2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

They sit right at the top of the hot-hatch food chain, so can the fresh Audi RS3 8YA put the bite on the ballistic AMG A45 W177?


WORDS ALEX INWOOD

PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR


AUDI RS3 v MERCEDES-AMG A45 S Big boost, AWD traction and an even bigger grin factor. But which one to take home to meet your mum?


2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

The traffic has been a slog. The kind that concertinas for no apparent reason, all four lanes making choked, frustrated progress as we slowly leave the outskirts of Melbourne behind. But then, just before we turn off the motorway, a gap. Nail it! The Sonora yellow RS3 leaps forward, the sudden torque demand causing it to shimmy and buck on cold Bridgestones as it rushes towards 62mph — 100km/h. A glance in the rear-view shows the angry, and equally yellow, nose of the W177 A45 S in lockstep as we both flatten the gas to finally get an inkling of what 2022’s most outrageous hatchbacks can do.


2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

Sub 4.0-second runs in a grocery getter? They feel quicker than that which begs the question: when did the humble hatch become so mental? Not so long ago 200kW was a huge number in hot-hatch land but now we have outputs beginning with a three (or around 400hp in the old money), drift modes, six-figure price tags and acceleration so rabid it can make a 911 Turbo 992 feel a touch sheepish. Think the term ‘hyper hatch’ is a touch of hyperbole? Give launch control a try in one of this pair.


2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

And in a world of increasingly quick and complex machinery, the A45 and RS3 are the apex predators. Audi and Mercedes-AMG have been slogging it out for hyper-hatch supremacy for a while now but their product cadence has been staggered. AMG last reset the bar back in 2019 when this second-generation A45 arrived, sideways and smoking, onto the scene. It wasn’t only faster and more capable than the frenetic and overly firm original A45, but it made the RS3 of that time feel wooden and some way off the pace.


2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

Now, though, we have Audi’s riposte: the third-generation RS3. It’s not quite as powerful as the AMG – 294kW plays 310kW which makes us wonder whether the hyper hatch power war is over – but its wailing 2.5-litre five-pot turbo has exactly the same 500Nm of torque as you get from the four-cylinder Benz. And in virtually every other metric, this pair go tit-for-tat. Drift Mode? Present and accounted for courtesy of clever torque splitting rear differentials. Sub 4.0-second 0-100 sprints? The AMG claims 3.9 seconds while the Audi stops the clock at 3.8sec. Both also offer richly specced cabins, claim to drink exactly the same amount of fuel on the combined cycle and there’s only a whisker between them when it comes to weight: the Audi hits the scales at 1570kg. The A45 S is 15kg portlier.


2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177 vs. 2023 Audi RS3 8YA

Where they differ, slightly, is price. You can have the third-gen RS3 as a sedan but in hatchback form it retails at $91,391 before on-road costs. The AMG is $99,085 making it $7694 more expensive in standard trim. That’s not an insignificant sum but consider the options fitted to the two cars we’re testing here and the advantage swings back the other way. Our A45 includes the Performance Package which for $5790 adds vice-like bucket seats, the boy-racer rear spoiler and other aero addenda and an AMG Performance Sound system which boosts the volume of exhaust noise that’s piped into the cabin.

The RS3’s options are pricier, though as we’ll get to later, arguably not as desirable. First up is the $13,000 RS Dynamic Package which increases the top speed to 290km/h and replaces the standard steel brakes with larger carbon-ceramics. Our car also has the Carbon Pack which finishes the rear wing, mirror caps and side sills in carbonfibre for $6100. Add it all up and the Audi is $109,074 as tested while the A45 is $104,875. Six figures for a grocery getter? Welcome to 2022. So it’s even stevens on the value front, yet for all their onpaper similarities it only takes a few corners to realise these cars are actually quite different to drive…

I start in the AMG; benchmark first then the challenger. Immediately I’m reminded of how much more bandwidth this car has over the original A45. AMG’s first mega hatch was brutally quick but also brutally firm to the point of being unpleasantly physical. But at low-speed, this new car is remarkably civilised. There’s hardly any hesitation from the eight-speed dual-clutch, throttle inputs are measured and progressive and the steering is light and direct.

Start to pick up the pace and the A45 is a willing companion. You still notice an underlying firmness, even with the dampers in Comfort mode, but where the old car would bang and jolt, the new A45 absorbs the hits with commendable composure. Like the RS3, the AMG is riding on 19-inch wheels and while it’s still far from what you’d call supple, it does breathe with the road over all but the gnarliest of bumps.

Worried the frenzied edge has disappeared? Don’t be. Cycle through the drive modes and the AMG quickly transforms from amenable to aggressive to downright unhinged. The steering (2.5 turns lock-to-lock) takes on some welcome heft and there’s so much grip, agility and acceleration on offer that it’s hard to imagine many performance cars that could shake a well-driven A45 on the public road.

It’s the engine that dominates. AMG’s handbuilt 2.0-litre M139 was once the world’s most powerful four-cylinder and in Race mode it feels like an angry, buzzing bucket of bees. Against the bigger capacity Audi it doesn’t feel quite as muscular low in the rev range but that’s deliberate. AMG’s engineers have manipulated the torque curve to so peak twist arrives at 5000rpm meaning the performance and drama continues to build as you rush towards the 7000rpm redline.

And there’s plenty of drama. The A45 is so loud that I actually feel self-conscious driving it hard but the real stroke of genius is the exhaust note itself. Four cylinders with dual-clutch ’boxes can sound flat and farty but the A45’s soundtrack is commendably full and engaging. It doesn’t just get louder as the revs build but the tone and timbre get higher and more manic, too. Doesn’t sound artificial either, which is some achievement given the obvious degree of exhaust noise amplification going on.

The chassis is commendably neutral. You know that immediate and agile ‘go kart’ feeling that Mini has been banging on about for years? Where the wheelbase feels short and you’re planted between the two axles? The A45 has it in spades.

Incredible grip and tenacious acceleration are the overriding dynamic qualities, but there’s also a playful side worth exploiting. Dial in ESC Sport, or turn it off altogether, and you can liberate some small angles of yaw on a twisty section of tarmac. Understeer only really encroaches at vaguely ridiculous speeds and even though there is a Drift Mode function, you won’t be unsticking the rear end for huge slides on the public road. Instead you can feel the clever rear differential shuffling torque backwards and if you commit hard enough to throttle the A45 does allow you to open the steering a touch as you power out. It’s an addictive and rewarding thing to drive hard, like an ADHD Jack Russell that can’t wait to jump on every leg in the room. Stops well, too, thanks to a brake pedal that’s easy to modulate during hard driving and standard steel stoppers that comprise 360mm discs up front clamped by six-piston calipers. Complaints? As a performance car, there are very few. The optional bucket seats are excellent, although I wish they went a touch lower. Perhaps the biggest trade off is that the A45 always feels ‘on’. It’s like a friend that doesn’t stop talking and there’s a strong sense that the A45 is constantly eager for a scrap. It’s certainly more frenzied and demanding than the RS3…

Slip into driver’s seat of the Audi and it instantly seems bigger and noticeably wider than the AMG. The cabin is roomier and the front contact patch also feels appreciably broader. Like the previous RS3, this car continues the odd trend of fitting wider tyres up front (265/30 ZR19s plays 245/35 ZR19 out back) and after the narrow and eager A45, the RS3 feels considerably more hunkered down.

It’s quieter, too. Tyre roar is a tiring and intrusive companion in the A45 but the RS3 does a better job of filtering out unwanted road noise. The RS3’s exhaust note also has a quieter, more cultured edge, which only reinforces the sense that this is a more refined and polished packaged compared with the raw AMG.

Does this make it less exciting to drive hard? Initially, yes. It feels a smidge heavier, doesn’t change direction as zealously and its steering lacks the connection you get in the angrier A45. Where the AMG immediately inspires confidence, the RS3 takes longer to key into. Wasn’t expecting that.

One area it instantly trumps the A45, though, is how it rides. Audi’s engineers have worked hard to make the RS3 a more comfortable daily driver, ditching the old car’s magnetic ride control for a more sophisticated adaptive damper set-up. It’s a big improvement. Keep the dampers in Comfort mode and the RS3 feels composed and compliant. Dial up Dynamic and things are noticeably firmer but unlike the A45, which can occasionally skip and bounce over really poor surfaces and cause you to back off, the RS3 is superior in keeping its wheels glued to the road. Which car would be quicker point-to-point over a typical Aussie B-road? I reckon the RS3’s greater control would give it the edge.

A couple of early niggles? Start to corner hard and it’s clear the RS3’s Nappa leather seats aren’t as supportive as the AMG’s optional buckets. And the Audi’s carbon ceramics are trickier to modulate, too. The pedal is firm and grabs aggressively which undermines any additional stopping power the larger 380mm discs provide. Our advice? Save your $13,000 and stick with the regular 375mm steel brakes, which we’ve found to be excellent. Most surprising, however, is how the RS3’s 2.5-litre five-pot measures up. In isolation it’s punchy, rorty and it pairs nicely with the slick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch. The power delivery is different to the A45. Here the full 500Nm arrives from 2250-5600rpm which makes the Audi feel more barrelchested and muscular. Sounds brilliant, too, and it’s certainly louder than the previous RS3 which had its exhaust note blunted through the fitment of a petrol particulate filter. But after the aural assault of the AMG, the five-pot RS3 sounds a touch tame. Wasn’t expecting that one either.

So it’s an inauspicious start for the RS3. It might be more comfortable and controlled but, initially at least, it can’t match the car from Affalterbach for adrenaline-soaked thrills. Take the time to explore the RS3’s many drive modes, however, and things start to fall into place. Just like the A45, the RS3 is fitted with a torque-splitting rear differential and Audi has added a host of new drive modes to help exploit its newfound capability. There are now seven modes to choose from but the pair best suited for a fast backroad blast are RS Individual and RS Performance. Both allow you to configure the steering, powertrain and chassis to your liking but RS Performance also uses a specific map for the rear diff to reduce under- and oversteer. With the right mode selected, the RS3 delivers the same neutral, hunkered-down feeling as the A45 and just like the AMG, you can feel the system deploying torque to the outside rear wheel as you drive out of corners. RS Performance also winds back the stability control and there’s just enough leeway to use a sharp lift to back the RS3 into corners and then plant the throttle early to relish in a balance that almost feels rear-driven.

Get it right and there’s a brilliant and deeply impressive car here. You just need to find the right mix of drive modes to unleash it. And that’s the key difference here. The Audi might be the more accomplished and faster backroad runner but even at six or seven tenths the A45 is more exciting. And for a frenetic, no-holds-barred blast the AMG isn’t only easier to hustle, but thanks to its boosted sense of sound and immediacy, it feels faster to drive.

It’s not, though, at least in a straight line… With our trusty VBOX data logger attached and launch control activated, the A45 rockets from 0-100km/h in 4.0 seconds dead. That’s a tenth away from its official claim, which we have matched previously at the drag strip, but today the AMG is metronomic and clocks 4.0sec repeatedly, despite us trying different drive modes and launch techniques.

The Audi’s first timed run makes mincemeat of the A45. It also beats its offical claim of 3.8 seconds. With launch control engaged the RS3 hit three figures in 3.5 seconds. That’s supercar performance from a family hatchback. And just like it drives on the road, the Audi was totally unflustered in how it rockets away from the line. No real wheelspin, no violent gearshifts, just unrelenting acceleration.

Ergonomics are sound in both, though AMG’s set-up of fitting a manettino dial on the steering wheel is a better solution for cycling through drive modes at speed. The Audi combines a drive mode button on the centre console with an RS hotkey on the right spoke of the steering wheel but it’s more finicky to use and requires you to take your eyes off the road.

Another area the AMG reclaims some ground is boot space. Needing to fit the new torque-splitting diff has seen the Audi’s boot shrink to a measly 281L. The A45’s luggage bay is noticeably larger at 370L.

As for how they look, that’s down to you. Both are a riot to behold with their jutting noses, bright paintwork and huge rear wings but for us the RS3’s wider proportions, chunkier front rubber and box-like vents on the trailing edge of the front wheelarches are more pleasing to the eye.

Which of this pair is best then? There’s no clear winner. Just like their on-paper spec, there’s very little to split the A45 and RS3 if you’re looking for an objective verdict. Both are ferociously fast, phenomenally grippy and, thanks to their complex all-wheel-drive systems, they’re more engaging and talented to drive than ever. There’s also something to be said for their size and form factor. They’re remarkably easy to place on the road which only adds to their sense of real-world pace. But for all their similarities they do have distinct personalities. And that’s how we’ll split them.

The A45 is more fun. It’s highly strung and visceral, has the more exciting powertrain, and while it might be slower against the clock, it’s the one that squeezes your adrenaline gland the hardest. But if a more balanced approach to performance is what you’re looking for, then the Audi is superior. It’s more refined, has a better ride and it cabin is more luxurious which is why it just edges ahead in the final tally. Need a simpler way to decide? If engagement and driving thrills are your top priority, go for the AMG. But if you want a hyper hatch that’s outrageously fast but also easier to live with day-to-day, the Audi reigns supreme.


GEN NEXT Turn the page

Stop to ponder the rapid progress in this segment and you’ll quickly arrive at the question of: “Where to from here?”. Mercedes is planning on a mild facelift for the A45 later this year but beyond that, the future is murky for the small Benz. Reports are swirling that Mercedes is preparing to drop the entire A-Class from its showrooms beyond 2025. If there is a new A45, electrification seems the obvious path for AMG. It has already fitted the M139 2.0-litre with an electric turbocharger in the C43 and that unit will also find its way into the new C63 where it’s expected to make 350kW.

The Audi A3’s future is on more solid ground. Company CEO Markus Duesmann confirmed the A3 will continue into another generation just last month. As for how the next RS3 will shape up? Again, some form of electrification seems likely.

If a more balanced approach to performance is what you’re looking for, then the Audi is superior

Hardcore thrills or pace teamed with liveability? Take your pick

Thanks to its boosted sense of sound and immediacy, the A45 feels faster to drive

Audi RS3

Cabin design is modern, the digital driver display and central infotainment screen are easy to navigate, and crucially, unlike most new Volkswagen Group products, ergonomics haven’t been sacrificed in the pursuit of style. Want to adjust the temperature or fan speed? Simply reach for a neat rocker switch ahead of the gearshifter. Nice driving position, too, though like the A45, the driver’s seat feels a touch too high.

AMG A45 S

Interior design and mix of materials look good initially but once you start to touch and interact with the cabin it begins to feel a bit cheap. In the Audi the hard plastics are mostly kept out of sight but the AMG has a big slab of thin piano black plastic around the central air vents, there’s shiny chrome on the centre console and all of the switchgear and stalks feel plasticky and inferior. You don’t get wireless Apple CarPlay, either, which you do in the Audi.

Where the AMG immediately inspires confidence, the RS3 takes longer to key into

So full of mischief, you’ll just want to spank it Five pressurised pots of warbling goodness

Above: Life getting you down? A $100K hyper hatch is all it takes to fix that If your body’s inbuilt G-meter fails, there’s always this. You need to master the RS3’s drive modes to uncork its full potential

Against the Audi the A45 doesn’t feel quite as muscular low in the rev range, but that’s deliberate

Think the term ‘hyper hatch’ is a touch of hyper-bole? Give launch control a try in one of this pair

TECHNICAL DATA 2023 Audi RS38YA

  • Price $91,391/Tested $109,074*

Drivetrain

  • Engine inline 5cyl, dohc, 20v, turbo
  • Layout front engine (east-west), AWD
  • Capacity 2480cc
  • Max Power 294kW @ 5600-7000rpm
  • Max Torque 500Nm @ 2250-5600rpm
  • Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch

Chassis

  • Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats
  • L/W/H/W–B 4389/1851/1463/2631mm
  • Track (F/R) 1527/1532mm
  • Weight 1570kg
  • Boot 281L
  • Fuel/tank PULP/55 litres
  • Economy 12.7L/100km (tested)
  • Suspension Front: struts, adaptive dampers, antiroll bar. Rear: multi-links, adaptive dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar
  • Steering electric rack-and-pinion
  • Front brakes ventilated carbon discs (380mm)
  • Rear brakes ventilated carbon discs (310mm)
  • Tyres Bridgestone Potenza Sport
  • Tyre size 265/3 ZR19 (f); 245/35 ZR19 ®

Safety

  • ANCAP rating Not tested

8.0/10

Warranty: 5yrs/unlimited km

*Includes RS ceramic brakes with red brake calipers ($13,000); Carbon package ($6100); Rear view camera ($975); electric lumbar support for driver andfront passenger ($442)

TECHNICAL DATA 2023 Mercedes-AMG A45 S 4MATIC+ W177

  • Price $99,085/Tested $104,875*

Drivetrain

  • Engine inline 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
  • Layout front engine (east-west), AWD
  • Capacity 1991cc
  • Max Power 310kW @ 6750rpm
  • Max Torque 550Nm @ 2350-5000rpm
  • Gearbox 8-speed dual-clutch

Chassis

  • Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats
  • L/W/H/W–B 4445/1850/1412/2729mm
  • Track (F/R) 1579/1601mm
  • Weight 1585kg
  • Boot 370L
  • Fuel/tank PULP/51 litres
  • Economy 13.4L/100km (tested)
  • Suspension Front: struts, adaptive dampers, antiroll bar. Rear: multi-links, adaptive dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar
  • Steering electric rack-and-pinion
  • Front brakes ventilated discs (360mm)
  • Rear brakes ventilated discs (330mm)
  • Tyres Michelin Pilot Sport 4S
  • Tyre size 245/35 ZR19 (f); 245/35 ZR19 ®

Safety

  • ANCAP rating

Not tested

8.0/10

Warranty: 5yrs/unlimited km

*Includes AMG Performance Package $5790

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