2016 Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic Review

DRESDEN, Germany — When Mercedes-Benz prepared a mid-cycle makeover for its 2016 A-Class, it tackled such issues as the borderline ride comfort while it brushed up the range of engines for better performance or efficiency or both. Nothing could be done about the cramped rear seats, the compromising roofline, or the tall, narrow access to the cargo area. Even though the A-Class is unsuitable as a family car, it makes a statement, and it is a lot of fun to drive as long as your budget stretches to the hideously expensive Mercedes-AMG A45.

U.S.-spec models sharing the A-Class’ transverse-engine, front-/all-wheel-drive platform include the CLA-Class compact “four-door coupe,” which certainly is unsuitable as a family car, and the GLA-Class compact crossover/utility vehicle, which is not. Both the 2016 Mercedes CLA45 AMG 4Matic and GLA45 AMG 4Matic benefit from the same upgrades as our A45 test car, including 20 more horses and 18 more lb-ft of torque.

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The loudest A-class is once again the hottest hatch on the market, edging the Audi RS3 by 14 hp. In launch assist mode, it will accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 4.2 seconds, thereby eclipsing its predecessor by 0.4 seconds, and the RS3 by 0.1 sec. The 155-mph top speed remains the same, unless you spend a small fortune on the Driver’s Package, which includes a driver training course and a reprogrammed 169-mph Vmax chip.

Affalterbach’s ego boosters will sell extrovert customers an even wilder looking A45 complete with winged aero kit, 19-inch alloys, blaring performance exhaust, pricey bucket seats, and a matte paint job. When the prospective owner ticks all the boxes, the compact crackerjack can cost more than a base C63 AMG.

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But just as I loved the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution despite their martial liveries and high running costs, I have always been fond of the A45. On the Lausitzring racetrack, that love affair suffered a hard blow from lap one. Even with racing driver Bernd Schneider at the wheel of the AMG?GT pace car talking us through the corners, Capt. Clueless and his white plaything struggled to get on.

Not much matched the previous positive downloads inside my head: There was now too much understeer, diminishing grip, unfamiliar handling, engine running out of revs in third and fourth gear, wheelman at odds with pedals and paddles, confidence dwindling fast. When the first stint was over, I asked Schneider for a couple eye-opening demonstration laps.

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“This car requires a different technique and its own rhythm,” the former German Touring Car and FIA GT champ said. “To make it shine, you must be very hard on the brakes and dial in really radical steering angles.” Although Kacher and Schneider will always perform in very different leagues, the pro’s coaching certainly brightened the afternoon. Brake hard? Yep. Hard and late. Later still, for the brakes and the sticky 235/35R-19 tires offer the necessary confidence. Dial in radical steering angles? You bet.

That’s radical as in arms crossed with the throttle in deep-dive mode and the engine riding the crest of the torque surf. In the AMG GT, this technique would send you straight into a huge spin. In the A45 AMG, it pulls you through with vigor and then pushes you out past the apex as you quickly gain momentum. Credit the AWD and torque vectoring, which support the steering by maintaining a sweet cornering balance.

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Hugging apexes is essential in this car, but instead of backing off before turning in, you merely reduce the torque feed while applying more lock. And even more lock. Sounds cruel, but it works. While a front-wheel drive A-Class pushed hard like this would start shredding rubber after 10 laps, the AMG version holds the line even on hot tires, thanks to the delicate and pragmatic torque distribution.

The track cars were fitted with the optional Dynamic Plus pack, which includes the Ride Control sport suspension and a mechanical front axle differential lock. Ride Control allows you to choose from two damper settings and steering effort calibrations while adding race mode for reduced ESP intervention, quicker shifts, and faster throttle action. Without a base-spec comparison car, we struggled to tell the difference in this particular environment.

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When the pit lane closed, this wish list emerged: A red in-dash warning light would help avoid hitting the limiter in manual mode, the steering should refrain from self-centering even when on lock, and a head-up display with gear indicator and graphic rev counter would not go unnoticed. On the open road, the A45 AMG did not cope well with patchwork surfaces (those 19-inch tires again) and with dips or crests where the rebound was usually harsher than expected.

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To generate more high-speed punch, AMG has shortened the ratios of the top four gears. Even though this move is bound to have a negative effect on NVH, consumption, and wear and tear, it boosts mid-range urge. Now more than ever, the new A45 addresses dedicated European drivers who may find the new RS3 too blunt and the BMW M135i xDrive too sharp. The 375-hp A-Class is even quicker than its rivals, its turbocharged four-cylinder engine is more brutal in terms of sheer grunt and acoustic presence, the brakes are simply sensational, and the roadholding is sponsored by Superglue Inc.

While compliance is not a key strength and the handling dynamics demand a new driving style, the addictive fluidity of motion and unerring composure make the latest iteration of the brawny Benz a more compelling choice.

2016 Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic Specifications

On Sale: Now (Europe only)
Price: N/A
Engine: 2.0L twin-turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/375 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 350 lb-ft @ 2,250-5,000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine AWD hatchback
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 171.6 x 70.1 x 55.8 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Weight: 3,429 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.1 sec (est)
Top Speed: 155 or 169 mph (est)

(source: automobilemag.com)