Overall rating: 4/5
Say hello to the new entry-point to the ever-expanding AMG line-up. The A 45 AMG is the smallest AMG model yet, but it still packs a sizeable punch thanks to its boosted four-cylinder engine and grippy four-wheel drive chassis.
In the metal 5/5
The sculpted lines of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class form a good basis for an AMG model. There's an all-new front bumper and grille, much larger air intakes and a splitter than can be finished in gloss or carbon black. The same options are available for the side sill extensions. Out back there's another new bumper, this time housing a diffuser insert and large squared-off exhaust outlets. The latter two openings are divided into four when the optional performance exhaust is fitted. Buyers can also specify additional aerodynamic elements such as aero 'flics' to the sides of the front bumper and a large roof spoiler at the back.
They're standard on the Edition 1 model, along with an even larger front splitter. Buyers can choose between cirrus white and cosmos black paint, though the red highlights are standard on both, as are red brake callipers, nestling behind multi-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels painted matt black and featuring AMG hub caps with a centre-locking look. The AMG Night package is also included.
Inside, the red-stitched AMG Performance Seats are standard, as is a tactile carbon-look weave for the whole dashboard. The air vents are highlighted in red (which we reckon is a bit garish) though the bespoke instruments are as lovely to look at as they are easy to read. Between them is a computer screen that features more vehicle system readouts on demand than in a regular A-Class. The leather and suede steering wheel has a moderately flattened bottom and it's just on the right side of too thick-rimmed. The suede itself is lovely to hold. Behind the wheel is a seriously solid set of real metal gearchange paddles and the other gearbox operations are taken care of by the characteristic chunky selector in the centre console.
The Edition 1's cabin extends the black and red theme further, with contrast stitching in the part man-made leather/microfibre seats, in the doors, over the instruments and on the steering wheel. The transmission selector also has the AMG emblem embossed into the leather and Merc even throws in a set of AMG floor mats.
Driving it 4/5
At the launch we spent most of our time (on track and on the road) in an example of the A 45 AMG fitted with the performance exhaust option. It makes the car surprisingly loud, especially when you select Sport from the gearbox menu and Sport Handling from the three-stage ESP system. There are crackles and pops on the overrun, loud bangs when you upshift at full throttle and even when you're cruising it makes itself heard. Some wouldn't have this car without this option; others will hate it.
The performance exhaust does bring the engine alive, which we reckon it needs. Nobody can deny that it's a highly impressive piece of engineering, currently laying claim to the title of 'most powerful series-production four-cylinder turbo engine in the world' and seemingly second only to the McLaren P1 in terms of outright power per litre at 181hp. It produces a beefy 360hp, which makes itself felt as the needle of the rev counter accelerates around the last quarter of the dial, but its 450Nm of torque endows the car with genuine tractability. That peak figure is on tap all the way from 2,250- to 5,000rpm and hence there's always meaningful acceleration available. The 4.6-second 0-100km/h time indicates how quick this car is (and the driver can test it out for himself with the 'Race Start' launch control system), but as ever with such a torque-rich engine it's the in-gear sprints that truly impress.
To best use it we found it makes sense to take control of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission for yourself. The Comfort mode is fine when cruising or in town and Sport mode is appreciably quicker, but sometimes it changes down a gear when you'd rather use the available torque. Using Manual mode also allows you make more gratuitous down-changes of course, which initiates a flare of revs and the aforementioned smile-inducing sounds from the exhaust.
In the dry, on the public road, you'll be hard pushed to call the ESP system into play without really trying to provoke the car. The mid-level Sport Handling setting is ideal, though even with the system disengaged it takes a huge amount of provocation to initiate a rear-led slide. Indeed, driven hard on the very challenging undulations of the new Bilster Berg circuit, understeer soon set in and the rear tyres rarely naturally drift. It turns out that the maximum split of the 4MATIC four-wheel drive system is 50 per cent of the engine's output to the rear wheels. That really is a shame. Likewise, there's no limited slip differential available for this car. We can't argue with the fact that it's incredibly well balanced and quite adjustable at the limit, or with the direct steering and utter competence on the road, but drivers used to the rear-led feeling of say a high-powered BMW may not find the A 45 AMG enticing enough.
We're also a little surprised to hear that adaptive damping isn't available. The suspension is bespoke to the AMG car, and it offers considerably firmer body control than the lesser A-Class models, but we do worry about how stiff it may be for Irish roads. Certainly on the optional (and stunning) 19-inch alloy wheels. Behind those rims is an uprated brake system, which comes with a reassuringly firm pedal.
What you get for your money 4/5
Until Audi launches its next generation RS 3 Sportback the Merc A 45 AMG appears to have few direct rivals, which makes it difficult to rate in terms of value for money. It is well equipped, as you'd hope for an estimated starting price here of €60,000. The Edition 1 model is considerably more expensive (though we don't yet have a price for it).
In terms of efficiency, official values of 161g/km and 40.9mpg are astounding for the performance on offer, but even if you tap into just a fraction of the power regularly you'll come nowhere near to matching the quoted combined economy figure. For the record we averaged 13 litres/100km (21.7mpg) over two days of particularly fast driving - including a 230km/h foray onto the autobahn. Closer to 30mpg should be possible at normal speeds. On track we saw an average of 20 litres/100km (14.1mpg)!
To make the A 45 a true AMG car its engine is of course hand built in the usual 'one man, one engine' manner and it bears his stamp on it. It's packed with technology, but the most important elements appear to be the multi-stage high-pressure direct fuel injection system and the twin-scroll turbocharger. Combined, they manage to enhance performance and drivability while assisting to reduce emissions and fuel consumption. The injection system in particular is credited with reducing the emission of pollutants (as opposed to CO2, which is not locally harmful) to the levels demanded by the second stage of EU6 legislation - which doesn't come into force until 2017.
We're not giving the new Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG the full five stars, due mainly to the missing last nth of driver involvement and the nagging worry about the stiffness of the suspension. However, we welcome the baby AMG car with open arms and there's no doubting that it's one of the most desirable hot hatches money can buy right now.