Four hundred horsepower? In a hatchback? Time to see if the Germans really have lost their marbles
Well, I was born too late. When I dreamed of refereeing an 800bhp face-off, I pictured a Ferrari 360 battling a Porsche 911 Turbo, or a BMW M5 defending honour against the most unhinged Mitsubishi Evo FQ MR-WTF.
Words: Ollie Kew / Photography: Johnny Fleetwood
But look at this. Two bona fide 400bhp contenders, in the shape of bodykitted shopping cars. The Mercedes-AMG A45S is, when all’s said and done, more of an A-Class than it is Lewis Hamilton’s weekend ride. The Audi RSQ3 is premium-economy Skoda Yeti. Not the shapes you saved as your phone wallpaper and went to bed last light dreaming of, are they?
At least the Benz has some touring car attitude to its neg-camber, come-on-then-sunshine stance. The RSQ3’s is not elegant, or purposeful, or even subtle. It misses every mark. How did the people who brought you the deliciously evil RS6 sign off this hippo in Adidas Predators?
Are they rivals? Wrong – they are. Yeah, an RS3 would be more heartland hyper-hatch, but it’s on hiatus for a couple of years while the A3 line-up is replaced. Audi’s current entry-level RS is this preposterously powerful posh Qashqai. Anyway, crossover-SUVs are busy monstering conventional hatches and decimating saloons. The landscape’s changing. Hot hatches and super-saloons don’t have the monopoly any more. Can the A45 defend it?
For your £50k – yes, these are £50,000 hatchbacks and that’s only a baseline – the Audi offers you more physical engine, but a smidge less power. The dumpy RSQ3 gives the 2.5-litre 5cyl engine a very unlikely home, where it develops 394bhp and 480Nm.
The A45’s fiendishly clever, very bespoke motor is a much less exotic 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo, but it’s the most powerful road-going four-pot in the world. It develops 416bhp and 500Nm… briefly.
Though the RSQ3 gets numerically wedgied, it maintains its maximum power for longer. Peak torque is on hand at all times – from 1,950rpm to 5850rpm. The A45 only musters full twist for a paltry 250rpm. So, it’s peaky.
Peaky, but exciting. This is a fascinating engine. Mercedes spun it around 180 degrees from the way the 2.0-litre engine in the cheaper A35 lies, so the turbo now lives at the back. Bad for cooling, great for shorter piping into the exhaust, to dissuade lag. Meanwhile, the cooling can be intelligently directed, AMG says, keeping the engine block warm (for lower friction) while keeping the head from getting a sweat on.
It’s a mad motor, but a very clever one too. Bruce Banner with a cambelt. Even the plastic engine cover has been shaped to help blast airflow onto the top of the raging, manic powerplant, while the turbo itself borrows roller bearings from the flagship AMG GT 4-door.
I’ve namechecked all that because, if you’re going to ship £56,570 – as tested – on an A-Class, you’ve really got to buy into what a special engine this is. If not, it’s tricky to reconcile that price with the noise. Under full throttle load approaching the 7,200 redline, there’s a proper Group N rally car bark to it, hard-edged and metallic. But when it’s blipped for a downshift, or merely idling, the A45’s strained, monotone motor lacks the sense of occasion its record-breaking spreadsheet deserves.
Mind you, the RSQ3 can get none too smug here. Even with a £1,000 sports exhaust fitted, its new emissions filters mean it sounds noticeably muffled if you’re used to, say, an RS3. Audi Sport has reacted by amping up the noise inside, Golf R-style. Somehow, that feels wrong here.
Fine, give a four-banger some auto-tune – they sound harsh anyway. But a rally-bred straight-five warblemonster? The synthetic noise erodes the one thing a modern-day Audi Quattro should bleed – authenticity.
Of the two, the RSQ3 is the slightly more old-school device. It’s all relative – the four-wheel drive system can still shuffle and split torque front/rear, and there’s an adaptive rear differential that’s supposed to make the car feel more driven-from-the-rear – but it’s got none of the A45S’s heroics. Or gimmicks, if you prefer. The A45S can’t go full rear-drive like AMG’s E63, but the rear clutch packs will make it behave in a more artificially hoonable way, like the (in)famous Focus RS. Bet AMG’s still furious Ford got to that one first.
Thing is, Drift Mode is a joke. Only engaged it on the shoot so Johnny could take a photo of the screen. Wait for sufficient engine and transmission oil temperature, select Race mode, turn the traction control off, pull both of the beautiful alloy shift paddles to option Drift mode, upshift to confirm… come on, you’re going to do that at the lights, are you? With the stability control turned off? In your £56k look-at-me bumblebee? Once or twice, to scare yourself, but don’t kid yourself you’d slew from bend to bend marmalising your tyres.
And yet… what the AMG’s fiendishly complex set-up has done is made it a properly chuckable, forgiving and fun 4x4-hatch.
Leave the stability control on, but select one of the hotter modes, turn your AMG Dynamics mode to Master or Pro, and the AMG settles into a joyous middle ground. Unlike a Golf R or the old A45 or any hot Audi, it doesn’t just behave like a front-drive car with infinite traction. You can prime the boost mid-corner and get the car to wiggle and straighten itself on the exit, revs flaring, exhaust blaring.
Now and again, it’ll give you a little nano-slide to catch. It’s like going ice-skating in a Michelin man costume. You get the naughty, politically incorrect little thrills, but the A45 stays trustworthy. It’s so, so much happier on a miserable winter English back road than it was in the scorching heat of our TG24 showdown.
Not perfect, course. Three ride modes, and all of them too firm. Oi, AMG: either pick one setting and charge less money, or make Comfort properly squishy and save Sport+ for nutcases. There’s an idiotic amount of duplication inside too. You can have four different real-time horsepower displays. Three sat-nav maps at once. Two rev counters. There are buttons to tweak the modes on the steering wheel, and the centre console, or you can do it in the touchscreen… it’s all needlessly convoluted. Still, it feels like you’re getting a lot for your money.
In the Audi… I’m not so sure. It’s less maddingly over-the-top, but for a flagship RS car, does it feel noticeably better than your mum’s dentist’s hairdresser’s Q3? Nope. The tongue-like seats have no business in a 400bhp, £51,000 performance flagship. This one’s had an £850 RS design pack lobbed at it, so it’s as jazzed as an RSQ3 gets, but besides the hockey-stick rev counter there’s zero sense of occasion.
The basic cabin is less creaky than an A45’s chintzy, creaky cockpit, at least. But it’s not notably more spacious, visibility is worse and the boot is smaller. Then we get to the options list. This RSQ3 has the lot. Ceramic brakes up front – with big power but less pedal bite than the A45’s magnificent stoppers. It’s got a carbon engine cover and matrix LED main-beams and a price, as tested, of £66,605. For a Q3! If you wanted a super-SUV, this thing’s approaching Porsche Macan Turbo money.
Frankly, you could bin the triple-zone climate control and folding door mirrors and the signal-boosting phone-holder that Audi’s busy emptying your wallet in return for. There is only one box you Absolutely. Must. Tick. And that’s £995 for RS Sport Suspension Plus.
As standard, the RSQ3 comes fitted with suspension made of arthritic bones. It’s intolerable. Frankly it’s a scandal you have to throw another thousand pounds at Audi just so they’ll begrudgingly give it suspension that won’t give you a concussion, but suitably equipped, the RSQ3 actually approached ‘comfortable’. Because it’s tall and compromised, your head’s tossed from side-to-side more than the low-slung, purposeful-feeling A45. But with some dexterity to the damping at last, the RSQ3 can get stuck in to what fast Audis do best. Teleportation. Point A to point B, instantly. No fuss. No mess. Just ruthless pace.
You don’t have memorable drives in the RSQ3, because it completes them too quickly for your brain to hit ‘record
It’s nowhere near as entertaining as the A45, but I’ll be damned if it’s not impressive. You don’t warm to the RSQ3 like you do the A45, but you respect the way it opens up time in your afternoon because of how rapidly it just demolished the lunchtime sandwich run. Any weather, any time of day or night. You don’t have memorable drives in the RSQ3, because it completes them too quickly for your brain to hit ‘record’.
And if you’re happy shelling fifty grand for that superpower, then have at it. So long as it’s supplied on suspension that’s been declared fit for human consumption, the RSQ3’s just as competent, easy-to-pilot and outrageously quick as an RS3. I doubt the next RS3 will feel much different either. Hopefully it’ll have a less jumpy gearbox, and less inert steering. And less fake grille nonsense. Less would be more, across the board.
I’d expected to find the (deep breath) AMG A45S 4Matic+ Plus – yeah, two plusses – a bit, well, OTT. But it wins this unlikely meeting of 400bhp rivals, because it’s an engineer’s fantasy that manages to translate its ridiculous R&D solutions into a real everyman-pleasing experience. I defy you to point one of these down a half-decent road and not step out of its rock-hard bucket seat with a guilty grin plastered over your mug.
AMG has always been at its stellar best with a whiff of yob about itself, and the A45 is a thug. Not that anyone can honestly say they need a 400bhp hot hatch, right? Damn I was born too late, but already I seem to be getting old.