I had high hopes for the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A35 hatch, and not simply because colleagues made positive noises on return from its international (8.5 rating) and local (8.4) launches.
It’s because $67,200 list is good money for a small hatchback with a new nameplate, even though that figure looks a pittance for a bona-fide AMG. That our test car arrived at CarAdvice HQ optioned to a touch over $75K list – or $80K-plus on roads – only ratcheted up personal expectations higher.
Of course, it’s easy to glance sideways at the Audi S3 and BMW M135i to spot logical barometers with which to measure A35 goodness – spoiler alert: coming soon – but in this week-long, urban-centric, daily driven AMG experience, one reference point might be absent in body if ever present in mind: Volkswagen’s Golf R. I’m ever so tempted to get the Vee-Dub and Merc in a twin test, just to see…
Why? It’s no news the newcomer A35 wedges itself between the nicely warmed over A250 and the forthcoming A45 head-kicker in the range. And it’s no logical stretch to expect the middle child will offer a decent enough punt with more than acceptable daily driven friendliness.
It’s a duality the Golf R has long been renowned for, and there’s a fair congregation of Volkswagen fans who’ll preach from the hilltops that their messiah is all the multi-talent you could reasonably want for… For $20K less outlay.
By seat of the pants, then, I’m expecting conspicuously more fire and friendliness from the A35 than I might from a flagship Golf. Not unreasonable, I reckon.
The assessment here is how well it executes both driving enjoyment and everyday comfort, and which of the two contrary demands gets priority. And what else might it bring to the hot hatch for its $75K ask.
On appearance and vibe alone, the A35 pushes the go-faster barrel the hardest. Some of that effect, at least, is the optional bewinged Aerodynamics pack ($1915) and High Performance seat upgrades ($2531) seemingly specifically to target the young and the young at heart.
Smaller ticket items included on our car are the Vision Package ($761 for adaptive LED headlights, 360 camera, et cetera) and the Cosmos Black Metallic paint ($915).
Okay, so there’s an assertive boy- or girl-racer pitch going on, but at least it foregoes the gaudy coloured stripe work that sometimes creeps onto the AMG menu. There’s just enough maturity at play for, well, more mature tastes.
Better yet, in look and feel the A35 is fittingly upmarket, techy and rich in execution, both outside and in. There’s no conspicuous cost-shaving, as you will find further down the A-Class range, just because of its diminutive stature.
The quality of fit, finish and material choice is convincingly premium. But the cabin space is also overwhelmingly elaborate, which is a different thing entirely.
The A-Class wants to desperately be the techiest small car on the block. And this sporty ‘AMG-ification’ makes no attempt to escape from it.
In fact, designers seemed out to assault the senses, augmenting the slick if fussy ‘floating’ dual-10.25-inch flatscreen displays with as many shiny materials and doodads as they could possibly shovel in.
The sci-fi graphics skins, steering wheel thumb pads and fancy ‘mode’ dials, the haptic infotainment controller, convoluted air vent mood lighting… More distractions than improvement in convenience, though, in fairness, it’s an intuitive cabin to negotiate and it does feature handy short-cut buttons – ESP settings, gearbox and suspension modes – along the console.
Further, dig about in the submenus and you can simplify any content in those huge display screens.
The seats are very snug and form-fitting and serve their purpose well for fair-weather back road punts, but do become tiresome for long drives and general commuting – though, again, they’re optional.
Spaciousness is decent in both seating rows, while its 370L boot space (under the cover) is handy for a small hatch, expanding to 1210L with the 40:20:40 split-fold rear seat back stowed.
As a self-confessed techno Luddite, I’m yet to be convinced Benz’s new MBUX connected universe brings much benefit to the motoring experience. And some of the conspicuous stuff, such as the ‘Hey Mercedes’ natural voice command, isn’t very useful nor functions with much accuracy or consistency. I’m more inclined to think that such trinkets are loaded in to justify handsome pricing and to support brand cachet than they are necessarily, as Mercedes-Benz and its AMG arm claim, to deliver “what customers want”.
But you don’t have to scratch much below the blingy facade to reveal proper depth and substance in the driving experience. And like presentation suggests, it leverages sportiness much more than it does luxury and comfort.
The initial signals are very positive indeed. The most impressive aspect of the A35 experience is just how hard-wired the driver is to the on-road experience.
There’s a nice edgy purpose to the character that’s benefitted in many areas from the AMG touch, where fettling of the hardware and tuning have left this hatch feeling measurably more focused than the A250 upon which much of this package is built upon.
It’s perhaps a tougher challenge to make a car feel properly feisty, in dynamics and a genuine sense of connection, than it is to merely create potent performance. And even a cursory punt is enough to convince that its maker has invested effort in the right places.
Its 2.0-litre turbo four’s 225kW and 400Nm outputs are decent and its vessel’s 4.7sec 0–100km/h prowess is respectable, but it’s no out-and-out firecracker. But it’s still an impressive powertrain, with the keen response of the twin-scroll-turbocharged design – in Sport or Sport+ modes at least – and its flexible midrange tractability.
You don’t have to constantly chase its 5800rpm power peak, let alone its 6500rpm cut-out, for eager and cooperative progress.
The whole powertrain is nicely integrated, too. The interplay between the engine, the smooth-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch and torque-variable all-paw drive is impressively slick and polished.
There are no annoying whirrs or clunks, and despite a slight tardiness in Comfort mode throttle response, the drive system remains refined whether you’re chasing gaps in traffic or crawling along in the peak-hour grind.
Be it around town or out in the twisties, the A35 always generates a nice, sharp and undiluted connection with the road through the steering and the driver’s seat. It’s always transmitting sensory satisfaction and piling on the good vibes.
The downside is that its ever-present raciness is, in part, a direct byproduct of the adaptive suspension’s generally taut tuning. It’s well damped, if incessantly fidgety in Comfort, and only gets progressively stiffer and terser climbing through its Sport and Sport+ settings. Even in its more pliant mode, you’re constantly weaving across the road, avoiding the worst of the road acne, which can become a tiresome chore.
All things considered, it’s probably livable enough for a good many city-slicker owners driven daily on crap urban roads. It’s just a shame that the Ride Control’s least rigid setting doesn’t offer more compliance to better cope with the worst inner Sydney or Melbourne will throw at it.
As you’d rightly expect, the go-kart-like ride translates to a pretty decent approximation of go-kart-like handling, at least in terms of dynamic reaction to steering input and weight transfer once you blow out of town and head for the twisty hills.
Provided, that is, you’re not expecting much power-on rear-steer effect from the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system that will only ever feed 50 per cent of torque to the rear axle.
Sure, you get brake-controlled rear-axle torque vectoring that works reasonably well in mitigating excessive understeer, but the fore-aft torque regulation (via an electromechancial clutch differential pack) is never going to induce full-noise oversteer using throttle input alone, unless you’re pulling some lairy WRC stunt on gravel or ice.
In hairy-chested Sport+ mode, it also lays on those brash braps and pops that are right at home on a back-road punt, but will infuriate your urbanite neighbours – such is the AMG way.
Satisfyingly frisky yet pleasantly reserved – by usual AMG measures, at least – the neatly balanced A35 still wants for a hotter place in the segment than its S3 and M135 xDrive rivals seem to occupy – something a proper three-way test will confirm or deny. And it feels more special in enough areas to justify the jump up from the much-loved Golf R.
It is quite thirsty: 7.6L/100km/h is the combined consumption claim, though you need a long downhill run and a stiff tailwind to get anywhere near it.
Ownership-wise, the three-year warranty still looks slim by any angle, particularly for a device proposing a lot of tech inside and out that wouldn’t be cheap to fix if you’re thinking of longer-term ownership prospects.
On the plus side, the A35 does have longer 25,000km servicing intervals than other AMG stock (20,000km) such as 45s or 63s, with a basic servicing schedule available from $2050 for the first three services if paid upfront.
That the A35 dives deeper on the sporting side and somewhat shallower with comfort won’t suit all buyer tastes – and that cabin treatment is truly a love-it-or-loathe-it affair – but the depth is well and truly there. And while it’s undoubtedly destined to sit beneath the forthcoming A45 in sheer heroics, that’s no reason to consider it the ‘middle child’ and lesser or worse.
In fact, the A35 could go on to prove itself as the best hot hatch all-rounder out there.