Once, roads like these were ruled by the rally-inspired Japanese hotrods: steroidal Mitsubishi Lancers and Subaru Imprezas. Now, the German automakers are coming on strong in the compact supercar territory. In Europe, new top-of-the-line versions of the Audi A3, the BMW 1-series, and the Mercedes-Benz A-class are vying for mastery of the super-GTI segment. For this tire-shredding, brake-eating shootout in the Dolomites, we've gathered the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, the BMW M135i, and the Audi A3.
If Looks Could Thrill
You would think Mercedes would have offered its silver fox clientele a less uncompromising A-class, one that looked friendlier, one that had a taller roofline with more rear headroom, not to mention a bigger trunk and a softer suspension. In fact, that model already exists. It's called B-class and it aims, by and large, at well to do pensioners with a near-zero affinity to vehicle dynamics. In contrast, the latest A-class is targeted at 30-somethings, specifically trendy urbanites. This audience is primarily interested in style, performance, handling, and up-to-date convenience.
Enter A45 AMG. Our fully loaded test car costs almost as much as a C63 AMG. It is painted matte pewter, runs on black 19-inch wheels with polished flanges, and shows off the optional carbon fiber body kit. Mercifully, Mercedes spared us the AMG aero treatment. Pretty? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who will likely concede that the A45 does have presence, and the kind of novelty value draws out the camera phones. The pursed snout is long in profile, and the behind may be too broad and squashed for some, but the proportions are striking and there is no danger of mistaking the AMG for a tarted-up base A-class.
Still very much on subjective ground, we wonder about the 1-series. Even in M sports livery, this is at best a mediocre piece of design that doesn't get any prettier when you climb into the somber plastic wonderland that is the cabin. There is no doubt about it: BMW has a problem with perceived quality, particularly in this company. The A45 looks and feels more expensive, and yet the Mercedes still ranks one notch below the Audi, which is expertly put together of classy materials. Alas, the visual appeal of the S3 is still only a 7 out of 10. Why? Because the cockpit layout is rather bland, because the two-door hatchback lacks the visual balance of the four-door Sportback coming later this year, and because the S3 looks too much like an A3 S-line with an extra set of exhaust pipes.
Normally in June, all passes connecting Italy to Austria and Switzerland are open, but since this spring is more like an autumn that has been pulled forward, evidently erasing summer in the process, we had virtually the entire Alps to ourselves. Wherever a sign read "Road Closed due to Snow," there was ten to twenty miles of virtually traffic-free dream territory lying ahead. We were on the threshold of a driver's paradise.
A Tale of Three Turbos
As luck would have it, not all cars arrived in the required specification, which resulted in the widest possible variety of drivetrain and suspension options. Our S3 was one of the very few examples not fitted with the desirable S-tronic transmission. The manual shifter works well -- short throws, positive action, well spaced gears -- but at 5.2 seconds from 0-62 mph, it loses 0.4 seconds to the dual-clutch automatic, simply by taking more time to pass on the slices of the nicely stacked torque cake. At 280 pound-feet, the turbocharged 2.0-liter unit is not quite as well endowed as its rivals, and yet it rolls out the dough all the way from 1800 to 5500 rpm. Even dedicated clutch devotees will be hard-pressed to ignore the virtues of the S-tronic, which include intuitive shift paddles, a coasting mode that can be summoned in the efficiency program, a launch control function, and automatic blipping of the throttle during gear changes in dynamic mode.
Our M135i came with the optional eight-speed automatic, which may be not be particularly M-like but is extremely convenient. It would even be more perfect if there were a positive detent between park and drive to secure the lever in reverse, if the transition from sport to manual (to the left of the main gate) was less fiddly, and if coasting was part of the Eco Pro software. Unlike the Z4 engine, which fields two parallel turbochargers, this 3.0-liter straight six makes do with a single twin-scroll charger. The engine's torque curve is shaped like a Bavarian beer garden table, and plateaus from 1300 to 4500 rpm at a constant 332 pound-feet. While left-hand drive M135i models can be specified with xDrive, RHD cars cannot. Through the countless hairpins, up steep slopes, and on a very mixed bag of winding roads, the absence of driven front wheels and a limited-slip differential looked at the beginning of our drive like a deciding dynamic deficiency, but we were wrong. Thanks to its good weight distribution, intelligent traction control, and those fine Michelin Pilot Supersport tires, the M car rarely put a foot wrong.
The A45 AMG squeezes 360 hp out of its turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, which not only beats both competitors here but also surpasses the recently departed 1 M coupe and RS3. Although the AMG lacks two cylinders and 1000cc compared to the M135i, the peak twist action is an identical 332 pound-feet. Again, full muscle is maintained over a wide rpm band, namely from 2250 to 5000 rpm. To turn this torque punch into a mighty kick in the butt, the AMG engineers mated their reinforced seven-speed DKG to an aggressively tuned 4Matic driveline. The software of the Speedshift gearbox was borrowed from the SLS AMG GT, which is why it features three driving modes, rev matching on downshifts, a race start function, and in manual/sport modes the same ultra-quick shift times as the flagship gullwing coupe. In C (for controlled efficiency), friends of the earth can feel good about the auto stop/start and the super-smooth gear changes at low revs. In S, the same process is repeated at a brisker pace. In M, you do the shifting, so don't expect the black box to help out when the tach needle suddenly hits 6250 rpm. We like that you can play the paddles for individual driving maneuvers without first pushing the select button. We don't like the fact that the transmission won't accept early downshift orders.
The WRX STI and the Evo I-X had turbochargers the size of a baby's head, causing serious throttle lag followed by even more serious forward thrust. More recently, the auto industry has learned a lot about the art of turbocharging, virtually eliminating the delay to throttle orders in the process. At least that's what we thought before setting off in these highly tuned triplets. No more turbo lag? Hop into the S3, and the ancient vice is back, large as life and annoying. The optional S-tronic gearbox might to cushion the effect to some degree, but with the manual transmission one must downshift early to keep at least the bottom two LEDs of the boost gauge lit. Which is a shame because after the delay there is always enough oomph on tap to zoom the car towards the next apex. It takes an adjustment in attitude and timing to step on the gas earlier so little momentum is lost when propelling oneself toward the next straight. Perhaps this occasionally blurred communication between accelerator and engine control is partly due to the fact that the 2.0TFSI unit blends direct injection (at low and high load) with indirect injection (at part load).
The A45 AMG's twin-scroll turbocharger (which runs at a high 1.8 bar) swings the whip hard and early. The DCT, however, can undermine the effort by sometimes preselecting the wrong ratio, by taking a little too long to make up its electronic mind, and by occasionally triggering a counter-productive upshift. A software issue perhaps, but one that needs addressing. On a different front, the MB computer chips do a splendid job relaying a hackle-raising sensation of speed. By momentarily retarding ignition and injection, they make leadfoot upshifts sound almost V-8-like, they voice an angry blat-blat during downshifts, and they telegraph a catchy cocktail of charger whine and wastegate whistle into the cabin. Very artificial, but rather nice. With race start active, the 3428-pound A-class will howl from 0-62 mph in 4.6 seconds. Spend a small fortune on the AMG drivers pack, and Affalterbach will kindly raise the top speed from 156 to 169 mph, which almost equals the engine's rpm cut-out of 6250 rpm.
Benign instead of brutal, cossetting instead of crash-bang hard, relaxed instead of highly strung, easily accessible instead of radically focused, the high-end 1-series makes the charismatic M coupe pale in more ways than one. For a start, the 320-hp in-line six runs out of revs at an unambitious 5800 rpm, and it takes a relatively leisurely 5.1 seconds to satisfy the stopwatch squad. On the credit side, any trace of turbo lag disappears inside the fantastic ZF gearbox, the mighty mid-range urge puts the four-cylinder competition into perspective, and there are absolutely no artificial ingredients involved in making this 3.0-liter engine sound spine-tinglingly good.
The BMW also is clearly the most comfortable car in this group. Even in sport or sport plus, the suspension will soak up most vagaries with a smile. Like the Audi, the BMW is available with three or five doors, and with manual or let-me-do-this-for-you transmission. Included in the standard M pack are 18-inch wheels with 225/40 tires up front and 245/35 footwear in the rear, a sports suspension, sports brakes, and variable-ratio sports steering. The M135i was our number one choice on the poorly maintained Italian autostrada, but it is a touch too laid back to bring your blood to the boil on those memorable alpine special stages. The brakes are furthermore on the soft side when pushed, the quick steering (only two turns from lock to lock) feels overly damped and under-communicative, and there is more roll and pitch and dive than we expected from a 1-series model wearing the M badge. On the other hand, grip is astounding in the dry, traction is only an issue when you ask for it by switching off ESP, and the stability through very quick uneven corners is supported by the nicely compliant spring and damper setting. So, full marks for ride quality, panache and refinement, but only 3.5 stars out of five for absolute sportiness and driver involvement.
Especially at a 10/10ths pace, the S3 is even easier to drive than the BMW, which in turn feels significantly softer edged than the 1series M. While the M135i will want to understeer into a corner and oversteer at the exit, the Audi goes around bends like a slot-car racer with a second pin between the rear wheels. Neutrality is the name of its game. So is it boring? Wrong term. The S3 rewards its driver with a different potpourri of talents. The roadholding is so tenacious that the Continental Sportcontact tires (225/40 R18 all round) might have harbored hidden Velcro strap fragments. The steering, overly light and a little mute, nonetheless turns honing the line into a surprisingly entertaining pastime. The attentive and easy-to-modulate brakes are strong enough to push the point of no return way past the apex. Thanks to these super-sharp anchors, the reassuring tire grip, and of course Quattro, the 300-hp S3 can up to a point stay with its 320-hp and 360-hp challengers. Eventually, the gap will widen and the Audi will drop back, still gracefully maintaining its composure. The car from Ingolstadt is tight-lipped, monosyllabic and reserved, strangely robotic in the way it performs, and flawed in its ability to turn a near-faultless performance into a tangible feel-good experience.
The A45 AMG is not just engine and badges and aggressive looks. It also boasts a heavily revised front and rear suspension with firmer mountings, recalibrated springs and firmer fixed-rate dampers, fatter anti-roll bars, and a reduced ride height. Also new are the variable-effort but constant-ratio steering, the high-performance brakes with ventilated and cross-drilled discs all-round, the more lenient stability control, and the latest-generation 4-Matic which diverts up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. The price you pay for all these goodies is about 20 percent higher than what Audi and BMW charge you for their best efforts. We say the Mercedes is worth the premium, simply because it is more exhilarating to drive. The engine delivers notable extra urge with real authority, the steering fuses input and feedback to a wonderfully three-dimensional level of control, four-wheel drive distributes torque with the eerie professionalism of a poker ace dealing his rounds, and the brakes bite with vigor and determination until, at the foot of the pass, smoke signals beg for mercy. The A45 AMG is as chuckable as it is sure-footed. It can corner on three wheels, decelerate at a ridiculous yaw angle, put the power down even earlier than the Audi. What it cannot do is ride well, period. Not even on smooth blacktop.
Would the M135i have won if it were better-looking and felt more special inside? It might have come closer, but it would still be more of a GT than a GTS. Would the S3 have won if Audi managed to remove multiple layers of indifference and artificiality from what is, in essence, a solid concept? We would love to see the Quattro division succeed in making good cars great again, but the S3 is tuned primarily for perfection, which is seldom synonymous with excitement. So after 48 hours, 400 miles, 71 gallons of premium unleaded, and three fresh shirts, the A45 AMG takes the trophy ahead of the BMW and the Audi, off-putting price tag and compromised packaging notwithstanding. The M135i feels like a neatly spiced up 1-series, the S3 feels like an S-line A3 with more poke. In contrast, the A45 is more AMG than A-class, more special than mainstream, more bespoke than bespoilered. For the time being, this Mercedes rules the microcosm that was once owned by the Japanese winged warriors. But as soon as the M2 and the next RS3 are ready to pick up the gauntlet, we'll return to the big skies and to the dream driving roads for an encore.