It wasn’t a great way to start life with a new ride. Flat and uninspiring aren’t terms you’d normally use to describe a 250 hp and 340 Nm hatchback, but the Ford Focus ST I’d just taken delivery of felt very much that, like a can of warm soda missing the fizz. Downright pedestrian, actually.
The test mule I’d returned in the morning before heading off to collect the ST had everything to do with it. If anything was able to make a decent hot hatch feel absolutely tepid, then it would be an even hotter hatch. Which is precisely what the Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG happened to be.
Alright, so it wasn’t cricket comparing both given the pricing difference, but that didn’t stop my mind from playing the inadvertent Top Trumps, simply because it could and chose to. It took days before some semblance of quick was finally felt on the ST, longer in the case of drive dynamics.
Even now, long after the music has stopped, the tune conjured by the range-topping model of the W176 A-Class range is still playing in the head. Affalterbach’s first proper hot hatch foray has been that rememberable, and I’m not the only one in the team who thinks so.
It isn’t quite for the looks, even though it looks flash enough. The test mule was a Cirrus White limited A 45 AMG Edition 1 unit, dressed with an AMG Night Package and Aerodynamics package as well as AMG multi-spoke 19-inch matte black alloys with 235/35 tyres.
The E1 A 45 also gets matte graphite grey AMG sports stripes on the bonnet, roof and sides, with additional red highlights on the radiator grille, exterior mirrors, brake calipers and rear aerofoil. A bit loud visually, but nothing too distasteful about it all. Speaking of the AMG rear aerofoil, it’s an optional piece of kit, but all Malaysian A 45s get it, Edition 1 or not.
Plenty of red accents too for the interior, which gets the seats dressed in Artico man-made leather/Dinamica microfibre with red contrasting top-stitching. The front sports seats are an absolute standout, the ergonomics and fit far surpassing many ‘sport seats’, like the Recaros on the ST.
It’s also not quite for the tech and numbers, though there’s plenty to like if you’re into such things. The M132 (now designated the M133) AMG 2.0 litre twin-scroll turbo four-pot, with 360 hp at 6,000 rpm and 450 Nm at 2,250 to 5,000 rpm for output numbers, was for a good while the most powerful series production four-cylinder engine in the world. Audi’s recently announced reworked EA888 TFSI, with a 420 PS and 450 Nm output state of tune, has taken over the mantle, but the M132 hasn’t become a snail despite the lack of a title.
The hand-built, EU6 emissions-ready mill is paired to an AMG Speedshift DCT seven-speed dual-clutch sports transmission, which is directly flange-mounted on the transversely-installed engine. There’s AMG 4MATIC all-wheel drive as standard, and as far as performance figures go, the A 45 is good for a 0-100 km/h dash in 4.6 seconds and an electronically-limited 250 km/h top speed. No slouch, then.
As standard, the car is fitted with a twin-pipe AMG sports exhaust system, which features large pipe cross-sections and an automatically controlled exhaust flap that’s continuously adjusted by map control according to the power called up by the driver, load status and engine speed.
An optional AMG Performance exhaust system (fitted on the local car as standard) offers the same exhaust flap and a dedicated tailpipe trim design, but has a more audible note when the throttle is open and during gear shifting, downshifting and during upshifting under full load.
In addition to double-declutching and Race Start functions, there are three driving programme modes, C (Controlled Efficiency), S (Sport) and M (Momentary M mode), the last enabling the dynamism and performance of gear-shifting in manual mode in all of the automatic driving programmes, with automatic up- and down-shifting in the mix.
There’s also a three-stage ESP (On, Sport Handling and Off) with ESP Curve Dynamic Assist, the latter offering perceptible braking intervention on the inside wheel to offer more precise cornering.
Both suspension and brakes get the AMG treatment, the former featuring specifically-tuned spring/damper units and larger stabilisers among the revisions, while an AMG high-performance braking system with ventilated and perforated discs can be found.
The real fun begins at start-up, which is always going to be a recurring adventure, and if the car is new to the neighbourhood, definitely attention-grabbing. The exhaust soundtrack is a winner – visceral, unarguably primal and thoroughly engaging to the ears even at idle, it’s a real joy at full pelt (or during upshifts and downshifts). The downside to it is that attempting to leave home at 1am in a stealthy manner is pretty much unmanageable.
The bold, sonorous aural concert from the 45 is however pretty much left to the workings of the exhaust. There’s not much in the way of contribution from the four-pot, even whilst charging along.
The M132 sings a rather humdrum tune, the way most fours do, and is for want of a better term unintrusive, especially at cruising speeds. At 90 km/h, the engine turns at 1,500 rpm, remaining muted in the 1,800 rpm zone at the national speed limit. There’s no real sonic assault from the block even when the needle gets to the 200 speed mark, the lump humming along at just over 3,000 rpm.
It’s the reason why the A 45 is such a little ripper, with an excellent turn of speed (especially in-gear), but it’s all accomplished with plenty of finesse and linearity across the range – the more noticeable magic will be felt through that seminal exhaust and the way the car handles.
In terms of handling, the 45 is prone to understeer if you carry a fair bit of speed into a turn and adopt the traditional gentle in and quick out approach, as Hafriz mentions in his part of the piece, but once you get the hang of utilising the throttle into a turn, the 45 is magic.
The all-wheel drive offering is a veritable corner carver, so much so I came back for second and third late night dibs on the usual Putrajaya/Cyberjaya route the test weekend, each time finding a higher threshold as the car became more familiar, the last session – after resident pixman Sherman Sim was done with night photography of the car – being especially vibrant.
The level of grip is outstanding, that of traction no less impressive, and as a point-to-point machine, the 45 is downright phenomenal, enough to make something like the front-drive ST a docile mom mobile in comparison, flailing about twenty corners behind.
The steering could do better in terms of associated feel in relation to things down the line, especially off centre, but it is precise and quick enough for the job. In the end, I covered close to 500 km in the evaluator, with plenty of short, tight course routes in the mix. It has certainly been a while since I’ve driven an evaluator that much and in such fashion, which speaks volumes about the 45.
It’s not all roses, of course. If you start dissecting it into the individual parts, there are some spots that have less gloss. It’s going to need RON 97, for one, and elsewhere, the 7G-DCT feels a bit flat down the engine range in an urban environment, certainly so in the car’s Controlled Efficiency mode.
You’d think that if you got serious about things, that the response would pick up, but that’s not truly the case – Sport opens things up, but the ‘box isn’t decidedly quick and the ratios don’t always feel seamless, particularly from second going into third. Manual shifting at pace returns the best results, but there’s still some slowness evident.
Then there’s the ride – while stiff, I didn’t find it uncompromising, but many might. About the only caveat is that mid-corner ruts tend to upset the car’s attitude, but other than that the time spent in the car wasn’t punishing from a ride point of view.
The level of firmness is something that seems to be tied in with the W176’s nature though, by the looks of it. The guys who drove the A 250 Sport during the car’s stint on Driven Web Series #3 said it was hard, unbearingly so at times. Not quite my take of it from the drive in Slovenia, where I thought it quite compliant, but the A 250 Sport was on a quasi-track then.
Also, wind noise from the front windows can be deemed intrusive, noticeable even at 110 km/h. Granted, the soundtrack from the exhaust and sensory appeal of speed means you won’t be paying much attention to that element if you’re charging along, but you won’t always be doing so.
It’ll also make you into a bit of a thug on the road. While it can be driven slowly without fuss, something about this car just eggs you on to be that hooligan – Danny had a go in it in helping ferry the car back, and admitted he was borderline reckless later. “Breathtaking, but this is a car that can get you into a lot of trouble,” as he put it.
But such is the nature of this beast – the A 45 AMG makes no excuses for what it is, a blisteringly hot hatchback, and the minor foibles seem just that, minor. In its completeness, it’s more than a whole load of bang for the RM349k asked. For those who do (and can wait for it), it’ll be your party piece, every day. As for me, I’ve learnt to be quite content with my soft and sedate mom mobile in the time since. But damn that song, because it’s still playing in my head, and very loudly at that.
AMG 4MATIC magic – Hafriz Shah makes light work of the A 45 AMG on a wet track:
It’s times like this you wish text could supply audio. Just like the God mode in old-school computer games, there’s a button by the stout gearknob of the Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG that instantly increases the car’s lung capacity. Press the discreet button, the AMG Performance Exhaust (standard here, optional in other markets) absolutely sings.
The result: a cross between an American muscle car and a sophisticated European sports car. But is it just hot air, though?
Far from it. It’s an engineering marvel not just because of the sound, but because AMG has achieved it while meeting noise and emission requirements. The sound from the four rhombus pipes seems louder and meaner than most sports cars, let alone hot-hatches.
But perhaps that was because I was nestled in the quiet Sepang track, and there was no other noise in the air except the A 45 AMG venting its anger. The calm turbo V6s in the current F1 circus could learn a thing or two about sound engineering from this lil’ one.
More good news abound. The exhaust note is just one of many ways that the uber-hot A-Class delights the senses. It’s full of hidden surprises, this one, as I head out on to the circuit.
It’s hard to know which is better – listening to the exhaust note at full pelt from the outside, or hearing its slightly muffled tone from the inside, but having fun. No, think again, being inside is always better. As it often is.
The front seats – of the more extreme AMG Performance kind that is standard here – are nothing short of superb. They wrap the driver and front passenger with such effect, they look like leather-lined versions of the racing buckets from a DTM car, complete with holes above the shoulders to accommodate harness straps.
It’s the best seating position this side of the Volkswagen Golf GTI and BMW M6 Gran Coupe. I suppose it needs to be, such is the car’s grip in corners.
Speaking of which, adhesion would count on a track as fast and wide as Sepang. To add to the challenge, the sky had just opened up a few minutes before, wetting half of the track. Good thing the AMG 4MATIC was up for a mean bout.
Other than speed and sound – both of which are a given – the A 45 AMG’s biggest advantage compared with its tamer rivals is its grip, by virtue of its all-wheel drive system and well-sorted suspension. Yes, the Golf R has all-paw traction too, but nowhere near the handling finesse harnessed by Affalterbach.
The AMG has a 60:40 variable torque split front to rear, giving it slightly more front-drive tendencies. So that’s more understeer than oversteer, but only in the extremes. Take it easy and it’s unnaturally neutral and very, very positive, like no all-wheel drive machine has a right to be.
Go a little faster into the corners and the A-Class’ front-drive legacy starts to show, forcing the AMG to push wide a tiny bit more than you’d ideally want. This is in the wet of course, and in the dry parts the grip threshold is much higher than most drivers will ever dare to unravel.
So is it disappointing in the wet, then? Not quite, as the AMG 4MATIC magic then kicked into action. Hard.
To make the most out of it, you have to override your natural understanding of the ‘slow in, fast out’ concept. With this one, you’ll have to introduce ‘power through’ into the equation, making it ‘slow in, power through, very fast out’. Yes, there’s some learning to be done to drive this machine properly.
Instead of the standard procedure of brake hard, lift off to aim for the corner apex, and then power out, the AMG 4MATIC system requires you to commit earlier into the corner and power into and out of the bend. Only then would there be enough torque sent to the rear wheels, balancing the weight shift over the front axle and killing the progress-threatening understeer build up.
It’s an alien concept at first, sure, but once you get it, you’ll absolutely fly. Like in most things that are profoundly pleasurable, adapting to something (or someone) is half the fun, and the reward once you’ve found the sweet spot is, well, a thoroughly deserved climax of the whole experience.
The Mercedes-Benz A 45 AMG asks for a lot – both in terms of financial and driving commitments – but it certainly gives back on so many levels.
It’s a hatchback and a road racer in one well polished and deeply desirable package. More so, it’s genuinely sporty in feel, and almost brutal in execution. In short, it’s a proper AMG. And like the rest of Affalterbach’s finest, this one makes no apologies.