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How time does fly. More than three years have passed since the W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class arrived on the scene, cutting a wide swath in the premium entry-level market in the time since. Beyond the success of significant market take-up, the little hatchback also transformed convention for the brand, effectively altering perception of dowdy to outright trendy.

That accomplishment is not insignificant – this then is the car that heralded the start of the revolution, paving the way for much of that being witnessed in the current Mercedes lineup, both in spectrum and scope. To say that the third-gen offering has been radical in both approach and application would be understating it, especially when you consider the conservatism that was at play previously.

Handsome it may remain, but like with everything else, the mid-life cycle has necessitated a nip and tuck to ensure relevancy, and the rework for the car came about in June last year, the car making its debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Does the update – which carries more mechanical refinements than physical ones – keep the A-Class competitive in the face of more resolute competition? Chris Aaron and I find out by sampling the refreshed car in Dresden, Germany.

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Blink, and you’ll miss it, really. Presumably working on the adage of “if it ain’t broke,” the exterior revisions are subtle, to say the least – at the front, there are new headlights, a new bumper design and a unified radiator grille (diamond tri-str design with single solid fin on regulation models, and an integrated, close-space two-fin layout for the A 45), while the rear features a new tail lamp design, re-sculpted rear bumper and exhaust tips that are now integrated into the rear diffuser.

New wheel designs help dress up – and differentiate – the facelift, and there are plenty of choices (well, maybe not in Malaysia), with no less than 16 different designs being listed on the A-Class wheel manifest. As with the pre-facelift, 11 exterior colours abound (three solid, seven metallic and one designo mountain gray magno shade), with the new communication colour for the outing being Elbaite Green, rather striking in the metal, though it does look like you’d have to be brave to actually own one.

Aside from the new wheels, the rest of the visual makeover is left to exterior packages, to which there is little change in configuration. Again, like on the initial W176, the same interior design/equipment packages – Exclusive, AMG Exclusive – can be found, as is the Night package, but the primary equipment lines amount to three, on top of a base non-line variant called Standard.

The Standard, which of course we won’t be getting here, is a rather bare-boned offering shod with manual AC, fabric seats, a Comfort suspension and 15-inch steel wheels, complete with plastic wheel caps. Even in photos, it looks a pinch, so the real deal can’t possibly be any more flattering.

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The Style line is the first dress-up pack, and features 16- or 17-inch alloy wheel choices, sports seats clad in Artico leather/fabric, a honeycomb-look trim as well as the diamond tri-star grille finished in high-gloss black. Elsewhere, chrome elements are to be found both inside and outside.

Next is the Urban line, which adds on even more chrome bits into the equation (beltline, front/rear bumper trim), a checquerboard-look trim and five-twin-spoke 17-inch alloys as standard. Incidentally, the Urban line will be the entry-level specification for Malaysian cars.

As for the AMG Line equipment level, which has been renamed from the AMG Sport trim seen on the pre-facelift, the line comes with an AMG bodystyling kit and new exhaust finishers that are now integrated into the rear bumper. The studs on the diamond radiator grille are finished in chrome, with an 18-inch alloy wheel (and 225/40 profile tyres) configuration to be found.

A sports suspension (lowered by 15 mm) gets strapped on, though there’s also a lowered comfort suspension available as an option. Also present, like with the pre-facelift, is a Direct-Steer speed sensitive steering – incorporating variable steering ratio – and a brake system featuring larger ventilated and perforated brake discs, as well as callipers with “Mercedes-Benz” lettering.

Like before, interior kit includes carbon-look interior trim elements, stainless steel pedals and sports seats finished in Artico/Microfiber Dinamica upholstery, complete with red contrast topstitching. Also on, a three-spoke sports steering wheel.

As was the case with the pre-facelift, going the A 250 Sport variant route adds items on top of the base AMG Line equipment trim. Outside, red trim is to be found on the front/rear aprons, and the colour also adorns both front/rear brake callipers. Inside, more of the colour – the seatbelts are finished in red, as are the AC vent surrounds, and it’s seen as contrast top-stitching for the floor mats, which come dressed with ‘Sport’ lettering.

The Sport route also adds mechanical revisions – there’s an AMG speed-sensitive sports steering, an AMG-engineered sports suspension (which also lowers the ride by 15 mm, like that seen on the AMG Line trim) as well as a sportier engine, transmission and accelerator configuration. Oh, and regardless of exterior packs, the facelift can be had with optional LED High Performance headlights.

If that’s not enough, there’s actually a fourth trim line in the mix. The Motorsport Edition, as it’s called, is available as an option for all regular engined variants from the A 200 and A 200 d onwards, but not for the Mercedes-AMG A 45. The package, simply put, introduces Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 overtones to the car.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class FL Motorsport Edition Petronas 1

Dress up bits include a rear aerofoil, 19-inch multi-spoke AMG light-alloy Design 787 wheels and a designo Mountain Grey magno exterior shade, with petrol green elements providing highlights – as previously reported, the colour can be found adorning the front and rear bumper trim, the flanges of the wheels, the rear aerofoil and on the side mirror covers.

Inside, the air vent surrounds are also finished in petrol green, and the shade also provides contrast in the form of top-stitching and edge trim on the seat belts. The colour also features on a striking decorative runner strip for the seats.

We’d previously reported that the Motorsport Edition route would add a fair bit of cost to the model it adorns – depending on the engine variant, the kit will cost buyers an additional 4,850 to 6,300 euros (RM21,800 to RM28,300). Interested buyers here might actually get their hands on one, because word is that Mercedes-Benz Malaysia might be bringing a number of units in, very possibly A 250 Sport units.

That sorts out the equipment lines and trim levels. On the general front, revisions to the interior include a new tubular design instrument cluster , new centre console buttons and steering wheel designs as well as the addition of a 12-colour LED ambient lighting pack.

Also available is a larger 8.0-inch free-standing, frameless central display, up by an inch over the previous outing. The infotainment system, which is now easier and more intuitive to operate, supports comprehensive smartphone integration, with Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink support being available from 2016 production models on.

Elsewhere, seat cushion depth adjustment (up to 60 mm) is now standard across the A-Class model range, and new colours and materials, as well as new finishes for the dashboard trim are to be found – there’s a new Sahara Beige leather seat upholstery available for Exclusive-specified models.

Active safety kit remains largely unchanged – among the familiar items are Distronic Plus proximity control and Attention Assist, though the latter has been upgraded with an extended speed range, now able to operate at 60-200 km/h. Collision Prevention Assist has also been upgraded to a Collision Prevention Assist Plus radar-based proximity warning and braking assistance system.

As for variant options, a total of 17 were mentioned at point of introduction, the list dotted with a number of 4Matic models (six). We’ll leave the tables to show the individual specifications of the seven diesel and 10 petrol versions available globally, which naturally tops off with the Mercedes-AMG A 45, but a quick mention of some relevant points.

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The first concerns the entry-level model, both global and local. The A 160 is the new baseline variant, replacing the A 180 in the pre-facelift lineup as the starting point. For Malaysia, we were told the facelifted A-Class range will kick off with the A 180, which continues on with Camtronic-equipped 1.6 litre M 270 DE 16 AL seen previously, still offering 120 hp at 5,000 rpm and 200 Nm at 1,250-4,000 rpm. Like before, the mill is available in a second state of tune for the A 200 (154 hp and 250 Nm), which will also be available here.

The second is a revision to the output of the 2.0 litre M 270 DE 20 mill in the A 250 Sport variant – the unit now offers a small hike in power, offering 215 hp (218 PS, if you prefer) at 5,000 rpm, up by seven horses from the 208 hp seen previously. Strangely enough, the non-Sport A 250, which has the same unit, continues with 208 hp. Torque remains as before, with 350 Nm at 1,200 to 4,000 rpm in both power output tunes.

The A 250 Sport also gets a new “Launch Assist” function for the 7G-DCT dual-clutch transmission, which brings the 0-100 km/h time down to 6.3 seconds from the 6.6 seconds in the outgoing car. The improvement in acceleration time isn’t just limited to the bumped up A 250 Sport – the A 200, even with unchanged power outputs, reaches the century mark 0.2 seconds quicker, at 8.1 seconds.

New to the facelift is Dynamic Select, which varies the engine, transmission, steering and air-conditioning to suit selected modes, of which there are four – Comfort, Sport, Eco and Individual. The function is fitted as standard on upper-range variants as well as models fitted with 7G-DCT, AMG Line or a lowered suspension.

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There’s also adaptive damping, available as an optional extra, but only going to be available here on the A 45. This one pairs with the Dynamic Select system to swap between Comfort mode – with comfortable damping characteristics – and Sport mode, which brings about a sportier and stiffer damper setup.

Here, acceleration sensors are used to measure the vehicle’s body movements, with information such as the steering angle, steering speed and yaw rate being included when calculating the damping characteristics. A proportional valve is actuated electronically at each shock absorber to control the oil flow and a damper’s characteristics. Infinitely variable, the configuration is individual for each wheel.

So, not many alterations to the hit record, despite delving into the changes in detail, but no better way than to see what they brought to the refreshed car than through driving it – co-driver Chris Aaron (who was with another publication at the time) and I landed a Cirrus White A 220d for the first stage of the drive, which took us out from Dresden into EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Klettwitz,

No plans to bring in the unit (or any of the A-Class diesels, for that matter), which is a shame, because the report card for the 2.1 litre OM 651 scores high marks – there’s a nice dimensionality about it, aided by the normal high tractability levels of an oil burner, but it’s not just down to that. It may well be the workings of the Dynamic Select system, but the 7G-DCT doesn’t feel as languid as it is in current applications.

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The level of ride comfort has also improved – while I wouldn’t call it plush, there’s better pliancy. It wasn’t just noticeable with the diesel, but also with the AMG-engineered sports suspension on the A 250 Sport. At Klettwitz, where track time with the A 45 was next on the cards, there was a chance to take out the Motorsport Edition of the A 250 Sport 4Matic, which was part of an AMG Drive Experience presentation at the event (an A 250 Sport was also on show).

Much has been said of the W176’s ride comfort, and enough polemic exists on the subject that it cannot be avoided . The usual bit sounds a bit like this – “lovely looking car, but hardly the final word in comfort,” especially in the case of the old A 250 Sport, in the local context.

A short 20 km plus loop course around the area in the new car suggests that things have taken a turn for the better, because the 4Matic mule, while firm, wasn’t noticeably jarring or crashy, even at low to intermediate speeds on a poorer stretch of B-road that was a detour route for photo taking.

Then again, suspension aspects have thrown a spanner or six when it comes to local application – vehicles that have ridden well on European tarmac haven’t always translated to the same here, so we’ll have to wait for a local drive to see if the new iteration of the A 250 Sport finally gets it sorted.

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Aside from the improved levels of ride, the new A-Class also feels more integrated from a dynamic viewpoint. It feels tauter and more cohesive, and in the case of the all-wheel drive A 250 Sport demonstrator, keenly responsive to input. Plenty of grip, and no shortage of urgency from the revised mill and drivetrain combi. The steering is probably the only lacking aspect, inconsistent in feel at points – for real definition, you’ll have to look to the A 45’s.

Some musings on the less than perfect parts, which unfortunately can’t be changed – as was the case with the pre-facelift, there’s no escaping the fact that the back of the cabin is a cramped proposition. The front copes well enough, even when you plonk a strappy lad like Chris in it, but the lack of acreage in the rear has become even more perceptible three and a half years on. Likewise, the 381 litre boot space, which remains a challenge in negotiating large baggage-related antics.

Nonetheless, the facelift has improved on the things that matter – drivability aspects are up, as are levels of ride comfort and overall refinement, evident not just with the A 45, which shows the most improvement gains of all the W176 variants, but also with the A 250 Sport, which delightfully surprised, right through to the A 220d. The latter, it could well be argued, was probably the most balanced of the tested trio.

I’ll leave Chris to offer the viewpoint on the A 45, which in its reworked form continues to be very much a favourite in my books. As for the W176 facelift proper, it really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Granted, it’s not a revolution as was the case when it first arrived, but there’s still plenty of zest in this one, if the outing in Dresden is anything to go by.

Chris Aaron chimes in with his thoughts about the Mercedes-AMG A 45:

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Officially, yes, this is just a facelift. But ultimately, what Mercedes-AMG has done to its A 45 appears far from what is commonly understood of the term. Rather than simply slap on a few extra flics and call it a day, the AMG division has introduced a bucket of thorough improvements that address almost every flaw of the outgoing model.

Aesthetically, you could argue that the original “45” wasn’t as aggressive to look at – personally, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d have to take a second look if you told me that it was a fire-breathing AMG model. The model update corrects that with a much more aggressive design — one that isn’t easily copied and/or replicated on an A 200, either.

There’s a more complex set of AMG-specific bumpers, and if you’re lucky enough to have your car equipped with the optional Aerodynamic pack, you get an additional rear wing with front and rear flics on the bumpers. Note also that the model pictured here is fully equipped with every option available, including the mentioned Aerodynamic pack.

The rear diffuser looks far more purposeful now, and you can almost see how airflow is managed by just looking at it. Inside, there’s simply a new AMG instrument cluster with a new twin-tube look, as well as the updated flat-bottomed steering wheel. The remaining bits have largely been left as before.

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As different as it visibly appears to be, its power and tech areas are actually where you’ll find the AMG A 45’s biggest improvements. Just in case you’ve missed it, the 2.0 litre four-cylinder turbo engine, aptly nicknamed “The Beast,” now makes 21 hp and 25 Nm of torque more than before. Go figure — the world’s most powerful 2.0 litre four-pot engine just got even more power.

The AMG man-made mill now delivers 381 hp and 475 Nm of torque, enabling the A 45 to go from zero to 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds, smashing its old time by 0.4 seconds. To do this, you’ll have to arm the updated AMG Speedshift 7-DCT seven-speed dual-clutch auto transmission’s launch control function, which fortunately, has a simplified operating logic.

Several new performance options have been made available for the A 45, being the AMG Ride Control sports suspension with adjustable adaptive damping, AMG Dynamic Plus Package (adds a front axle diff lock and an additional Race mode) and an AMG Performance exhaust system. Clearly, this model update goes well beyond its aesthetics.

Anthony and I had several runs in the new A 45 — on public streets, and even on a track. Fortunately, the car we had to do it all in was specified with every possible option available. As far as we could tell on the smooth roads in and around Dresden, the AMG Ride Control was greatly handy. It is effectively only a two-stage system, going from Comfort to Sports, but that’s still one mode that isn’t as hard as the other to savour.

There isn’t much else to say about the A 45 driving on public streets, apart from there being better throttle and transmission response. It seems like Mercedes has revised both items to yield more urgency, unlike the lazy lot in the current range of compact Benz models with the 7G-DCT dual-clutch transmission.

On a track is where this machine really comes to life — we were each given a short five-lap run around the Lausitzring Euro Speedway in Dresden to sample the A 45’s new talents. A nice circuit, with a good mix of fast, sweeping corners, long straights, and tight hairpins.

Having driven the outgoing version and its nemesis, the Volkswagen Golf R, at the Sepang International Circuit, it’s no surprise that the Golf won Round 1, hands down. Its 4Motion all-wheel drive, XDS diff lock system and more gave the VW a healthy advantage over the A 45, despite the latter’s additional power.

On the EuroSpeedway, the A 45 showed it might well get the next round. The car not only has an AMG front axle diff lock, AMG Ride Control suspension and a new Race mode which turns the car up to “11”, it’s also packing a lot more power, something instantly recognisable the moment you hit the throttle.

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In its full Race mode, the A 45 is relentlessly quick in a straight line. As drivers with some experience being in fast cars on race tracks, we imagine that there would be little left (apart from a hypercar experience) that would surprise us in a straight line anymore — the new A 45 begged to differ with our beliefs.

In conjunction with the AMG Ride Control system, the car also gets an updated speed-sensitive steering that is also a two-stage system itself. In Race mode, the steering feels perfectly tuned for track work, and makes the driving so much more enjoyable too. The front wheels respond almost intuitively with your intentions and you really get a strong feel of where the car’s limits are from all four corners.

The result leaves you feeling brave enough to keep pushing to be quicker, and with every lap, it was surprising how much more the car was willing to be pushed hard without washing wide. Being a compact hatch with a naturally shorter wheelbase, you’d also expect it to oversteer a lot sooner than the new A 45 actually does. In fast, sweeping corners, it was impressive to see how well the car managed high speed corners before getting the jitters.

All in, the new A 45 was a hoot on the track. You could argue that the previous model wasn’t as impressive on a circuit, and would easily be left in the dust by a Golf R, save for its monster engine. This new one, however, warrants a whole new level of respect.

GALLERY: Mercedes-Benz A 250 Sport Motorsport Edition