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Group tests

BMW M2 v Mercedes-AMG A45 S – £65k performance machines go head-to-head

Hyperhatch versus sports coupe, four-wheel drive opposes rear, auto confronts manual. Despite their differences, the AMG A45 S and BMW M2 are still close rivals, but which delivers the knockout?

AMG and BMW M have been taking shots at each other for decades, trading blows and landing ever-more-powerful punches on each other up and down the product lines. So much so that the M development team stopped looking at what AMG was doing some time ago and instead turned to see what Porsche was up to, to determine what it had to do better to get the upper hand over its Affalterbach rivals.

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It’s a strategy that has seen M2s, 3s, 4s and 5s pull away from their A, C and E counterparts and continue to lord it over their rivals. Back-to-back eCoty wins with the M2 CS and M5 CS cemented M’s return to form, although the M4 CSL dropped that ball before it was scooped up again by the M3 CS. BMW will be hoping for no further mishaps with the new hybrid-powered M5 later this year. 

> The Abt Audi RS3-S is a 478bhp five-cylinder BMW M2 rival

This match-up should be a foregone conclusion, then. £67,030 M2 against the latest £63,285 A45 S. Rear-drive, straight-six engine, six-speed manual gearbox and the precision of an M differential against an eight-speed DCT, four-wheel-drive, highly strung four-cylinder hyperhatch with an aero kit to embarrass a Touring Car driver.

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What the M2 lacks in technical armoury it makes up for by being little more than a cut-and-shut M4; it’s the same width as its big brother at 1.8 metres, is only 21cm shorter overall and is taller by a hair’s breadth. Which also explains why it weighs 1700kg. 

And it feels as big as it looks. The optional carbon bucket seats swallow you whole, the window line rises up above your shoulder, the double-screen display fills your lower eyeline and even ardent BMW fans who enjoy sitting as close as possible to the floor might find the M2’s seating position a little low. You’re always conscious of your road position, too, making small adjustments to keep its Pilot 4 Ss between the white lines and away from the inevitable potholes.

There’s very little slack in its dynamic make-up, though, with a clean synchronicity between what your eyes see and what your hands and feet are required to do. As you build up to the M2’s performance, the sense of being in a junior M4 percolates through the surfaces and back through your senses. There’s little movement through the body but it’s not tough for the sake of it, to the point that Sport becomes your default damper setting for the road, adding a tighter sense of connection between you and what’s happening beneath. 

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For mile after mile the M2 clips turn-in points and nips at apexes before running out of the corner with a sense of all four corners of the car working in harmony. So you push harder and the M2 gives a little more back, although not as much as an M2 CS because it lacks that model’s clarity and purer sense of purpose. Keep asking for more, however, and M2’s initial impressiveness eventually starts to fade. Its weight, up until now having been checked and masked, starts to stretch things at the seams. That quick transition in response to your steering input feels a little dulled, the responses slowed down just enough to sow a seed of doubt in the back of your mind that the relationship between you and the M2 isn’t as strong as you first thought. 

In slow to medium-speed corners its nose feels loose, the sense of connection you had through the too-thick and too-large-diameter wheel in the quick curves has bled away, resulting in a moment when you feel on your own, waiting for the front axle to react. Which it does without fail, but you’re left hanging while it gets there. After such fluidity at high speeds it’s quite the contrast. Where its predecessor would relish taking on a technical piece of the road, the current car is less comfortable. Its size and bulk work against it, as if it has swapped out of a pair of running shoes into some Muck boots. Building a rhythm feels harder than it should be, the precision and sense of connection the old car exploded with reduced to a shallow stream here.

At times the A45 S displays similar traits as the M2. It too suffers from a vagueness on turn-in through slow and medium-speed corners, the quicker reactions of the pre-facelift car having become much calmer and slightly nullified here. And as with the BMW, the AMG lacks detail and feel to allow you to commit as hard as its pace suggests you should be able to, although its hatchback origins do make the 45 feel more up on its toes and therefore more biddable and receptive to a more aggressive approach. Once its Michelins hook onto your chosen line you can lean into the throttle much harder and earlier, asking the A45’s four-wheel-drive transmission to hunt for grip to drive you through and out of the corner. It feels less expressive from behind the wheel than the M2 but it’s more effective, and it revels in being thrown around like a hot hatch: pitch it in on its nose, feel the rear rotate and get into the throttle the instant you start winding the lock off. 

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This vibrancy is down to the torque-control hardware and software, which not only allows for torque split between front and rear axles, but also selectively across the rear axle between each wheel. The BMW’s M Differential is effective and indulges you as it splits the torque load between the rear wheels, but against the AMG the disadvantages of only having a single driven axle are consistently made apparent, the car less receptive to mid-corner adjustments. 

As with the M2, the A45’s dampers are best set to Sport for the road, locking down the body but not at the expense of compliance, which highlights how much work has been carried out on the damper hardware fitted to both cars and the software that controls them. This tighter, more measured control also increases the A45’s four-square stance on the road and the sensation that every corner of the car is working as one, whereas the M2 can project a disconnect between the front and rear axles, missing that sense of pivoting around your hips that the AMG telegraphs so clearly back to you. 

However, the A45 S lacks the high-speed stability of the BMW, which initially you might put down to a variation in wheelbase length considering the M2’s close links to its M4 big brother, until you discover there’s 7mm in it, the AMG being the shorter of the two. But that sensation of the M2 positioning you in no man’s land between both axles is flipped on its head when the road flows at a higher speeds, allowing the BMW to play to its strengths of being a calmer car, one that feels more grown up and less instantaneous in its responses. 

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High speeds are the M2’s forte. When we first drove a prototype at the back end of 2022 on BMW M’s test routes around the Nürburgring, it felt like a rocketship, sniffing the bumper of the accompanying M3 Touring until the wagon moved aside to let the unhinged coupe off its leash. Much, if not all of this is down to its hammer-to-crack-a-walnut engine. Three litres, six cylinders and a pair of turbochargers make for a potent combination, even in a car that’s been dining out on too much bratwurst. There’s such a broad delivery on offer you can mooch around in third gear and go from urban crawl to autobahn attack without an upshift. From barely tickover this S58 breathes deep and sucks in the horizon, bursting through an unstoppable mid-range and peaking with a fizzing top end. By modern standards it sounds good too, with a crispness at the engine’s peak paired with a deep, big-capacity growl down below. It’s an engine that makes you want to change gear for the sake of it to savour its full range, which leads to one of the M2’s disappointments: its manual gearchange. 

We shouldn’t complain, because manuals are what we ask for and we’d still take a poor one over a soulless auto or DCT, but the M2’s doesn’t have a great shift. It doesn’t like to be hustled and there’s too much damping around the gate blunting the precision and speed at which you can change gears. 

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AMG has never offered its A45 with a manual and it shows, because the eight-speed dual-clutch unit feels perfectly mated to the car. Its shifts are clean and crisp, in auto mode they shuffle with immediacy even when quick downshifts are required. When you switch to manual – which requires a press of the touchscreen – the ‘paddles’ have a satisfying action, delivering an almost instant response. However, in Sport and above (Sport+ and Race) the downshifts can be a little slow compared to the alertness of the rest of the controls when you wind the wick up.

Where the BMW is let down by its manual ’box, the AMG is left wanting in terms of its engine. The 2-litre M139 does the numbers – 415bhp and 369lb ft – and despite having a third fewer cylinders is only 39bhp and 37lb ft behind the BMW, giving the 1560kg A45 a virtually identical power-to-weight ratio. However, it’s a long way behind in terms of delivery. There isn’t the immediate low-down response, and hanging on to the revs beyond 5500rpm adds little to the performance, which leaves you with an almighty mid-range surge that keeps you on your toes as you work to keep the motor on the boil. It suits the nature of the A45’s frantic approach, but the coarse soundtrack and the empty feel of its delivery make for a far less engaging experience than that offered by the M2. 

Both cars have mighty brakes, the AMG’s the more measured of the two and more natural to moderate in terms of pedal pressure, but the M2 has a more consistent pedal travel when you start to push harder for longer, backed up by near-perfect ergonomics that are only let down by the wide transmission tunnel resulting in a clutch pedal that isn’t as instinctively placed as the other two it shares the footwell with. Although it’s a small price to pay compared to the A45’s bar-stool seat set-up, which will be a deal-breaker for some. 

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On paper the M2 should walk this contest. Its big, gutsy engine, manual transmission and rear-wheel-drive configuration are as tantalising as they sound, but somehow it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It feels remote when you are expecting M’s pin-sharp responses, heavy-handed when you need the light touch of a CS. Like the original 2016 F87 M2 it feels like an M car with more to come. Hopefully the Competition will sharpen its blunt edges, and a CS will light its fuse. The A45 S arrives as the underdog and leaves with the victory. Its chassis feels more alive, its attitude more outgoing and inviting and its desire to engage and excite whenever and wherever possible is hard not to be impressed by. Neither car is perfect and both would benefit from aspects of the other being injected into their DNA, but for now AMG has landed a sucker punch on M’s nose.

Specs

 BMW M2Mercedes-AMG A45 S
EngineIn-line 6-cyl, 2993cc, twin-turboIn-line 4-cyl, 1991cc, turbocharged 
Power454bhp @ 6250rpm415bhp @ 6750rpm
Torque406lb ft @ 2650-5870rpm369lb ft @ 5000-5250rpm 
Weight1700kg1560kg
Power-to-weight271bhp/ton270bhp/ton
TyresMichelin Pilot Sport 4 SMichelin Pilot Sport 4 S
0-62mph4.3sec3.9sec
Top speed155mph168mph
Basic price£67,030 (manual)£63,285

This story was first featured in evo issue 320.

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