EXCEPTING THE MCLAREN P1 hybrid hypercar, fewer than 400 of which will ever be made, the machine I'm driving boasts the highest specific output of any vehicle on the road today, its engine producing an extraordinary 177.5 bhp per litre. Coupled to a weight of less than 1.5 tonnes (it would be around 150kg lighter if it didn't have all-wheel-drive), that insane power-to-capacity ratio means that it goes like stink, being easily fast enough off the line to blow away an Aston Martin Vanquish or a Porsche 911 3.4. Crucially it also corners as if superglued to the road, and it'll stop on a sixpence if you stand on the brakes hard enough.
Yet compared with the P1, which vaguely resembles a Le Mans racer, bristles with the most advanced automotive technology and carries a US$1.15 million sticker price (and in some markets costs a good deal more than double that), my little white Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG test car appears so commonplace that few people give the Golf-sized hatchback a second glance. Those in the know, however, clock the front splitter, the black surrounds on the gaping lower-front intakes, the big red brake calipers peering out from behind the 19-spoke, 19-inch wheels and the ultra-lowprofile tyres, and correctly surmise that this is no ordinary A-class.
We'd been prepared for a hot version of Benz's entry-level saloon from the moment the Stuttgart-based manufacturer revealed that the third-generation A would resemble less a downsized MPV than a regular hatch. What we were not expecting was just how utterly incendiary this little car would be. Until the latter's introduction last summer, the class-leading pocket rocket was the BMW 135M, whose 3-litre, straight six produces 316bhp and 430 Newtonsper-metre of torque. Mercedes' response was to hand the A-class over to its AMG performance arm, who've upped the ante to a level undreamed of when this market segment was created back in the mid-1970s, with the introduction of the 108bhp VW Golf GTI.
How things have changed. As fettled by AMG and bearing the nameplate of the mechanic who painstakingly hand-built it, the A45's four-cylinder, turbocharged 2-litre engine (its dimensions are identical to that of the A250 Sport, w hich already produces a more-than-respectable 208bhp) delivers eye-watering maxima of 355 horses and 450 Newtons. In fact, this is so much power and torque that the only way of getting both onto the tarmac is to feed them throug h the front and rear wheels via a clever 4Matic system that kicks in whenever the car is being driven aggressively. And that not only accounts for the Merc's startling acceleration, but also its massive ability on the corners.
This latest A-class is infinitely more conventional and sportier than its predecessors, being slightly longer than the VW Golf – generally regarded as the class yardstick – and just a little lower. It's edgier, too, with upwardly swooping swage lines along its flanks, a coupe-like roofline and a rakish bonnet all combining to hook younger buyers who were immune to the charms of earlier As. For a hatchback it looks remarkably svelte – sexy even.
The handling, too, has improved beyond all recognition. Some 16 years ago a first-gen A-class disastrously failed a “moose-test” slalom, and the reputation stuck in spite of comprehensive remedial work. No such issues with the current model, even standard front-drive versions of which are garnering praise for their sharp handling, tenacious grip and all-round entertainment.
With the regular cars being so worthy and involving – and fast, too: the A250 Sport tops out at 240km/h and sprints to 100 in just 6.6 seconds – it might be fair even to question the need for an AMG version other than as a halo car, highlighting the thoroughgoing transformation that has turned the A-class from an idiosyncratic also-ran into a genuine contender. I'm even wondering that myself – or at least I am till I strap myself into the slender, body-hugging sports seats and adjust the three-spoke, flat-bottom steering wheel. At this point any thoughts as to the superfluity of this little machine are immediately replaced by mounting anticipation.
The interior follows what's fast becoming the norm for high-performance German automobiles: black everywhere, relieved by highlights of red and aluminium. Predictably the carbon-fibre trim is fake (shame), though in compensation the artificial leather on the front seats is very cool indeed, as is the trio of circular air vents at the centre of the dash, which come straight from the SLS. Build quality appears faultless and unlike all other non-manual A-classes, the gear selector is where it should be – i.e., on the centre console – though the LCD control panel does look like an afterthought. The driving position is brilliant.
So, here goes. Start it up, and at tickover the A45 sounds pretty much like any other four-cylinder Merc. Select drive on the seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission, release the electronic handbrake, slowly ease out into city traffic and it's as quiet and unobtrusive as a housebound pussycat, the gears changing imperceptibly and the engine public-spiritedly switching itself off whenever we come to a halt – though as the car drives over each gap in the road surface with a pronounced thump, I'm already noticing the firm suspension.
Hitting the pedal, however, reveals a very different, and infinitely more extreme character. Although there's the merest hint of lag at low speeds before the twin-scroll turbo kicks in – with a deliciously audible whoosh of air from the wastegate – the throttle response and sheer grunt once the revs hit the sweet spot are absolutely phenomenal.
Using race start, a function usually restricted to supercars, Benz claims a 0-100km/h time of 4.6 seconds, while some independent testers have shaved as much as half a second off that. But whatever the figures, this car is so unbelievably, so deliriously fast that it's genuinely bewildering – or at least it would be if I had a moment to think about it. Top speed is electronically limited to 25okm/h; unchipped, it would go much faster.
The handling is equally quick, confident and, at least up to the speeds at which I'm able to drive it, absolutely predictable. Chucking it into corners at up to 110km/h (I'm not saying where) is obviously far more exciting for me than it is for the car, which takes everything I can do, and presumably a whole lot more, easily in its stride. As for the ride, well, on a scale ranging from goose-feather to rock hard it's nearer the latter, though as I'm enjoying myself so much, waft is the last thing I'm bothered about.
My only serious gripe is with the gearbox, which even in sport mode displays a mind of its own, though I do love the simulated double-declutches on downshifts that result in addictive crackles and farts from the cleverly tuned exhaust. Upshifts can be frustratingly slow, and occasionally it refuses to change down at all. The answer on fast sections is to select manual (though even then the electronics may intervene) and do the work myself, wishing there were the option of an old-fashioned six-speed stick shift.
Do I care? Hardly at all, for it's almost impossible to climb out of this automobile without a huge grin, wobbling legs and a burning desire to get back in and do it again – assuming, of course, that you can even bring yourself to vacate the driver's seat. It's fast, it's awesomely capable and it's the hugest fun imaginable – and though Audi is sure to hit back with a new RS3, and BMW's M2 is incoming some time next year, right now among small cars the A45 reigns supreme.
In any case, word has it that an ultra-high-performance Black edition of the little Merc is on the way, and could anything possibly top that? On this evidence, I very much doubt it.
CAMERA COURTESY OF HASSELBLAD