#ThrowbackThursday: Audi RS3 vs BMW M2 vs Mercedes-AMG A45

23 April 2020 - 16:04
From left to right: Lerato Matebese and the Audi RS3, Mandla Mdakane, Morgan Naidu and the BMW M2, Bruce Fraser and the Mercedes-AMG A45.
From left to right: Lerato Matebese and the Audi RS3, Mandla Mdakane, Morgan Naidu and the BMW M2, Bruce Fraser and the Mercedes-AMG A45.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Join us as we take a gander back at some of our automotive endeavours from days gone by. This week, the time machine takes us to June 19, 2016, when a Youth Month feature saw us convoying to Mpumalanga in three junior firebrands from the big German triumvirate.

Youth rebellion made frequent headlines over the past year. At SA campuses, emboldened students pulled no punches in addressing pertinent matters affecting their institutions. They cast a light on racism and economic disparity, among other pressing issues.

At first glance, it would appear silly to draw parallels between student protests and the automotive segment investigated on these pages. But the personification is not as far-fetched as it seems: it represents a challenge towards the old guard too.

The three seen here offer good proof that the evolution of high-performance motoring need not be marked by more grunt, increasing size and an inevitably heftier price. These junior firebrands are positioned as the most accessible offerings in their respective stables. Yet they could stand firmly on the bitumen when confronted by larger and costlier specimens.

The criteria defining this comparison of hyper-compacts is simple. The contenders hail from the three major premium Teutonic brands. Each is endowed with a power source that delivers in excess of 260kW. In standard guise, they demand an outlay of between R731,500 and R791,000.

If that sounds exorbitant, remember that these days a basic BMW M3 goes for R1,053,000. The Mercedes-AMG C63 would set you back R1,146,400, while the new generation Audi RS4 is only expected in 2018.

With these figures in mind, the trio you see here could be described as relative bargains — emphasis on relative. On an overcast midweek morning we departed from our headquarters in Rosebank to Red Star Raceway in Mpumalanga. A circuit that, while designed primarily for motorcycles, still offers a suitable proving environment for vehicles on four wheels.

Adding gravitas to a comparison of this kind was the procurement of our very own tamed racing driver. Donning the suit of his trade, Volkswagen Motorsport’s young Mandla Mdakane set out to find an unequivocal lap time victor, with me ably manning the stopwatch. Scientific stuff, we assure you. To give context to the recorded times in the article, consider that in 2013, local rally champion Mark Cronje set a time of 2:13,21 in his battle-hardened Ford Performance Fiesta S2000, driving the counterclockwise layout of the track — as we did too.

After the race against the clock had been complete, the staffers on driving duty set out for experiential sessions, followed by the usual vehement debate that ensues on these shoot-outs, leading to an overall decision ...

The Audi RS3 Sportback
The Audi RS3 Sportback
Image: Waldo Swiegers

AUDI RS3 SPORTBACK: TRUE AURAL SYMPHONY

The (paraphrased) words of Twelfth Night character Duke Orsino came to mind from behind the wheel of the Audi RS3 Sportback. If music be the food of love, this five-cylinder song will have any observer instantly smitten.

The thing is: one really does have time to ponder on the profoundness of Shakespearean quotes in this car. Because despite its aggressive pretence, it appears to deliver the most relaxed driving experience of the lot. This is more an observation than a criticism.

Well, hang on a second. The mandate of an authentic hyper-compact is to tickle the senses of the driver, right? And apart from the aural symphony, the RS3 could offer more in the excitement department. Around the track the RS3 proved inert at best. The model is decidedly better suited to the road. A unanimous impression of softness was noted when trying to extract the most of its performance promises around Red Star.

But this would probably make it the finest choice for the more pragmatic buyer. We doff our caps to the interior designers (as we often do when it comes to Audi products) because it is pretty much faultless. From surfaces to switchgear — there is no doubting that this is a quality product. And that engine is worth dwelling on again, too.

No mystery why this 2,480cc boosted unit with its cylindrical quintet won the Engine of the Year award in its category for six consecutive years. With 270kW and 465Nm it is the least (!) powerful product here. The standard seven-speed S-Tronic transmission, coupled with the Quattro all-wheel drive system makes effective use of this grunt.

The all-important sprint is performed in 4.3 seconds. If good sense had been the main criteria for victory, it would probably walk away with the trophy. It is practical, super-refined and well-built. But for the sensibilities of a driving enthusiast from the so-called purist camp, the RS3 could simply offer more.

The interior of the Audi RS3 Sportback.
The interior of the Audi RS3 Sportback.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Best lap time: 2:22,81 | Basic price: R775,500 | Engine: 2480cc, five-cylinder, turbocharged | Power: 270kW at 5.550-6,800rpm | Torque: 465Nm at 1,625—5,550rpm | 0-100km/h: 4.3 seconds | Top speed: 250km/h (Limited) | said consumption: 8.3l/100km | said CO²: 194g/km

The Mercedes-AMG A45.
The Mercedes-AMG A45.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

MERCEDES-AMG A45: HERCULEAN POWER IN PETER PAN BODY

Observers were awestruck when Mercedes-AMG launched its extra-hot hatchback in 2013. Herculean power in a Peter Pan package; it was (and still is, by some) lauded as the true wunderkind of the genre.

In the first-generation model, the 1,991cc, four-cylinder engine served an output of 265kW and 450Nm translating into a supercar-slaying sprint time of 4.6 seconds. A recent life-cycle improvement version took things up to 280kW and 475Nm of torque, trimming the dash to 4.2 seconds.

On paper this is the quickest to 100km/h — straight-line acceleration is undoubtedly the forte of the A45. In normal conditions you would not describe the engine note as inspiring. But pressing on, endowed with an assortment of synthetic crackles and pops, it panders to the inner boy or girl racer.

Each upshift via the seven-speed, double-clutch transmission is punctuated by a fearsome belch that seems to reverberate through the ear canals of everyone within a block radius. The sticky assurance of all-wheel drive means unwavering confidence in all conditions. And it gave a decent effort on the track, too, though the A45 requires that the helmsman finesses it through the corners if a swift time is the objective.

Abrupt inputs and an overly enthusiastic right foot will only exacerbate a tendency to understeer. We lamented the regular A-Class for its hard-ride quality, but that characteristic is easier to forgive in the instance of the AMG-badged version.

But as with other current Mercedes-Benz models, we find it less easy to overlook some of the materials employed in the cabin. And for your A45 to look the part, you are going to have to fork out extra for the meaner styling bits. In standard format, it is hard to distinguish one from a run-of-the-mill A200.

The interior of the AMG 45.
The interior of the AMG 45.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Best lap time: 2:20,20 | Basic price: R731,500 | Engine: 1,991cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged | Power: 280kW at 6,000rpm | Torque: 475Nm at 2,250-5000rpm | 0-100km/h: 4.2 seconds | Top speed: 250km/h (Limited) | said consumption: 7.3l/100km | said CO²: 171g/km

The BMW M2.
The BMW M2.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

BMW M2 COUPÉ: PEDIGREED RUNT OF M-CAR LITTER

Fanboys were salivating at the notion of a small and powerful BMW that rekindled the near-mythical auras of M-cars past. So, the success of the M2 as an exercise in boosting brand equity was already guaranteed. The reassuring part, however, is that the substance of the product proves it is more than a marketing showpiece.

We will begin with the points of criticism. That interior: BMW could have invested more effort into giving it an ambience that reflects the raucous exterior. Objectively, we must also mention that it is the least practical choice here — with disparity in the number of doors. But (and this is a big one) the M2 is unequivocally the purest representative of the genre. The flexibility and clout of its six-cylinder engine will make it enticing not only to BMW traditionalists, but to dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts who bemoan the rampant downsizing that currently prevails. Crucially the M2 is also rear-wheel drive.

You might think we are stating the obvious here. But with all the experimenting BMW has done lately, nothing is set in stone any longer. So how does it drive? First, the punch of this 2,979cc mill is something to appreciate. As with the other cars, our M2 featured a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, though a six-speed manual is available.

You get 272kW and 465Nm (500Nm with over-boost function) delivered to a 7,000rpm redline. Yes, this unit is a revised version of the one found in the M235i. So inevitably there are questions as to its status as a true M-car. They are mostly dispelled when you head out onto the circuit. An electronically controlled differential plays its part in keeping things tidy.

The electrically-assisted steering is precise — you can sniff out apexes like an aspirational GTC driver. Some opined it is not exempt from the criticism levelled at recent BMW products: a little more feedback would not go amiss. Engaging M Dynamic Mode allows what BMW describes as “moderate and controlled” drifts on the track.

While the performance talents of the M2 are indeed accessible to most skill levels, do not let its status as the littlest M-car fool you. Fully disengaging the stability control, one staffer found himself pointing in the opposite direction after failed heroics. It was attributed to a brief wrist cramp that impeded the process of counter-steer and throttle moderation to regain adhesion. Sure ...

The interior of the BMW M2.
The interior of the BMW M2.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Best lap time: 2:19,38 | Basic price: R791,000 (Manual), R841,900 (M-DCT) | Engine: 2979cc, six-cylinder, turbocharged | Power: 272kW at 5,800-6,000rpm | Torque: 500Nm at 1,300-4,500rpm | 0-100km/h: 4.3 seconds (M-DCT) | Top speed: 250km/h (Limited) | said consumption: 7.9l/100km | said CO²: 185g/km

From left to right: The Audi RS3, BMW M2 and AMG 45.
From left to right: The Audi RS3, BMW M2 and AMG 45.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

THE VERDICT

Each contender here offers a different expression of the super-compact format. Some might find the straight-line brawn and terrier persona of the Mercedes-AMG A45 an alluring prospect. Harsh ride and iffy interior plastics notwithstanding.

The all-round agreeable nature of the Audi RS3 Sportback would resonate with a practical crowd. It might have been staid on the circuit, but in the real world, its versatility and refinement hold it in good stead. One cannot also forget about that mellifluous five-cylinder symphony.

Lastly, we move onto the BMW M2: the unanimous pick after our taxing test session. It garners praise for its ability to blend daily usability and outstanding track dynamics. The compact BMW is an encapsulation of all the M-car tenets that some might argue have been diluted as the products from the sub-brand have become bigger and heavier.

Your only problem now is finding one — most of the local allocation is spoken for and there is a waiting list. The units in circulation are beset by the inflationary pricing you would expect with high demand and limited supply.

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