I really should like the BMW M2 more than I actually do. Out of this trio of £45k-ish posho performance cars we’ve brought together, it’s certainly the best looking, with its compact, muscular, mess with me and I’ll break your face aesthetic. It also has the most cylinders here, and is the only one that sends its power - correctly, you might say - to the rear wheels.
There’s a sense of rightness to the way it drives as a result, with that constant push from behind and the feeling of the rear axle starting to move around nicely as you push the limits of grip. There’s a sharpness to the steering that’s just not there in the Mercedes-AMG A45 or Audi RS3 saloon. But it’s just not quite the car I thought it was going to be.
A lot of that is down to the engine: it’s not a ‘proper’ S-designated M Division engine, rather the same N55 twin-scroll turbocharged 3.0-litre lump found in the old M135i and M235i, with some choice tweaks to bring the power to 365bhp. Despite a relatively punchy midrange, it quickly feels breathless and underwhelming as you rev it out. All the right ingredients are here - it just needs a bit more spice.
The smooth and fast shifts of the DCT transmission fitted to this one don’t help either. I’m not militant when it comes to manuals, but if you’re having one of these, I do reckon you need the six-speed manual to add some involvement to make up for the just OK powertrain.
I didn’t want to start this triple test on such a bum note, but I had to get that off my chest. And anyway, warbling its way into the scene is the RS3 saloon, and my, does it have an answer when it comes to the powertrain department. If putting your foot down in the M2 is like exploding a stick of Semtex, then the RS3 is a full-on bunker-buster detonation. It takes a little longer to get into its stride than you’d expect, but spin it up to 4000rpm and you’re treated to dramatic forward thrust accompanied by that glorious offbeat five-pot thrum.
That’s not to say it’s a one-trick pony. It should come as no surprise that grip and traction is extraordinary, and yes, once you push past the limit, predictable understeer is the course of the day. But the front end on this thing is mega - the RS3 loves a fast change of direction, and the obedience of that front axle is backed-up by super-quick steering. It even delivers something vaguely akin to feedback.
Finally, it’s better damped than the BMW. It feels like there’s less body roll (although there’s not much in it), and it doesn’t have that constant, uncomfortable vertical bob the M2 suffers from on anything other than utterly smooth roads. Which you generally won’t find here without driving down to Folkestone and getting on the EuroTunnel.
So where does the Mercedes-AMG A45 fit into all this? It went into this test as the favourite. The favourite for, erm, third place. You can hardly blame us for being so dismissive of the only hatchback here - it’s the oldest of the three, it has the least desirable engine configuration, and the interior is particularly disappointing in terms of quality and design.
But the A45 is a car that surprises. Firstly because of the engine - like one of those tiny dogs that never stops barking, that 2.0-litre inline-four turbo is keen to make up for its diminutive size by making the biggest racket possible.
I’m certain it’s the loudest of our trio, and it makes a cacophony of pops and bangs whatever you lift off. Lift off at high RPM and it’s like a box of fireworks are exploding in the boot. Shift up in one of the more exciting driving modes, and you’re presented with a tremendously satisfying crack out of the exhaust pipes. Sure, it’s all engineered fakery, but if you’re having a bad one, I guarantee it’ll brighten up your day.
The engine itself can’t manage the responsiveness of the much bigger lump in the M2, but there does seem to be a smidge less turbo lag than the 395bhp 2.5 in the RS3. You don’t get quite as dramatic a delivery though - once you’re past the 2500rpm boost threshold, it’s oddly linear for a turbo unit. When it comes to changing gear, the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission does a decent job, even if it’s behind the DCT ‘boxes in the Audi and BMW.
The steering is slower and less feelsome than the setups in both the M2 and RS3 (are you sensing a theme here?), but where the AMG does get the jump on the other two is with the damping. Yes, it has the advantage of being an adaptive setup with multiple modes (‘our’ RS3 doesn’t have the optional adaptive dampers fitted, and you can’t even option anything like that on the BMW), but even in the hardcore Race mode, it has a wonderful compliancy that neither the overly-bouncy M2 or the slightly too hard RS3 manage. Combined with its four-wheel drive grip and traction plus that 376bhp four-banger, and you have a fast , effective and amusing back road weapon.
The other two are more entertaining and are, way, way nicer inside, so it’s still a third place for the A45, just not as distant a finish as I’d expected. A new one will be along in 2020, which we have high hopes for.
Choosing between the other two isn’t as easy. The BMW is naturally more fun being rear-wheel drive, and while the RS3 looks neat and purposeful, it’s completely outgunned in the aesthetics department by the M2 and its hilariously blistered wheel arches. But even though I find myself drawn to it, there’s a constant nagging feeling that it’s not quite full M Division material, no matter what BMW claims.
But while the BMW fails to meet my expectations, the Audi smashes them. Traditionally a fast Audi with a Haldex clutch-based four-wheel drive system would be fast, capable but just a bit meh to drive, but the RS3 marries all the usual RS stuff with a satisfying and involving drive.
It’s the best all-rounder here, and until BMW finally brings out that S55-engined ‘M2 Competition’ that’s been rumoured since the dawn of time, that’s unlikely to change.