Three German performance hatchbacks with one shared formula: turbocharged four-cylinder power and all-wheel drive. But which car nails it?
It’s exactly 20 years since the Audi S3 turned up in Australia to initiate a new segment niche from Europe: the premium hot hatch.
You might wonder why Germany’s luxury brands took so long to enter the popular world of sporty hatches, considering that in 1999 VW’s Golf GTI wasn’t far off celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Six years later, BMW plonked one of its famous straight-six engines into its 1 Series five-door to create the 130i Sport, before the second-generation heralded the arrival of the M135i badge in 2012 (M140i from 2016).
Mercedes-Benz’s A-Class has been around since the 1990s, yet it wasn’t until 2013 – and the more conventional-looking third generation – that the company’s smallest car received the AMG treatment.
The direct replacement for the original A45 arrives in early 2020, but right now we have another AMG A-Class.
The Mercedes-AMG A35 is the result of Mercedes’s successful marketing strategy to introduce multiple AMG models in one product line. It is to the A45 what the C43 is to the C63, for example – a less powerful but more accessible variant. Of course, it also aims to capitalise on the popularity of the A45, which first time around sold in double the numbers initially projected.
There’s nothing like serendipitous timing for a juicy comparison, and arriving on our shores just weeks after the A35 is the all-new BMW M135i xDrive.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, don’t be confused by the return of the M135i badge. There’s no six-cylinder here, and the third-generation 1 Series has ditched rear-wheel drive for a front-wheel-drive platform – though the xDrive part of the badge tells us this BMW matches the all-wheel-drive hardware of its rivals.
A new-generation Audi A3 range is due in 2020 sometime, though the current Audi S3 has been given a well-timed specification upgrade. And as a successor to the model that started the trend for premium-priced, turbocharged all-wheel-drive hatchbacks, it brings a badge with great historical relevance.
Pricing and features
Just $3210 separates this Teutonic trio. The BMW M135i is the most affordable at $63,990, if not as sharply priced as the $59,990 M140i was during its latter days. The Audi S3 is only $210 extra (at $64,200), while there’s clearer air to the $67,200 Mercedes-AMG A35 (which is about $8000 cheaper than the former A45).
Audi claims its MY20 upgrade gives the S3 extra stuff worth nearly $9000. These include larger, 19-inch Audi Sport alloy wheels, auto-folding side mirrors with kerb view, and metallic paint for the exterior, plus nappa-leather S-embossed sports seats, Bang & Olufsen audio, and wireless phone charging for the interior.
Driver aids now standard are adaptive cruise control with stop-go, active lane assist and high-beam assist. ‘Magnetic ride’ adaptive dampers – which can be stiffened or softened via the car’s Drive Select button – are also now standard rather than optional.
Radar cruise and metallic paint are standard only on the S3, though the M135i and A35 are hardly bereft of equipment. A long list of desirable features is shared by all three models.
The M135i misses out on standard tyre pressure monitoring and heated front seats (both are optional), and buyers need to pay nearly $2500 if they want adaptive dampers.
While they cost only $400, the more advanced suspension can’t be accommodated by the standard 19-inch wheels. It means spending $1900 on the M Sport package that brings smaller (though lighter) 18-inch forged M alloy wheels, plus gloss-black finishes for the kidney-grille surrounds, side-mirror caps, air intakes and exhaust tips.
The A35 is the only hatch without lane-change assist or a fancier, branded audio system (a Burmester system is optional to match the standard B&O and Harman Kardon set-ups on the Audi and BMW, respectively).
Both Audi and Mercedes include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The M135i is one of the BMWs providing CarPlay inclusively (it’s a cost option on most models).
A panoramic sunroof is standard on the A35, whereas it’s optional on the M135i (for the first time on a 1 Series).
The BMW is alone in offering a head-up display as standard. Each hatch comes with a range of optional packages.
Three-year warranties for all three cars remain disappointing when the majority of carmakers have moved to five years.
The A35 is the most expensive to maintain, costing $2550 for three years of servicing (or save $500 by paying upfront). Audi charges $1850 or $2380 depending on whether you want three- or five-year service plans, while BMW comes in the cheapest with a $1527.90 cost for a five-year Basic package.
If you don't want a hatchback, the S3 and A35 are both available as sedans.
Drivetrains and performance
With BMW abandoning its distinctive rear-drive/six-cylinder format for its fastest 1 Series, all three contenders here follow the blueprint of the original Audi S3: turbocharged petrol four-cylinders (albeit all 2.0 litres rather than 1.8 litres) and drive to all four wheels.
In the power war, it’s even stevens between the BMW and Benz: 225kW. It’s just produced earlier and later in the former, according to the spec sheets: 4500–6250rpm versus 5800–6100rpm.
The S3 would be closer than its 213kW if its engine weren’t detuned for Australia’s ‘hot climate’. Its peak power goes highest, though – from 5100–6500rpm.
Turbo torque has a greater influence on everyday performance, though, and here BMW’s engineers have managed to extract the same 450 Newton metres from four cylinders as it did from the six in the old M135i. The A35 steps in next with 400Nm, with the S3 trailing with 380Nm.
The Audi’s maximum torque covers the broadest spread of engine revolutions (1850 to 5300rpm), with the BMW flexing its muscle earliest (1750rpm up to 5000rpm).
The Mercedes four-cylinder’s biceps bulge between 3000 and 4000rpm, though the engine produces 95 per cent of its maximum torque between 2000 and 5000rpm.
In a standing-start drag race (with launch-control systems engaged), official 0–100km/h figures have the A35 first across the line in 4.7 seconds, followed a tenth later by its photo-finishing rivals.
However, BMW says the M135i can go a tenth quicker when optioned with a $1900 M Performance Package that brings lighter alloy wheels and an overboost function for the engine.
When acceleration is demanded when already on the move, the A35 feels the more explosive hatch here – and with the more dramatic mid-range delivery. The speed the A35 can generate certainly asks a question of the A45: if you’re not planning track days, do you need any more performance?
Turn the small dial on the bottom right of the steering wheel to Sport Plus, and the Mercedes also produces the most theatrical soundtrack in the group (while leaving some room for more aural hooliganism from the A45). The exhaust’s pops and crackles are particularly entertaining, and perfectly matched to an engine that feels suitably aggressive when dialled right up.
There’s some speaker-enhanced rumble to the M135i, but it’s surprisingly subdued, which unfortunately emphasises the absence of BMW’s silky and seductive straight-six.
Although the M135i xDrive feels more passive in its power delivery, and there’s some low-down lag not so evident in its competitors, this shouldn’t be mistaken for a car lacking pace or response. This is still one quick BMW that can leave you thinking about braking points earlier than expected. It just feels like there should be another setting beyond Sport.
The S3 feels the slowest here, though only relatively. In isolation, few owners would grumble about performance, and the engine sounds a bit more purposeful (and a bit more natural) than the BMW’s four-cylinder, while offering more exhaust blare and burble.
Audi and Mercedes both opt for seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions. BMW has the same on the new 118i, but gives the M135i an eight-speed auto.
All gearboxes perform terrifically in hard driving, responding quickly to flicks of the paddle levers that are not just standard on each model, but also thankfully attached to the steering wheel rather than the column. (The A35’s metal paddles are the most tactile.)
Only the M135i’s transmission jolts noticeably on full-throttle upshifts, though it could be argued this adds some welcome drama for the BMW.
When drive modes are all back in Comfort, the gearboxes all prove to be effective for everyday motoring.
Want a manual gearbox? You’re out of luck, alas. Audi no longer offers one with the S3, and BMW has ignored a stick-shift for the first time on one of its sporty hatchbacks. It’s less unusual for the A35 to be auto only.
Just one litre separates official fuel consumption figures for this trio, with the S3 thriftiest at 6.6L/100km and the A35 thirstiest at 7.6L/100km.
The M135i’s lab-derived quote is 7.5L/100km, but the BMW proved to be heaviest on fuel use during (dynamics-skewed) testing. Its trip computer registered an average figure of 14.1L/100km compared with 12.8 for the A35 and 12.0 for the S3.
Ride and handling
Such are the technical similarities between this trio that even the all-wheel-drive systems are ostensibly the same: prominently sending drive to the front wheels in normal driving, but with the ability to send up to 50 per cent of engine torque to the rear wheels as required via a multi-plate clutch.
And all are equally brilliant at firing their respective cars out of the middle of a corner when you stomp heavily on the gas.
It’s certainly not something the old M135i/M140i could achieve as successfully, especially in wetter conditions, with its rear-drive set-up forcing more judicious timing of accelerator pedal re-engagement.
There’s more to a driver’s car than delivering slingshot corner exits, however. And the latest fast 1 Series, while certainly not incapable of providing winding-road enjoyment, isn’t ultimately as rewarding to drive as its predecessors (even if not without their own flaws).
The steering is the biggest issue. There’s a vague zone around the straight-ahead that reduces the driver’s ability to point the M135i’s front end ultra-precisely through gradual curves, if better when more lock is being wound on for tighter bends.
Noticeable tugging also interferes with momentum, both when accelerating hard out of a bend, and as the front end reacts to surface contours and scars.
The BMW’s Continentals were the only tyres that could be heard protesting at how hard they were being worked at times, and the suspension also felt more unsettled on a challengingly fast, bumpy downhill section of our test road, if not reducing driver confidence significantly.
The more the road zigzags, the better the M135i feels as you continually get to appreciate its excellent brakes, rapid turn-in, mid-corner poise, and steering that spends less time in its on-centre dead zone.
Audi’s steering in the S3 is numb everywhere unfortunately, and its weighting simply feels artificially heavy when you put the hatch in Dynamic mode (a button unhelpfully positioned closer to the passenger side of the centre stack).
Unlike the BMW, though, the steering is at least consistent in its response all through its arc. And while it feels a touch slower than the steering of its rivals, there’s unerring accuracy. The S3 will understeer first here when the pace is at its hottest, though dial back a bit and you can enjoy hugely satisfying four-wheel drifts.
With strong tyre grip, powerful brakes that are easy to modulate, and excellent vertical body control with the particle fluid in the S3’s dampers stiffened in Dynamic mode, the Audi may take bronze as a driver’s car in this group, but it’s not without driving appeal. Especially as the engine sounds better and better as revs rise.
We’d like the sports seats to offer some extra torso bolstering, though.
The A35 and M135i both feel a bit more alive beneath the driver. You’ll find the A35’s body leans a bit more in corners than the S3, yet that merely serves to provide the driver with an extra layer of information about how hard they’re pushing. The Mercedes feels a bit more nuanced in its handling than either the M135i or S3, with steering that is a clear winner here.
The meatiness of the steering in Sport or Sport Plus feels quite natural and predictable in its responses. (It’s also better than the old A45’s steering around the straight-ahead.)
When the brake pedal is being depressed to scrub speed urgently for the next corner, the A35’s brakes somehow manage to feel even more progressive and fantastic to modulate.
In an ideal world, the all-wheel-drive systems would offer rear bias in dynamic driving like the super-playful (though sadly now-discontinued) third-generation Ford Focus RS.
Understandably, though, Mercedes-AMG has held back such a system for the imminent A45 S, which will come with a mechanical torque-vectoring system on the rear axle complete with Drift mode.
The A35 has the calmest ride on country roads when settings are dialled back to Comfort, though tyre roar can be intrusive (as we noted in our launch review). There’s not as much compliance around town, though the A35’s ride is never overly challenging to live with.
Take the S3 if you want a premium hot hatch that is the best at dismissing surface nasties in the city and suburbs, and also provides a reasonably relaxing country road ride with the bonus of the quietest tyres here (Pirelli P Zero).
Before marketing departments dictated adaptive dampers because they look good on a spec sheet, BMW was once the master of the luxury brands when it came to engineering a single suspension set-up for a great ride/handling balance.
The M135i is a decent effort, though the BMW’s ride, while good at cushioning bigger bumps, is the busiest both around town and on country roads. For now, we’re left curious about what differences there may be with the optional variable suspension and smaller, 18-inch wheels.
Cabin comfort and quality
BMW exterior design may be the (negative) talk of social media and forums, but its interior styling is going in a far more positive direction, at least in our view. Aside from a general (and needed) lift in materials quality across the latest BMWs, the third-generation 1 Series has an edge to its cabin styling also seen in the latest 3 Series.
Pyramid-patterned gloss plastic protrudes from the doors and forms a dynamic D-shape with the door armrest. The pyramid plastic also features on the main dash and driver’s side vent.
The door speakers could be easily mistaken for a techy trim fabric at first glance, and the centre air vents have knurled bezels. The centre console is finished in piano black, and the assortment of textures in the cabin all manage to integrate neatly.
BMW’s hybrid physical/digital ‘Black panel’ dials are out, and in comes a fully digital driver display with customisation. The slanted infotainment display integrates neatly into the main dash while adding to the edgy vibe.
Specific M135i touches include chubby M Sport steering wheel, ‘M135i’ treadplates, lean and sporty front seats (with electric adjustment and cushion extenders), plus various uses of the famous M division coloured stripes.
The A35 may be a sporty AMG, but we think the cabin’s most striking aspect remains that of the regular A-Class: the stunning, super-high-resolution dual dash displays. They do come with an extra, AMG-specific display style option, though, called Supersport. It’s just a bit OTT with its coloured horizontal rev bar.
Sport – which turns the digital speedo and tacho dials yellow – is a better fit, though when you’re not cranking up the engine, the minimalist look of Understated mode is also cool.
All three digital driver displays are good, but the A-Class’s leads with its more vibrant colour and greater configurability. (All displays are easy to change via dedicated steering wheel controls.)
There’s certainly a greater depth to the quality of this A-Class cabin than with the previous model, if arguably a touch glitzy in some respects.
Turbine-style vents feature again, with a gloss-black surround matched to the centre console. Brushed metallic trim on the doors and dash adds further embellishment, while the red/black two-tone standard interior is matched by the seats, even if you opt for the $2531 AMG High Performance bucket-style seats fitted to our A35.
You can thank Audi for the high level of interior quality and design found in the A35 and M135i. The Ingolstadt part of Germany has forced Stuttgart (Mercedes) and Munich (BMW) to lift their cabin games.
The S3’s cabin doesn’t look outdated despite its 2013 origins (with some updates since, of course). In usual Audi tradition, the cabin’s fit/finish and design are top-notch. The flat-bottom S steering wheel with dimpled handgrip section looks the sportiest here and feels the most tactile to hold, and the diamond-stitched shoulder-blade sections of the S sports seats look great.
And, as ever with Audi interiors, there’s beauty to be found in the smallest details. There are stylish vents with chrome bezels, tactile shortcut toggles that surround the multimedia dial controller on a centre console finished in a combination of smooth and brushed plastic, plus knurled temperature dials (with illuminated hot/cold semi-circles) and a separate fan dial.
The Audi’s touchscreen pops up from within the dash or, at the press of a button, can be concealed again. The screen looks small even before you compare the displays in the A35 and M135i, though there’s nothing wrong with the graphics or interface.
In the rear seats of the shortest-wheelbase model in the group, taller S3 passengers will find their knees closer to the front seatbacks than in the hatch with the longest wheelbase here, the A35, or the M135i that takes advantage of its new platform to be kinder to rear occupants. Head room would just be better without the optional sunroof.
Our testers agreed the S3’s bench was the most comfortable with the most head room, partly compensating for the more limited leg room. The A35’s low and flat rear seating compromises under-thigh support.
Best forward vision is provided by the M135i courtesy of its narrower, integrated headrests and seatback shoulders.
All provide rear vents and two ISOFIX anchor points in the outer rear seats. Surprisingly, only the A35 comes with a rear centre armrest (with two cupholders).
The S3 has a 12-volt socket in the rear but no USB ports. The M135i has two USBs, as does the A35 – though the Mercedes's ports are the smaller, USB-C style, so you either need to ensure you have the right cord or an adaptor.
All boots are usefully sized, whether it’s the smallest capacity of the S3 (340L), the in-betweener compartment of the A35 (370L), or biggest load space of the M135i (380L).
The BMW’s figure includes a hidden cargo layer below the boot floor. There are tyre repair kits in both the BMW and Mercedes, while Audi provides a temporary sized spare wheel.
There’s the added convenience of a 40-20-40 seatback fold arrangement in the A35 compared with 60-40 set-ups elsewhere. The S3’s seats fold the absolute flattest, with its rivals not far off.
The Audi S3 is several years old now, and spy photos of its replacement are already doing the rounds (the next-generation A3 is due in 2020). Yet, it’s certainly not embarrassed in this company, either in the way it presents or the way it drives.
Numb steering places the greatest hindrance to driver involvement, but the S3 is a composed and accurate device to pilot fast. And with its great build quality inside and out, it could make for a great performance bargain when it comes time for run-out deals.
Like the A35, it also broadens its appeal with a sedan body style alternative.
While we're still waiting for the current RS3 to return to this market, owing to European fuel-test recertification, BMW has again ruled out a flagship model that could be positioned as a so-called M1. So, the M135i is your lot if you’re after the fastest 1 Series. And it’s a good but not brilliant hot hatch.
The interior successfully blends contemporary design, high-quality materials and high-tech displays, while there’s now proper rear-seat space for adults and a bigger boot.
You can also respect the pace its punchy turbo four-cylinder produces, with the all-wheel-drive system probably making it quicker than its predecessors (and definitely so in damp or wet conditions).
But the rear-drive and six-cylinder combination gave the previous M135i/M140i a great character that has made those models modern classics in our view. And with its flawed steering and relatively subdued soundtrack, it leaves the M240i coupe as the best fast compact BMW you can currently buy.
If there were a measurement device called a Smile-ometer, the A35 would deliver the biggest spikes. While it is essentially an upgraded A250 rather than a downgraded A45, all the modifications gel to create a fast hatchback that among this group delivers the more fluid, involving drive with the more dramatic drivetrain.
And a model worthy of carrying the AMG badge regardless of the imminent new A45.