More power, more playful – what’s not to like about this pepped petite powerhaus?
PUT a properly racy road car on a proper racing circuit and it’ll feel right at home: I learned as much three years ago when driving the original AMG 45 at Phillip Island, Victoria. What an amazing day!
What happens, though, when the updated version of the same car is put onto a circuit setting that’s virtually the complete antithesis of Victoria’s world-class venue?
Good news: The best has just become better.
The feral flagship that fronts most fiercely for Benz’s A-Class hatchback family, the smallest and cheapest models that front with the three-pointed star, remains a brilliant car for circuit play.
Even so, I had to wonder what Mercedes was hoping to prove by inviting journalists to try out the feistiest car on a ‘nowheresville’ track you’ll have to Google search to learn anything about that is purpose-designed for two wheels not four.
About an hour inland from Melbourne, the venue for play, Broadford, is so much the complete antithesis of Phillip Island that the common tie of both having particular association with bike racing – the latter through being a host venue for Australia’s biggest annual international events – is almost ironic.
Assuredly, there is no likelihood a place that should properly be called the State Motorcycle Sport Complex (Broadford is the popular parlance, being the name of the town next door) will ever threaten to nab host rights to, say, the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
It’s your typical country race track; concrete block dunnies, basic lock-ups, rudimentary race control building and about a million flies.
Dedication to bike racing explains the eight metre width – about half that of tracks designed for car racing – and a 3km layout that’s basically a bundle of corners, a couple with double apexes and blind entries and tricky exits, connected by straights more in name than nature (both have dips and gentle curves.)
By reputation Broadford gives little respite to bikes and I can report it is even harder on cars, even those honed by one of Germany’s most respected performance houses.
One colleague returned to the pits with smoke pouring from the front wheelwells of his car; it transpired his clearly enthusiastically-driven laps had been hot enough set the brakes on fire. Any place that can set alight the competition-grade pads that AMG selects is deserving of respect.
So Broadford has bite. Personally, I couldn’t get enough of it, potentially to the detriment of the brand’s plans for the day, in fact.
The idea was that we were supposed to take some track time – initially in the new A250 Sport (to learn the lines) then graduating into the madcap AMG – then dedicate the main part of the day tootling around the countryside in the mainstream A250 and A200 models. Bugger that.
I squeezed in a quick road run simply to tick that box, then dedicated effort to blagging as many laps as I could get. Which turned out to be about twice as many as everyone else.
Well, no excuses for that: Like I say, this car feels born for that kind of fun. All the moreso now, actually, because it has more grunt and has lots of other new features - revised gear ratios, adaptive damping and aerodynamic tweaks. Plus an extreme performance setting.
Whereas the original car’s dynamic options stopped with a Sport Plus configuration, the new one goes a step further to a ‘Race’ mode. You’d think a facility that utterly loosens the reins to the point where the car simply relies on its grip, all-wheel-drive traction and driver’s abilities would ache to be used on exactly the occasion Mercedes had thrown us into.
Actually no: The one we setting most wanted to try was the one we weren’t expected to access. Our hosts were so adamant about that they had an AMG instructor riding shotgun, ostensibly to suggest braking and turn-in points, but also to ensure that dial wasn’t turned beyond the modes that retain some traction and stability intervention.
Happily, my perseverance paid off: I figured if I did enough laps of a place I’d never seen before I’d build enough competence to allow a rethink. I did, they did .. and the dial was turned to extremis.
Truth be told, around here it didn’t make a big difference. Yes, the car kicked out more under throttle and squirmed more under heavy braking. The compact dimensions also made it feel nimble, agile and responsive and, of course, it was an absolute bullet in the areas where power could be laid down.
But ultimately the top and cornering speeds were simply restricted by the reality of it being such a tight layout. Had we been at Phillip Island, it would have been a different tale. Perhaps that was another reason why we didn’t go back there – it’s a power circuit and power has never been a problem for this car.
Least of all now. When the A45 first launched it was packing a smashing 265kW but that wasn't enough for AMG once the Audi RS3 achieved a touch more, now now it has an even more whopping, and again class-leading, 280kW, while torque climbs by 25Nm to 475Nm.
That makes it faster to 100kmh than the old car – and just a smidge quicker than the RS3 (the claim is 4.2 seconds versus 4.3). Top speed remains pinned to 250kmh, which is pretty quick for a car such as this any way. But that doesn’t really matter: With the A45, it’s all about the thrusting rush of the thing. It offers the kind of heart-jolting accelerative excitement that normally only associates with roller coasters when they free-fall off the ride’s highest point.
So what’s new? Well, for all the change to how the drivetrain operates, not necessarily enough to make a wholly perceptible difference: Even Mercedes agrees on that point. It’s still a feral little … flier … that’s become a touch more frenetic now.
There’s supposed to be greater revelation from the suspension and handling. The old model was so firm to be insufferable around town, so for the facelift the car has taken AMG Ride Control adaptive dampers. Having the old and new for direct comparison would have been useful; they say the car in latest form is more yielding in its Comfort setting, but obviously you shouldn’t expect limo-like plushness. Assuredly, you can still feel every contour in the road in the most cushioned setting. On the reverse side, prolonged exposure to even chunky road surfaces in the sport settings is no longer insufferable.
Overall, though, this car is as utterly barkingly bonkers as before, but perhaps better at being that way.
Another option worth mentioning that probably kept me from going into the greenery (save for the once – thanks, Arthur, for picking up the cone I flattened) is a mechanical front axle locking differential. This generally brings about a noticeable improvement in traction when you’re pressing on and accelerating hard out of bends, though, as I discovered, ultimately the laws of physics still apply.
Still, you’d have to be driving like an utter loon to reach beyond the point where this car cannot cope; there’s a massive zone in which it will behave at a level that is as intoxicating as it is incredible. Stay out of the Sports modes and it’ll even behave relatively well in normal circumstances, though of course with these looks, the outrageous new hero paint colour and a exhaust note that is reminiscent of a Group A rally car in search of a special stage it’s not one to go about any of business quietly.
If the AMG seems too much then there’s always been the fallback of the A250 Sport, also four-wheel-drive but all in all quite a bit more subdued. And yet the gap between it and the AMG car seems to be closing.
The thinking with the update seems to be that everything needs to be a bit racier now, and that’s certainly occurred with the Sport, insofar that you can now get this model with the same roof-mounted wing and winglets on the lower front guards that used to be restricted to the A45. These AMG treatments are restricted to a Motorsport Edition that’s frankly a bit too visually OMG and OTT for me; though the model did perform well enough as as ‘sighting laps’ car before we took on its Franken-cousin.
The A45 now costs $97,600, some $3200 than previously but $2600 short of what Audi NZ has been asking for the RS3 since it arrived in September, while the two other updated A-Class models at the media preview have also repositioned modestly. The A250 Sport 4Matic – originally $64,900, is now $67,900 - and the A200 petrol sits at $55,900 now, a $1000 increase.
Also on the New Zealand menu are a $48,600 A180, with the same 1.6-litre turbo petrol as the A200, but in a lower state of tune – with 90kW and 200Nm against 115kW and 200Nm – and the sole diesel. The A200d has a 2.1-litre turbo engine making 100kW and 300Nm and costs $55,900, also a $1000 increase. Those outputs are unchanged from the previous cars.