Winner: Mercedes-AMG A 45
The Mercedes-AMG A 45 is once again back on the winner’s podium in the premium sports car class. But it wasn’t a win that came easily, having to withstand concerted challenges from Honda’s affordable and stonking new Civic Type R, and the BMW M240i – an old adversary and very worthy past winner in this class. In the end, the points tally across 17 assessment criteria gave the Merc a skinny six-point winning margin to the Honda in second spot.
Owning and running the hot-shot A-Class will punish the bank balance more than the similarly priced BMW and fiscally friendly Honda. For a small hatchback, it’s not that cheap and you can expect depreciation to bite harder, while running and repair costs are among the worst in class. The Merc is reasonably fuel efficient by class standards, but its beverage of choice is the dearer 98 RON fuel.
On the upside, its standard features list is more generous than the Honda or its German rival. The lengthy equipment list includes heated power front seats, LED headlamps, dual-zone climate control, leather trim, keyless start, infotainment system with 8.0-inch colour screen and navigation, Harman Kardon sound system, plus a host of AMG-specific enhancements. These include the instrument cluster, performance seats, steering wheel, 19-inch alloys, high-performance brake system, performance exhaust system, spoiler, and a selective ride-control adaptive sports suspension system.
Buyers expect strong safety credentials in a car such as this, and there are no disappointments – the A 45 and Kia Stinger GT are the only two cars in the class to score a perfect 10 for safety.
First impressions count, and the Merc’s body and interior styling shout the performance car message. But it’s what it can do, not what it advertises, that really counts. It’s hard to imagine any driving enthusiast who wouldn’t be impressed by its on-road talents.
There’s a ballistic 2.0-litre turbo engine that pumps out a mighty 275kW and 475Nm, making it one of the most powerful production engines of its displacement you’ll find. Mated to a seven-speed DCT gearbox, performance is nothing short of exhilarating, and there’s that lovely exhaust ‘snap, crackle and pop’. The 0-100km/h sprint is dispatched in just 4.2 seconds.
The AMG Dynamic Select system allows driver control over engine and transmission response, plus steering and suspension settings to best suit driving conditions and style. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system efficiently puts power down to the tarmac, allowing it to carve through and slingshot out of corners. With limpet-like grip, it’s more a point-and-shoot weapon than the agile and lively rear-drive BMW, with which it shares class-leading handling scores. The AMG braking system does a great job of restraining the vehicle when called on.
The A 45’s more overtly styled interior has switchgear that’s too fussy for the judges’ liking, however, like the Type R, the Merc’s body-hugging AMG sports seats provide great comfort and support, even during hard cornering.
The simple fact is, whichever of the three cars that made our final cut you choose, you won’t be disappointed. They all offer that wow factor and you’ll get a superb drive. Yet, by the numbers in 2018, the A 45 is the more complete premium sports car package.
Second place: Honda Civic Type R
The eagerly awaited new Civic Type R really put a cat among the pigeons in this year’s premium sports car shootout. One of only four cars in the class with an estimated drive-away price below $56,000, it looks like a battle of David and Goliath proportions, going up against far more expensive options from BMW and Mercedes-AMG.
But Honda’s hot hatch is so good that it was only beaten into second place by a slender hair’s breadth. Its list-price advantage, lower depreciation costs, lower running and repair costs, and a better warranty and dealer access score than the German duo all have it well ahead in the value-for-money stakes.
The 228kW 2.0-litre VTEC turbo engine is a gem, happily revving to its redline, and delivering strong, flexible performance. The six-speed manual gearbox has slick short shifts, and there’s a clever rev-matching function when down-shifting. Equipped with Brembo brakes and large drilled front discs, stopping power proved excellent.
The front-drive Type R has excellent steering and finely honed dynamics. There’s a choice of drive modes from the track-focused ‘+R’ mode, through to a ‘comfort’ setting that makes this hot hatch a very liveable daily drive. And, whether they were large or lean, all our judges loved the support that the deeply bolstered front seats provided.
Third place: BMW M240i Coupe
In 2016, the M240i triumphed over the past two-time winner, the Mercedes-AMG A 45, by a very slim eight-point margin. But the entry of the relatively affordable and brilliant new Civic Type R, combined with a small loss of the BMW’s value-for-money advantages relative to the Merc, and the Bavarian slips into third spot, only 10 points astern of our winner.
Updates to the M240i in 2017 brought adaptive LED headlamps and the latest iDrive 6 infotainment system as standard, along with minor cosmetic changes and enhanced interior trims. But the list price has risen and is now virtually on par with the better-equipped Mercedes. Owners of the M240i will also feel the financial pinch when it comes to insuring their conveyance.
In all other ways the BMW delighted judges with its on-road performance, braking prowess and dynamics. The 250kW 3.0-litre TwinPower turbo inline six-cylinder engine delivers muscular performance through the rev range and sounds great too. The eight-speed auto is slick and smooth with its perfectly timed shifts.
Judges complimented the BMW’s ride quality and handling finesse. It blends the purity of BMW’s classic rear-drive agility and sportiness with everyday liveability and the refinement of a prestige car. High-quality finish, excellent seating and a user-friendly cabin round out a great package.