In 2006, quattro GmbH launched the Audi R8. The car was a departure for the already-famous tuning division. Not only was it a bonafide two-seat sports car, it was also mid-engined, space-framed and hand assembled at a new facility created solely for the purpose of producing it. Moreover, it was a statement of intent: quattro - and by extension, Audi - could do anything, could launch in any segment, and expect to succeed.
Half a decade later, it launched a volume hot hatch to prove it. The RS3 wasn't made at Neckarsulm at all (previously a distinguishing feature of quattro's one-at-a-time build policy) and typified the tuner's seemingly effortless growth spurt from enthusiast-only sideshow to established manufacturing powerhouse. It is this transformation, not least the speed and success of it, that has created the template for its direct rivals to furiously emulate.
Foremost among them is Mercedes-AMG. Lest we forget, Daimler AG - Mercedes' parent company - didn't even become the sole owner of the brand until 2005. It started life as an honest-to-goodness independent tuner, and became justly famous for big-engine versions of Mercedes' stock options. Sledgehammer performance was AMG's calling card, one that could be made to co-exist with its parent's partiality for luxury and refinement.
Now though, Mercedes-AMG is ploughing the broader furrow worn for it by Audi Sport. In 2013, it launched the A45 - not only its first hot hatch, but also its first ever model to feature a four-cylinder engine; one specifically designed to outpunch the five-pot RS3. A year later it showed the AMG-GT at Paris, a two-seat sports car designed entirely in-house to not only lock horns with the Porsche 911, but also the latest R8.
As with Neckarsulm's equivalents, both models are concrete evidence of Mercedes-AMG's broader ambitions and the investment made to realise them. Question is, which is best? Or to put it another way, which one could be better said to represent the standalone brand in 2018? Which one is the most deserving of Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach - the firm Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher founded in 1967 to design and build race engines, which went on to launch the 'The Hammer' in the eighties and all manner of other wonderful things thereafter? We went to the New Forest to find out. Then we sat down on the grass and picked a side.
An uphill task, you might think, arguing the case of a humble hatchback when there's the bonnet of a GT-R poking from the opposite trench. The A45, after all, is fitted with literally half of its stablemate's 4.0-litre V8 - and when it comes to all things AMG, more is unconditionally better. But the go-faster A-Class was not built for the second step of a podium.
Easy to forget now, but Mercedes had never done a proper C segment contender until it launched the third generation of its starter model (the elk-swerving first two generations being a completely different prospect). Consequently, the A45 was AMG's first go at a first go. With the GT, there was a very recent precedent - the terminally unsubtle SLS - but when it came to hot hatches, the tuner was about as familiar with the process as a strawberry grower is with lemons.
Mercedes hadn't exactly knocked the base car out of the park either. Making a stock Golf or Focus go quickly and consistently feels like the work of an afternoon thanks to the inherent aptitude of the standard model. The W176 A-Class may have looked the part, yet it was about as rewarding to drive as a flock of sheep. The A45 then, by rights, ought to have been a range-finder while the mothership got its act together. But it wasn't. It was resoundingly good right out of the box.
Better yet, it managed to be both resounding and good in a way that could be called quinessentially AMG. Somewhere at Affalterbach they must have the phrase 'no f******g about' etched onto the walls, because, having been gently told that they would need to make do with a humble, transversely mounted 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine in its cheapest model, the engineers promptly set about building a downsized unit with the power density of collapsed star.
Sure, it's only half the size of the GT-R's V8, but it certainly isn't half as powerful. At launch, the M133 - which still earns a signature plaque under the 'one man, one engine' mantra, despite not actually being built at AMG's own plant - developed 360hp and 332lb ft of torque, easily sufficient for it to rank among the most powerful 2.0-litre petrol motors ever made. Two years later (and specifically to stick it to the latest RS3) a facelift uprated the output to 381hp and 350lb ft.
That's 191hp per litre. Which is very slightly superior to a Bugatti Chiron. Which downright is silly. But it also epitomises the AMG way. If you're going to sell a hatchback, why not give it bragging rights over the contemporary 911 Carrera? More really is better - especially when the car's platform had necessitated the all-wheel-drive configuration essential to deploying its grandest boast.
And, boy, did it ever. When road tested by Autocar in 2013, it was the first ever hot hatch to hit 150mph inside a mile from a standing start. It was a phenomenon. Moreover, it handled, too. The original model was a mite one-dimensional, sure, but AMG hadn't stinted underneath; where the A-Class felt unnecessarily brittle, the A45, on mostly bespoke suspension, was a seriously taut combination of body control and Araldite-style grip.
By the time 2015 came around, you could have one with a limited-slip differential on the front axle, which meant that all kinds of additional fun could be had with the car's cornering attitude if you were inclined to go after it. But you never had to go that far to enjoy the A45. Driven on a hot summer's day last month, the car had that wonderful senior hot hatch way of feeling massively sorted at every speed - without necessarily feeling beholden it.
By that I mean that for all its hunkered-down vertical stiffness and engine-bay bellicosity, it is no harder or harder-wearing to drive than any other high spec, premium hatchback. Where the GT-R needs endless forgiveness for being too wide and too loud and too much, the A45 can be as blameless and as blend-in as you want it to be. And then, when you don't, it'll do its utmost to rip your face clean off.
That duality - all mannerly one moment, and banzai-bonkers the next - speaks to the very heart of Mercedes-AMG. The brand is not about throwing the baby out with the bath water: a recognisable quota of Mercedes must remain - polished, consistent and capable of walking softly. The AMG part is there to carry the bloody big stick. One made of horsepower and head rush and a carbon fibre bodykit.
And best of all? The firm distilled it all into a car that (initially, at any rate) cost less than £40k. Okay, so that made it stupendously expensive for a hot hatch - but also relatively cheap for a thoroughbred AMG, which, of course, was the point. Crucially, the A45 was indisputable proof that anything Neckarsulm could do at the high volume end of the industry, Affalterbach could do better. Additionally - and even more unexpectedly - it was arguably the AMG-iest thing it had done since the book was closed on the 6.2-litre 'M156' V8. Go figure.
SPECIFICATION: MERCEDES-AMG A45
Engine: 1,991cc, four-cylinder, turbo
Transmission: Seven-speed DCT, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 381@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 350@2,250-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.2 sec
Top speed: 168mph (limited)
Mercedes-AMG GT R Coupe
One key tenet of the contemporary AMG, indeed one that's been a mainstay for half a century now, is a honking great V8 engine. The GT R has one of those; the A45 quite patently does not. And yes, sure, they're very closely linked, but then so is the E36 M3 straight-six and the McLaren F1 V12. There's very good, and then there's mind blowing.
This hot-V V8 really is mind blowing, too, for every reason imaginable. It's easy to forget that the unit made its debut nearly four years ago now in the standard AMG GT, such is the way it surpasses rivals on throttle response, abundant character and searing performance. For the GT R, power is up to 585hp (including the use of two new, higher boosting turbos), and if Nic reckons the A45's 381hp is conservative, then all the dynos at Affalterbach must be modest - this is a 600hp car if ever there was one. This V8 is 3,998cc of barely tamed ferocity, monstrously powerful, rampantly fast and addictively naughty.
This is not just an easy slating of four-cylinder cars from a V8 perch, though; nobody covets a six-cylinder C36 or E36 more than their eight-cylinder, '43 replacements, do they? And by the same token, old eight-cylinder '55 and '63 AMGs were typically more revered and more characterful than their more expensive, more powerful '65 AMG stablemates. AMGs should have a V8. Like a Snickers needs nuts, Simon needs Garfunkel, and a 99 needs a Flake - they're just not the same otherwise.
But we could have used anything from a GLC SUV to an S-Class saloon to prove the V8 point, such is the proliferation of that fabulous engine in the AMG line up. What the GT R is here for is to emphatically prove AMG's harder, more focused edge to its fullest. It can be seen throughout the range - the additional technology in a C63, the stunning E63, even the introduction of the diff and adaptive dampers in the A45 - but nothing conveys AMG's sense of purpose and vision for the future like a GT R.
Have you ever used a modern Mercedes with manually adjustable seats? Or with nine-stage traction control? With a rollcage and standard fire extinguisher? Furthermore, this is not some facade of focus, a sheen as thin and brittle as a poppadum to distract you from a substandard base product - the GT R is a serious, unapologetic, fiercely competent road racer. It must be said that sometimes it's perhaps too fierce for its own good, but it leaves you in no doubt about AMG's intentions for its performance cars. The big, bad bruisers from before are largely gone, replaced with fast cars of intent, purpose and crushing ability.
See the 7:10 this car achieved on the Nurburgring, or the fact it was within touching distance of a Ford GT around Anglesey with Evo this month. 'R' might be a new model designation for AMG, but this GT proves from the off what the badge means and what it's capable of.
On the road you would never doubt this is anything but a modern AMG product, which is not something that could probably be said about the A45. Dual-clutch, all-wheel drive, four-cylinder hatchbacks aren't exactly rare. Ah, you might be saying, but then neither are front-engined, rear-drive V8s. And you'd be right. But no other delivers the GT R's sense of urgency, the four-wheel steer's freakish agility darting that long green snout into bends at speeds and trajectories it has no right to. There's tangible stiffness through the car (and through the driver at certain points, it must be said), the way a GT R thunders down a road - assuming it's one big enough - is really something to experience. This is a more exhilarating, more thrilling driver's car than the Aston Vantage, by a decent margin actually.
Of course one person's exhilarating can be another's draining, and certainly there are points where the GT R takes more concentration than perhaps you're willing to expend. If the A45 is an espresso shot of AMG, then the GT R is an intravenous drip; the former wears off in time, the latter never lets up, constantly supplying the driver with its angry, unwavering aggression.
Too much? Yeah, perhaps, but this is the firm which put 6.2-litre V8s in C-Classes, 7.3-litre V12s in S-Classes and had to limit torque in a special edition SL. To 737lb ft. AMG is about a bit too much being just right; that stands true with the GT R, it's simply that the focus has changed from straight line silliness to track ability. If you want something more relaxing, more everyday, get a regular GT; for something that prods, pokes and shoves you in the direction of new school AMG, this is the standard bearer. Accept no substitute.
SPECIFICATION - MERCEDES-AMG GT R COUPE
Engine: 3,982cc, V8, twin turbo
Transmission: Seven-speed DCT, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 585@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@1,900-5,500rpm
0-62mph: 3.6 sec
Top speed: 198mph
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