For the past few decades of human development, mankind’s greatest engineers and designers have been toiling away, not on orbital space platforms or interdimensional transporters, but magical handheld devices and hot hatch performance figures. We take two heavily-specified hitters, and head to the track!
It is a story trope as old as the ages. An unexpected challenger, fresh-faced and emboldened with new skills and strength, changes the dynamic and threatens to upset the established balance.
Even if you read that in your best ‘movie trailer’ voice, it is maybe a little melodramatic, but in a way, it is what we are faced with here.
You see, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A35 is the reigning hot-hatch champion, a stepping-stone between the ‘Benz-branded A250 Sport and the thermonuclear AMG A45 S, which launches in Australia this month (watch for our review).
A 300-horsepower, all-wheel-drive, be-winged racer, the A35 offers bonafide sports car performance in a compact five-door footprint.
But its numerical supremacy is under threat from a contender many would not have previously considered – that is, before it took part in a Rocky-style training montage and got properly swole.
The 2020 Mini Clubman John Cooper Works has bolstered its résumé by a considerable 55kW and 100Nm to not only match but exceed the on-paper output of the AMG. Throw in the fact that the six-door Mini is lighter, and things start to get a little interesting.
Price and equipment
Priced from $69,300 (before options and on-road costs), the Mercedes-AMG A35 isn’t what you’d call light on specification.
Based on the already generously equipped A250 Sport, the A35 is a bit of a poster child for what a modern hatchback can be if it studies hard. From the twin high-resolution displays to the 64-colour ambient lighting system, the A35 wants for no technology or luxury appointment.
Electric, heated, memory seats; uh-huh. Panoramic sunroof and dual-zone climate control; absolutely. Wireless phone charging, mobile device projection support, keyless entry and start; yes, yes, yes and yes.
Our car goes even further by adding 19-inch matt-black AMG alloys ($607), Communication Package – 12-speaker Burmeister surround-sound system and head-up display ($2069), Driving Assistance Package – adaptive cruise control, lane change assistant, cross-traffic assistant and traffic queue assistant ($1454), AMG seat package – sport seats with adjustable bolsters ($2531), Vision Package – multi-beam LED headlamps, 360-degree parking camera ($761), AMG aerodynamics package ($1915) and ventilated front seats ($607). Phew.
At least the Sun Yellow paint is a no-cost option.
All these goodies tip the A35 over the luxury car tax threshold too, so our yellow rocket rings out the till at $80,029 before on-roads. Ooft.
The $57,900 (before options and on-roads) Mini Clubman JCW Pure is quite spartan by comparison. There are partial leather seats, that aren’t heated or even electrically adjustable. The central screen with its circular illuminated display features navigation and DAB radio, and you do get adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, and of course the cool ‘start’ toggle switch but there’s not a lot else on offer.
You could spend $5000 more and get the ‘non-Pure’ JCW Clubman and rectify the heated, electric leather seat issue… but then you’d also score 19-inch wheels and ruin one of the best things about the basic JCW. The standard wheel setup (18-inch) also supports the inclusion of adaptive suspension dampers. But more on that later.
You can option in a sunroof as part of the Climate Package ($2400), but our car asks for no extra boxes beyond the Starlight Blue Metallic paint ($1000), tallying up at $58,900 (before on-roads).
I’m not sure which part is most surprising. That this is a Mini with essentially no options, or that there is a $21,129 price difference between our two brawlers?
The Mercedes does feel substantially more up-market, advanced and luxurious, but in anyone's language, that’s a big gap.
Baton – Mini.
Before we throw down and race for pinks though, it’s important to note the differences in the feeling of ‘what you get’ for your spend. The AMG might carry a higher ask, but one step inside and you can see why.
The A-Class cabin is a generational step forward for compact car design. The twin 10.25-inch screens and modern treatments like the turbine-style air vents give the A35 the lead out of the box. Put simply, this is science fiction as science fact.
You have a seemingly infinite number of configuration options and a bewildering array of input surfaces to get there. Do you talk to the car, use the COMAND touch-pad, perhaps use the thumb pads on the steering wheel or simply touch the screen? It can be confusing and is potentially a little too complex, as even some of the basic functions like radio presets and navigation inputs can take some time to get used to.
Get a handle on things and you can enjoy that the content is crisp and the implementation extremely classy. Simply put, this is the best in the business.
The Mini, by contrast, feels quite basic. The circular ‘Mickey Mouse’ instrument binnacle doesn’t feel as if it has changed since the first ‘new’ Mini back in 2001. Want multiple points of driving information available at once? No deal. It’s strictly basics, with the small LCD screen able to toggle through modes to give you the detail you want.
Cast your eyes to the 8.8-inch screen on the round central display, and the techno-mood lifts a bit, with the Mini Connected infotainment software offering a light-hearted approach to Sport and Economy mode selection as well as cheery menu graphics.
It’s more Space Jam than Star Trek, though.
Baton pass – AMG.
Both our machines also feature integrated back-to-base communication and app support, which is excellent modern positioning.
The Mini Connected app is a rebrand of the groundbreaking BMW ConnectedDrive software suite, allowing you to communicate with the car via your phone, even when you aren’t near it.
Standard telemetry actions like checking the car’s location, uploading navigation addresses and being able to lock, unlock and flash the headlights on the car all work well, albeit a bit slowly. It’s a handy toolset and something we’ll be spending a bit more time looking at in the coming months.
MercedesMe is the new telemetry suite from Stuttgart, and it too affords the ability to communicate remotely with the car. The setup from the Mercedes side is a little more complex, but the operation is just as simple.
Send waypoints, lock the car, check system status all from your phone. Additionally, you can adjust your driver profile settings from within the app, meaning you can prepare your interior light design from the comfort of the couch before you hit the road.
Nifty more than necessary, both these tools are a welcome addition to the compact segment and I’m sure as time progresses we’ll see even more usage opportunities from this tech.
Baton – draw!
Engine and driveline
So here is where things get interesting.
For the past few decades of human development, mankind’s greatest engineers and designers have been toiling away, not on orbital space platforms or interdimensional transporters, but magical handheld devices and hot hatch performance figures.
What started as faster versions of lightweight front-drive small cars are now high-power, high-tech weaponised shopping trolleys!
Both our contenders feature four-cylinder turbocharged engines, with comparable 2-litre displacements (1991cc in the AMG, 1998cc in the Mini). The AMG M260 is a retuned version of the motor you’ll find in the A250 Sport, with a new twin-scroll turbocharger and ECU mapping. The Clubman scores the updated BMW B48A motor which offers variable valve lift and timing, as well as a single twin-scroll turbo.
Peak power outputs are identical at 225kW (or 306hp), even peak delivery is similar with the Mercedes topping out at a screaming 5800rpm with the Clubman close behind at 6250rpm. Torque pushes in favour of the Mini, with the JCW now offering 450Nm between 1750 and 4500rpm, against the A35’s 400Nm between 3 and 4000rpm.
In terms of weight class though, the Mini is a clear 49kg lighter than the Mercedes which means it offers a higher power to weight ratio (147.9 kW/t against 143.3 kW/t) – which makes things a lot less clear on how things will go, especially on a track.
All that oomph is sent to a front-bias AWD driveline, where the ALL4 system in the Mini also includes a locking front differential. The AMG however, offers a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission against the Mini’s eight-speed automatic. And, as we’ll see in a minute, this makes a bit of a difference.
Baton – output to the Mini, driveline to the AMG. Call it even?
On the road
So, you know how they say that getting there is half the fun? Although this comparison is to be governed by the outcome on the track, these cars will spend the majority of their lives in urban confines. And, to be honest, they are both quite good at it.
Being a tuned-up A250 and not a de-tuned A45 makes the AMG A35 a more docile daily proposition out of the box. Comfort mode, is reasonably so, especially for a hot hatch. There’s no jarring or crashing ride around town, and highway cruising is equally doable.
The sports seats in our car are firmer than those in the Mini but are still very comfortable. About time too, given Mercedes’ history of park-bench like pews in more pointy AMG models.
As always, the driver assistance technology from Mercedes works well and once you figure out which screen and functions control everything, becomes quite easy to use. Even fuel consumption is respectable: we were seeing a high-6-litre per 100km churn on a highway run (against a 6.6L/100km claim) with an average in the high 8’s for the majority of our pre-hillclimb pottering, to a claimed 7.6-litre per 100km claim.
The Mini, too, is at home around the 'burbs. I’m a big fan of the six-door Clubman body and feel it makes much more sense than the stretched five-door Cooper if a maxi-Mini is more to your needs.
I will say that you do need to be careful of rearward clearance if you choose to remotely open the barn doors from the keyfob. They swing out with plenty of gusto, which would certainly spoil your day if parked close to a wall or pole.
Comfort and ease of use are again front of mind, and despite the enjoyable burble from the exhaust, the car in its regular setting is smooth and compliant, most certainly benefitting from the added rubber and adaptive dampers on the 18-inch wheels.
We saw a higher thirst for fuel than in the Mercedes, with an average of 9.3 litres per 100km to a claim of 7.7 litres per 100km on a combined cycle. That said, the highway run came in under the 6.6 litres per 100km claim at 6.2-litres per 100km. Give and take as they say.
Baton – even stevens!
On the track
OK. This is where things get fun.
We took the cars to Bryant Park Hillclimb Track – affectionately known as Haunted Hills – in Moe, about 90 minutes east of Melbourne. This short course has plenty of twists and turns and is a great environment to put a nimble hatch to the test.
To get a feel for what we felt would be the benchmark, the Merc was out first.
Dial-up Sport+ mode (keeping driver assistance and traction control on by default) and the little AMG feels immediately at home.
Forget the high-tech data readouts on the screen, your attention is wholly on the road as the car tries to goad you into pushing harder and harder.
Shifts here are fast, and power delivery strong. Most of all though, you can’t tell what trickery the 4Matic AWD system is performing as the car just seems to get the power down when it needs.
There’s a very technical section of the track where a fast right-hander down the hill changes to a tight left-hander up the hill, and despite a squeal from the Pirelli P-Zeros, the AMG takes it in its stride with barely a hint of protest from the traction control light.
Lap after lap, the car seems to settle in to its playground. Like children at the park, it gleefully heads down the slide, popping and crackling all the way, then cheerily climbs the ladder, ready for another run. Fast, consistent and terrific fun – a hot, hot hatch every day of the week.
The JCW also finds new life in being let off the leash.
Where the Mercedes sounds angry, the Mini simply sounds glorious. From a burp to a snarl to a growl, the little wagonette and its goofy smiling ‘face’ certainly makes an audible statement of enjoying this environment.
It feels faster than the Mercedes on the downhill run, a stab on the brakes to wash off speed into the left-hander and the crossover, and you can feel the rear of the car pivot around behind you. A slightly firmer ride thanks to the dampers in Sport mode, and there's a solid surety to the handling of the Clubman.
It’s most definitely fun, but it is not quite as well sorted as the AMG.
You aren’t held in as snugly to the sport seats, and the automatic box just isn’t as fast to change as the dual-clutch system.
Through the tight esses after the big dipper, and I feel myself moving around as much as the car. Heading into the same right-down into left-up section as noted before, and the locking differential doesn’t seem to know what to do, triggering the orange traction light under heavy throttle as it struggles to get the power to the wheel that needs it.
Tap a paddle to change, and the sharpness just isn’t there. Leave the car to its own choice, even in an automatic sport shift mode, and you’ll find the Mini caught in an off-boost lag gap that ebbs away precious seconds of response.
The thing is, the maximum speed at the end of the short straights seems to favour the Mini. Could the JCW be a pacier proposition despite the driveline shortcomings?
Production assistant Kristian notes a similar stopwatch time between the cars on back to back hot laps, we’d have to check the video for an accurate time – but there might be another way to find out…
Baton – feels like the AMG has the upper hand, but does it?
Cat and mouse. If Tom and Jerry have taught us anything, is that the chase is potentially more telling, and more fun, than the catch.
We structure as such. The Mercedes leaves the line, a couple of seconds later the Mini follows after it. Not hugely scientific by any stretch, but a seat of the pants measure of where each car has its strength.
Tests are done. Drivers are chosen.
The feeling from the team is that the A35 will dance through the corners, making better use of its faster gearbox and more playful traction settings to pull away. But the outright speed of the JCW doesn’t rule it out by any stretch. There are two short straights on the circuit, will that be enough to claw back lost ground? One way to find out!
Blasting off the line, the AMG tips into the first bend and I unleash the Clubman. It’s not as quick off the mark as the Mercedes and the yellow flash seems to be marching ahead already. But I feel the gap is shorter by the end of the downhill straight and chase the AMG into the dipper and tight corner section of the track.
Make no mistake, as unscientific as this is, it is one hell of a fun thing to do. An angel on one shoulder reminding you the cars need to remain a safe distance apart, a demon urging you to push harder. The sonorous growl from the Mini only interrupted by the sharp off-throttle cracks from the Benz, a grin as wide as can be is plastered across my face.
Technical section underway, and I can see the A35 pulling away. The Mini’s Michelins squealing against natural understeer, struggling to match pace. A short straight, a run to redline, and a shorter gap.
The Mini knows where its strengths lie and it’s pushing as hard as possible to make it work.
That longer back straight my only chance to level the odds, as the lighter and more torquey Clubman reels the Benz back in, only to lose ground again in the next corner complex.
Perhaps the most convincing demonstration of which car is better at hillclimb gymnastics is that after three white-knuckle, red-misted laps, the Clubman and I have had enough, but the AMG goes for one more run down the slide.
A well-sorted amateur, making way for a professional athlete.
It’s not that the Mini has lost in any way – the AMG has just shown that it deserves to be the winner, and can keep doing this all day long.
It’s a funny thing, a comparison like this.
From the outset, a quick discussion around the office of the two cars had the odds well in favour of the Mercedes-AMG A35. It was only when the clear specifications and on-paper details of the Mini sunk in, that interest was properly piqued. (“It’s a wagon, I was always on its side” - Stevo)
Yes, the Mercedes is a pricer proposition, but in terms of both action and implementation, it deserves to be. It feels like a truly modern and purpose-built hot hatch in every way.
But that doesn’t take anything away from the Mini Clubman John Cooper Works. In terms of being a muscled performer in disguise, the Mini is a true wolf in a long-wheelbase sheep wagon outfit. The noise, the speed, and the outright enjoyment make the Mini a worthy contender in the hot hatchery stakes. The fact that it was able to keep pace and bring some real competition to this fight, especially considering it is so much more affordable, is no small feat.
Those individual lap times? A two-tenths gap in favour of the AMG, which arguably comes from a better launch off the line. Nothing for the Mini to be embarrassed about at all!
So our baton and win go deservedly to the Mercedes, but in terms of being a value-packed power surprise, the Clubman John Cooper... works!