Mercedes A45 AMG on the road

We get an exclusive first ride in a prototype of the 350bhp Mercedes A-Class, ahead of its launch next summer

"It might have four-wheel drive, but you can still get it sideways," Tobias Moers explains calmly, holding a big drift around a long right-hander. "You just need to flick it, Ari Vatanen-style."

It turns out that the boss of product development at AMG isn't just a talented engineer - he's handy behind the wheel, too. But then the car he's driving us around in today, on road and track, is rather special.

The A45 AMG represents Mercedes’ first move into the hot hatch market, and uses a hand-built 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine driving all four wheels. Producing around 350bhp and 450Nm of torque (the highest specific output of any road car), it’s expected to cover 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds, enough to comfortably outgun rivals like the 335bhp Audi RS3 and 316bhp BMW M135i. It will cost just less than £40,000 when it goes on sale next summer.

“It sounds strange but this car has a lot in common with the SLS, because it’s the first in a new segment for us,” Moers told us. “But you can forget the Olympic spirit where it’s the taking part that counts, we’re here to be the best in the class.”

The way this car sounds is definitely SLS-esque. As the revs rise there’s a smooth induction note, with none of the drone normally associated with four-cylinder engines, followed by a burst of pops and crackles every time Moers lifts off the throttle. It can’t match the SLS for drama, but it’s definitely the best-sounding 2.0-litre unit we’ve ever laid ears on.

The only gearbox option will be a development of the seven-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT dual-clutch transmission. It’s a gearbox that’s had its critics in the past for slow-witted reactions, but judging by the way Moers fires through the ratios on track, and the smooth shifts on our road drive, it should be the perfect fit.

We’ll have to wait until we try the steering ourselves to deliver our verdict, but Moers seems more than pleased with it. “It’s a linear set up, no variable ratio – it feels more natural,” he explained. “I was worried about the switch to electric power steering, but it’s so much better, there’s more to play around with.”

Buyers will be able to choose between two suspension set ups – both featuring fixed-rate dampers. Our car was fitted with the standard set of springs and dampers and felt firm, even on smooth surfaces, so the more extreme settings are likely to be too hard for the road.

On track, though, the pay-off for a little discomfort is clear – no matter how much speed Moers carries into a corner the car refuses to understeer and feels perfectly balanced, there was even a hint of four-wheel drift on the exits in true rally car-style.

Despite the feeble disguise, the AMG makeover was obvious on our prototype, with twin exhausts at the rear, extended side skirts and lower front and rear bumpers. Inside the changes are limited to sportier seats – although the racing buckets we were strapped into won’t be offered – and an AMG-specific gear selector on the centre console, rather than the column-mounted shifter on the standard car.

We’ll get our first chance to see the finished car at the Geneva Motor Show in March, and will drive it soon after. Based on these first impressions, though, the signs are very good indeed.

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