REVIEW: 2021 Mercedes-AMG A 45 S - The Hypercar Of Hot Hatchbacks

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REVIEW: 2021 Mercedes-AMG A 45 S - The Hypercar Of Hot Hatchbacks

The A 45 S is a car that, on paper, takes it a couple of steps too far. Too much power, perhaps too much grip, too much turbo pressure, too much weight, too much speed, too much momentum, too much tech.


It’s the first car from Mercedes-AMG that, when I first skimmed over its announced spec in 2019, went “hmm…that’s a little scary”.

Based on the W177 A-Class, everyone must’ve immediately wondered what black magic Affalterbach had to invoke to tame such fury - 420PS and 500Nm of it - when condensed into a modest 5-door package that was also expected to drive in town, take the kids to school, all the while also not exploding.

In an unexpected turn of events, the most popular cars from Mercedes-AMG over the past half-decade or so have been their smallest. They’ve gotten the most press coverage and have managed to hook the most number of fresh customers into the fold of the German performance arm.

The first A 45 (W176) was joined by its siblings the CLA 45 and GLA 45. You could almost form a mental profile of your typical ’45’ driver: young, scrawny, and with dyed pale blonde hair most of the time no matter the ethnicity. They’d get giddy over exhaust pops and judge each other’s car on who has the most tasteless wrap job.

Ironically, this was paralleled by AMG’s first stab at smaller vehicles; they were very fast, but also flawed, felt angsty to sit in and drive, were a little flimsy and unrefined inside, and were saddled with the terrible burden of proof to determine if the brand’s usual big car formula translated well to smaller vehicles.

This newest supersonic A-Class, now with the S and 4Matic+ suffix, seeks to remedy those missteps. Upon first glance, this A 45 looks more mature, grown up, properly honed. And it better be, with such a firecracker of an engine under that bonnet.

So, at RM437,673, is it?

Design and Exterior

In my opinion, the previous W176 A 45 - due to the car it was based on - was more than a little ungainly for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to its proportions. The W177 version, by comparison, is genuinely pretty. Where the older model had a bulbous front end and ‘flatscreen TV’ arse, this new car sits squat and low. It’s a lovely shape just on its own.

Normally I do not care for cars in white as, visually, the colour (or lack thereof) tends to rob them of certain contours and visual drama, but there’s no doubting it’s best at contrasting the black cosmetic/aero bits that AMG have stuck on here. Subtle are the side canards just before the front wheel arches, and the boot spoiler is far from excessive either. Have you seen Honda’s FK8 Type R?

What I did not care for were the wheels, a set of 19-inch rollers in two-tone gunmetal that resembled those fitted to the A 250 AMG-Line a little too much for my liking. In isolation, they do look very good, even retro-cool. The ’S’ gets larger front brake rotors with 6 piston callipers, by the way, painted in red.

The rear diffuser leaves no doubt that this car means serious business, but I’ve no idea if it generates an appreciable amount of downforce. Worse, those snarling quad tailpipes are actually fake.

Engine and Performance

This is the main attraction. Mercedes-AMG’s lofty power and torque goals necessitated a bespoke engine, so the M139 was conceived to pick up the torch where its predecessor, the M133 left off. Based on the existing M260, but heavily modified to dispense with everything but that 1,991cc displacement, it’s obvious this hand-assembled unit was engineered to take the downsized turbocharged crown by force.

Performance is a relative metric, of course, and there’s a fuzzy and barely discernible line in the sand that quietly maintains order. One such nonexistent but widely accepted rule is that a hot hatchback cannot have pace - from factory - to rival the supercars of its time.

For some perspective, a 420PS (or 416hp) output means each 497cc cylinder is tasked with producing 106hp, which is more than a Myvi 1.5 has in totality. The huge turbo, which is mounted behind the engine block just before the bulkhead, is very intentionally placed to keep the car’s nose low and aerodynamically efficient while maintaining optimal airflow into the intake system and cooling.

Despite having just one twin-scroll spooler to feed the A 45 S’ appetite for oxygen, the M139 doesn’t feel like a handful. Sure, it’s ferocious when you put your foot down, but at normal speeds, it’s actually quite sedate. Even calm.

Makes a good noise, too….for a four-cylinder. Its vocals are expectedly lacking in range, like a boy band member’s, but it’s good at general harmonies even with those faux quad pipes at the back. Still, there’s a lurking sense that this is being ‘auto-tuned’ by the Burmester sound system (more on that later), meaning it might not sound nearly as nice to anyone outside the car.

Peak torque of 500Nm is only reached at 3,000rpm and sustained until 4,000rpm, which sounds a little limiting, but in normal driving the A 45 S has so much low-down grunt and so little lag that you’re hardly aware of it having such a thicc turbo at all.

Though it doesn’t make a habit of keeping you in that 3k-4k rev range, the AMG Speedshift DCT 8-speed dual-clutch transmission does a fine job as an intermediary and can be vicious to shift in Sport+ or Race modes, but is much less adept at slow speed around-town stuff unless you drive it like it wants you to. Fail to find a groove with it and there is some jerkiness to be suffered. It feels like a more temperamental version of the 7-speed DCT in the A 250 AMG-Line.

That said, the steering-mounted shifters hardly feel like paddles but like buttons I’m pressing through a paddle-shaped middleman. It’s by far the weakest link in the driving experience, which might have gone unnoticed if this wasn’t an AMG product.

What doesn’t feel Benz-like at all is the 4Matic+ system. Capable of sending as much as 50 percent of drive to the rear axle, this ‘active’ AWD system certainly earns that moniker. Though the sensation isn’t as prominent as in an R35 GT-R, you do notice the car shuffling power around all four wheels to keep you as glued to the road as its square set of 245 section Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres will allow.

It’s a reassuring feeling in a vehicle with this much pace and this little real estate.

Drive and Handling

Like the W177 A-Class (in both sedan and hatch form), there’s a feeling of rigidity and stoutness to the A 45 S, and this translates to perfectly acceptable levels of refinement and pliancy at normal speeds. You could even call it comfortable with the AMG Ride Control adaptive dampers set at their least aggressive setting. Firm? Yes, but completely liveable. It’ll even do a relaxing highway cruise, depending on your definition.

That’s perhaps the biggest contradiction of the A 45 S. While other big-power hatchbacks can feel compromised in some regard to delivering on their performance claims, this feels more or less like any other A-Class for the majority of the time.

Apart from the busier ride being a tad grating on long drives, this car might be the quickest point-to-point machine on sale today, delivering an infinite well of on-rails grip and gut-punch acceleration. Mercedes-AMG says that 0-100km/h can be dealt with in just 3.9 seconds. Sure, but it feels more brutal from a rolling start.

It’s also much more consistent and predictable than its predecessor in how it dispenses pace, which always seemed to hop the line between inert and axe murderer. Be a little more playful with the throttle or the drive modes and the AMG A 45 S could let you have the faintest of slip angles.

Ultimately, this hottest-of-hot W177’s feels like it's working with you through the corners, instead of taking you on a ride. You’re hardly ever left pausing for the M139 to slingshot you toward that next apex, or out of one.

Distant objects come at you quick in this car, forcing your attention to keep up. Such speed and unyielding traction can feel a little detaching, which is quite the opposite of the usual experience of thrashing a ‘hot hatch’ about on a set of bends.

Keep your right foot in check and you’ll find the car is actually quite engaging and quick to react to small steering and pedal inputs, allowing you to make small confidence-boosting course corrections. Understeer was never an issue, either, with sharp and direct turn-ins despite the deadpan steering.

Interior and Tech

We’ll start with the seats. The lightning white tester here came with AMG’s body-hugging (but electrically adjustable) sport buckets up front, done in a mixture of Nappa leather and Dinamica microsuede with red accents. What they lack in padding they make up for in sheer supportiveness.

Strange as it sounds, it’s actually the most comfortable I’ve felt in any hatchback due to how enveloped I felt in it provided I dialled in the adjustable lumbar, side, and thigh bolstering. Annoyingly, those adjustments are made via the infotainment screen and therefore took way too much time.

Rear passengers get something resembling a rear bench but with a much more sunken area for the corner occupants, mimicking the fronts. It’s a good effort and the seats do make a big statement on what you can expect behind the wheel, but it’s just too bad AMG wasn’t as brave with the rest of the cabin. It seems clear that the majority of the resources were poured into that engine.

Save from a few badges peppered around, the forward view is unchanged from the regular A-Class. I struggle to find a single difference in material or finish. Luckily the W177 does have one of the best dashboards ever fitted to a production car of this size. MBUX’s twin 10.25-inch screens never fail to impress as pure spectacle, and is nearly flawless in its operation and integration with connected services.

However, though intuitive, the touchpad controller along the centre tunnel can be tricky to use unless completely stationary, and I never gelled with the “Hi Mercedes” voice assistant functions.

There are 12-speakers in this Burmester sound system, including a subwoofer in the boot, but the resulting aural presentation was disappointing. Perhaps I’ve missed some magic button or needed to tweak around in the EQ settings to undo someone else’s Flat Earth reference preset, but out of the box this setup leaves much to be desired. Upon returning the AMG and hopping into my 10-year-old Peugeot with an equally dated set of JBLs, the difference in ‘oomph’ was shocking.

Speaking of new, the latest in Mercedes-Benz’s active safety suite are a standard fit in the A 45 S. I won’t bore you with a long list, but just know that autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and all its friends are in, but adaptive cruise control isn’t.

The biggest compliment I can give the A 45 S’ cabin is that it feels like a real Mercedes-Benz, feeling properly taut and exuding quality - something I couldn’t say as readily about the older A 45. Unfortunately, perhaps due to having such a strong foundation, some might feel it’s not doing enough to differentiate itself from the base car.  

Conclusion

Knowing what it can do and how rounded a package it is, especially given its price, calling the Mercedes-AMG A 45 S 4Matic+ a ‘hot hatch’ seems a little wrong. It’s so much more than that; with point-to-point pace that is seemingly unmatched and, on a twisty road, having a drive sensation that’s in approximation to that of a Nissan GT-R.

It bashes and bullies a corner into submission and catapults you into the next set of bends at such a rate that you forget this thing has rear seats and a boot at all. It’s when you ask less of that mighty M139 that you’re allowed the space to poke fun at the chassis and drivetrain.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the most developed sense of humour relative to the most mischievous of hot hatches, but in this regard, it’s miles ahead of its predecessor on potential fun factor. However, exploring more of the A 45 S’ personality requires much more road, way more talent than I can supply, and possibly accessing the car’s drift mode.

It’s stupid-quick, yes, but counters that with a package of attributes that make it close to being the consummate everyday fast car by also being practical, refined, handsomely styled, packed to the gills with tech, and because it’s a W177, pretty easy to park.

Is an A-Class worth almost RM438k? Maybe not, but how much would a supercar condensed into the body of a 5-door hatch be worth, because that’s what Mercedes-AMG is selling.



Jim Kem

Jim Kem

Content Producer

There's just something about cars. It's a conveyance, it's a liability, it's a tool; but it can also be a source of joy, pride, inspiration and passion. It's much like clothes versus fashion. And like the latter, the pursuit of perfection never ends.


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