MERCEDES-AMG A45 S
AMG DISTILS ALL IT KNOWS INTO THE A45 S. WE TAKE IT TO THE TOUGHEST ROAD WE KNOW
T HE ROAD VANISHES. It was there a second or two ago, but now it’s gone, lost in a riotous dazzle camouflage of hard shadows. The sun strobes through the eucalypts over my right shoulder as the car dives into a corner whose shape is gently suggested by a treeline that marches and merges onto a crest. The Eildon –Jamieson road is this for nearly 60km. It’s not the most scenic of Australia’s great driving roads, and nor is it the most varied, but in terms of sustained intensity of challenge, it could well be in a class of one. That’s why we’re here.
Bringing the old Mercedes-AMG A45 to this scarred and sutured bitumen would have been a miserable experience. The first truly rapid A-Class was never treated to the sort of chassis engineering expertise it probably deserved. In some regards, it felt like a throwback AMG, all engine and drama but without the requisite subtlety to cut it as a topdrawer driver’s car. The car you see here is not that car. This is the second-generation model and it takes all of a hundred metres to figure out that it’s cut from a very different cloth.
There are some aspects that won’t come as any great surprise. With 310kW/500Nm emanating from just 1991cc of swept capacity, it’s concussively rapid. Our testing saw 3.9 seconds to 100km/h and a pass through 400m in 12.2 seconds at 185.2km/h, virtually identical numbers to a Porsche 911 Carrera. Three-stage adaptive dampers are fitted as standard, which deliver far superior wheel control than before. Good enough to shine on the queen stage of Targa High Country? Game on.
THE HAIRPIN slices deep into the cutting above Jamieson. I’m sitting idly by while photographer Brook wrestles a reflector into position. Every few minutes a car will blat by, its engine note rising and falling as it rolls across the folds of the hills. I realise I’m not very good at guessing the car by the sound. I roll one of the chossy shales in my hand, clouting it against another. It cleaves cleanly and there, freed from the muddy carapace that has entombed it for the past 400 million years or so, is a faint crinoid fossil, little bigger than a five-cent piece. Lower Devonian, probably, which sank to the bottom of the Panthalassa ocean and now finds itself here, 600m above sea level, exposed to the sun by a man negotiating a Twix.
I’m trying to order my thoughts on the A45. Like the road we’re driving, it’s not a car that is either easy to master or to summarise. In certain regards, it feels like early-era McLaren, and you probably recall Ron Dennis pronouncing the MP4-12C objectively superior to its rivals. The AMG certainly feels objectively superior but I’m not sure that I’ve really got under the thing’s skin. It’s fair to say that it hasn’t yet returned the favour. If your idea of fun is dissecting a challenging road at phenomenal velocities, you’ll love the A45. You might once have owned, or hankered after, a Lancer Evo or a WRX STi, or you could be looking for a Targa-friendly tin-top that’s virtually perfect straight out of the box. If so, AMG has a dotted line ready for you to sign. For the rest of us, we need a few more kilometres under the belt.
The creation of the Eildon–Jamieson road was bookended by two events. The first was the discovery of gold around Jamieson in the 1850s. That seam was exhausted within a decade, but pastoralists and then loggers saw the worth of the local area. At the other end of the road was the flooding of Lake Eildon. This occurred in two stages. In 1955, the Sugarloaf Reservoir was enlarged to increase storage capacity from 377,000 megalitres to 3.3 million megalitres, or six times the capacity of Sydney Harbour. The goldmining town of Darlingford was submerged in the process, with most residents moving to the new town of Eildon on the shores of the lake. The Eildon–Jamieson road was diverted around the Big River Arm of the lake in 1956 but it wasn’t until Christmas 2010 that it was fully sealed, the final 14-kilometre stretch from Big River towards Jamieson creating a loop of bitumen around the lake and ensuring that Eildon was no longer at the end of a metalled road for travellers.
The road today feels as if it’s sliding slowly into autumn. Many European deciduous trees were planted in Jamieson and their seeds have carried on the winds, creating pockets of rich reds and yellows in the grey gums. Leaves drop gently onto the road and the morning air is crisp. Perfect for feeding into the business end of a turbocharger. The big blower on the A45 S now sits at the back of the engine, the entire underbonnet hardware effectively having been spun 180 degrees to its predecessor. This now allows all of the associated plumbing to move away from the low-set nose of the new model.
If you’ve had much experience of driving very heavily turbocharged cars, you’ll know that it can be an unsatisfying undertaking, all lag and lunge, with not much in the way of throttle sensitivity. There’s little fluidity on offer, with point and squirt about as good as it gets. Well, take everything you thought you knew and bin it. Maximum torque arrives at 5000rpm and it’s over by 5250rpm, which seems peaky, but in reality, anything above 3000rpm delivers serious urge, 4000rpm is really marching, and keeping it above 5000rpm plugs you squarely into the fun zone.
Switch into Race mode, deactivate the stability control, opt for manual transmission and then pull both paddles towards you and you’re offered drift mode. It’s unlikely you’ll stumble onto this setting by accident. The hairpins that litter the Eildon–Jamieson road seem a great place to test its efficacy, but even with massive second-gear power-downs, all you’ll slide into is the rev limiter. Click up a gear to third and there’s not quite the pull to keep the thing dancing. Peel into a corner from a standstill with drift mode engaged and it will kick the tail out, but with some speed on the clock there’s not enough torque directed to the rear to overcome the grip of the 245-section Michelin Pilot Sport 4S boots.
A few degrees of yaw is the most you can really expect on corner exit, but the speed you’ll be carrying always makes it feel dramatic. That’s helped by the A45’s particular internal acoustics, which render such a barrel-chested bass note into the cabin that you’re dumbfounded by a photographer who tells you the predominant sound outside the car is tyre roar.
Most of the road is an unrelenting onslaught of poorly sighted lefts and rights where you won’t hope to worry the 100km/h speed limit. There are only moments of respite in the form of a few lumpy half-kilometre straights, before the bitumen dives into another drainage of the Taponga River, braiding back and forth with this tributary of the Goulburn, rising and falling over heavily forested ridgelines. The surface changes frequently, with the occasional smooth patch of hotmix interspersed with gritty macadam that sends chips pinging into the wheel wells.
The A45’s steering is a thing of modest frustration, essentially offering two levels of assistance, neither of them selectable independent of other dynamic settings. I like a bit of meat to the steering, so the heavier weighting accessed in sportier modes feels about right, but should you prefer fingertip feel to giving it a solid heave, you could come away dissatisfied. No complaints about the brakes, though. The sixpot front calipers bite down on 360mm discs and combine well with the Michelin tyres in soaking up sustained punishment.
There’s clearly been genuine care lavished on the A45’s suspension. The bearing-mounted subframes introduce a certain noise path into the vehicle, but that’s a welcome trade-off for the excellent balance between ride quality and body control. There’s genuine suppleness in both normal and Sport suspension settings and even Sport+ is useable on country roads. Try that in the old car and it was like riding a trolley jack. So poised is the A45 that it’s not always easy to shift its 1675kg mass around at your will. Get any sniff of understeer or oversteer and you’re really trying. Is that boring? It’s certainly effective, but I find myself emerging from the Mercedes with a kind of chin stroking admiration rather than laughing like an idiot and urging anyone who’ll listen that they need to drive it. It’s truly excellent, but in a certain measured regard.
So complex are the permutations of various drive modes, with three discrete scalable dynamics interfaces, and then separate controls for transmission, suspension, exhaust and engine maps, that simple probability dictates that it’s almost inevitable that at any one time, you won’t be in the optimal mode for the road condition ahead. Here I wish AMG had scaled things back a little, or at least distilled that expertise into a more cohesive offering. Yes, mode anxiety is a thing.
As a driver’s car, it’s not quite on the same plane of reward as a BMW M2 Competition or an Alpine A110 but the fact that we’re measuring a ‘mere’ hot hatch by the standards of these specialised performance coupes is a compliment indeed to AMG’s work. You’ll feel its proletarian centre of gravity every time you get in and try to lower the seat, only to find that it’s already on its lowest setting. The flipside is that the rear seats fit adults, it has a 370-litre boot and it represents an entirely viable daily driver. What’s more, it’s a fair guess that the Eildon–Jamieson road would have the better of the BMW’s damping, which leaves the ultra-niche Alpine duking it out with the Mercedes on this 58.5km challenge. If I were on the chassis team at Affalterbach, I’d call that a success.
It raised some eyebrows testing the Mercedes-AMG A45 S on this road. Some of the editorial team felt that the car would be overmatched. In the end, the reverse was true. What could well be Australia’s most challenging road has finally met its nemesis.
Drive the Eildon - Jamieson Road
AND EMERGE TRIUMPHANT
This road is demanding, so your first step is to ensure that both you and your brakes, tyres and cooling system are in good nick. You’ll also want to watch out for fuelling. Driving to Jamieson and back from Eildon is 130km, plenty of which will be spent pedalling hard, so don’t set off with a quarter of a tank. Bear the 6.30pm closing time of local servos in mind, and don’t underestimate the time it takes to tackle a road this twisty. There are no shops or conveniences along the way, but both ends of the route have presentable cafes. And a final tip? Driving in overcast conditions is easier than in full sun because of those shadows.
Model Mercedes-AMG A45 S
Engine 1991cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power 310kW @ 6750rpm
Max torque 500Nm @ 5000-5250rpm
Transmission 8-speed dual-clutch
0-100km/h 3.9.sec (tested)
Economy 15.4L/100km (tested)
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