet, the torque distribution is never fully isolated from our palms, which is a good thing because it relays information, not interference.
Like almost all DCT-equipped cars, this one can be caught out by a sudden change of plan, like an aborted overtaking manoeuvre. Depending on gear and throttle position, we did for the blink of an eye register a faint trace of throttle lag that never returned beyond 3500rpm.
Would I spend my own money on the hottest hatch on the market? Probably not. But I might consider the CLA AMG 45 wagon, which is more practical and less conspicuous. In combination with the pending plug-in electric-hybrid package, the high-tech four-cylinder engine conceived in Affalterbach may soon even eclipse the C63 on my personal desirability chart.
As it stands, the 310kW Mercedes has no real rivals. The BMW M135i does not really compete and the M2 is half a second slower off the mark to start with, the Audi RS3 is lost in reverie and too uninvolving for its own good, and the Alpine A110 is a different animal altogether.
Let’s face it, a quality five-seater that can outsprint a C63 AMG costing twice as much has got to have a lot going for it. The ultimate A-class certainly chiselled a broad grin into my face, which duly froze in anticipation of a hopefully prompt encore on either the road or race track.
All about the drive on MOTOR car reviews
2020 Mercedes-AMG A45 S
BODY: 5-door, 5-seat hatchback
ENGINE: 1991cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
BORE/STROKE: 83.0 x 92.0mm
POWER: 310kW @ 6750rpm
TORQUE: 500Nm @ 5000-5250rpm
POWER-TO- WEIGHT: 185kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: MacPherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
TRACKS: 1605/1585mm (f/r)
STEERING: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
BRAKES: 360mm ventilated/drilled discs, single-piston calipers (f); 330mm ventilated/drilled discs, single-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 19.0 x 9.0 (f/r)
TYRES: 255/35 ZR19 (f); 255/35 ZR19 (r)
PRICE: $83,000 (est)
PROS: Class-leading performance; entertaining Drift Mode; 8-speed DCT; electronic chassis wizardry
CONS: Optimistic consumption figure; brake durability