There's little doubt the A35 has speed & style. But is 302bhp enough the satisfy the expectations of that AMG badge in the modern landscape?
By Craig Toone - Photography by Jake Thomas
Cast your eye over the spec sheet for the A35 and you’d be forgiven for thinking the new model is essentially an A45 with the wick turned down, but study the details closer and you’ll realise that Mercedes is wearing its poker face. The first bluff comes in the form of the turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, which happens to be a development of the lesser A250 engine, rather than a close relation of the possessed AMG M139 found in the A45. Feint two is found within the dual-clutch gearbox, which makes do with only seven ratios compared to big brothers' eight. The four-wheel-drive transmission is also guilty of sin number three - the twin-clutch packs are missing from the rear axle, meaning the celebrated drift mode is also absent without leave.
This leaves the question - is the 302bhp A35 a worthy addition to the AMG range, or could it possibly be a cynical car by committee, one that exists to tick boxes on a spreadsheet? Can a brand that prides itself on luxurious V8 muscle really withstand diluting itself into a world of Hyundai and Honda?
At this point, those of a continental disposition may wish to remind me that this isn’t AMG’s first bite of the hot hatch apple, for the go-faster arm of Mercedes-Benz actually has previous in this arena, and a diesel at that – the oddball C30 CDI AMG with its turbocharged inline-five, although it was never produced in right-hand drive. You can hardly blame Mercedes for wanting a slice of the lucrative Golf R market though. Here was a car that struck such a chord with UK buyers, it became the default purchase - a badge that impressed the neighbours, with enough turbocharged pace to keep serious sports cars honest whilst being both engaging to drive & all-weather secure in the process. Other hot hatches might score points for greater tactility, but as an all-rounder, the Golf had no equal.
Until now? Mercedes and BMW have both arrived on the scene with a copycat formula, and the three-pointed star has confidently chucked its keys down on the table courtesy of the kudos of those three important letters. This, we are told, is the full fat, full cream AMG, no watered-down ‘M-performance’ malarkey here. Mercedes’ timing could not have been better either - there are question marks over the cabin quality and complicated touchscreens in the new Golf R, whilst the BMW M135i has already been given a kicking by fans of the old six-cylinder car, and the Bavarians haven’t done themselves any favours adorning the new 1-series with the next generation bucktoothed kidney grill.
Under the glare of the showroom spotlights then the Mercedes is a clear winner - let’s be honest, in this sector that’s half the battle for the majority of buyers. The onslaught continues when you open the driver's door as the Mercedes outclasses either domestic rival in terms of style. Some may find the giant LCD split-screen and nightclub ambient lighting a step too far -preferring the more sober M135i’s cabin - but we are big fans of the rotary air vents and sculpted leather bucket seats. As standard, all A35's come with Apple car play, a ten-inch multimedia display and wireless charging.
Externally, Mercedes has been clever with the styling of the A35 by offering a tier of packages to suit both introverts and peacocks. Leave it standard, specify a discreet shade and you’ll blend into traffic as anonymously as an A180 diesel. The £1,500 premium package adds sharper 19" alloy wheels and upgraded media, whilst the high roller £5,000 premium plus option includes the aero package from the A45, turbine alloys, LED headlights, Burmester hi-fi and a panoramic sunroof amongst others.
This makes the £38,850 list price pretty much irrelevant as most A35s won’t leave the showroom for less than £44,000. Metallic paint will set you back a further £595, or a hefty £1795 for the more flamboyant ‘Designo’ range. Out of the ten colours available - five of which are variations of silver or grey - we’d be quite partial to the no cost yellow, although the Digital white of this car would be a strong contender. Tyre options on the 19” rims are a bespoke Pirelli P-zero or Michelin Pilot Sport 4S, in 235/35 all-around - our test car has the P-zero fitted. Overall, it’s a handsome car, one that manages – in aero trim - to separate itself from the regular A-class without stepping on the A45’s toes. A saloon slash four-door coupe is available as an alternative to the hatch with identical running gear, for an additional £1,020.
But what if, like us, you make up the minority of buyers? A deeper look into the spec sheet swings suspicions back towards this car being a pukka AMG. The suspension has undergone a complete overhaul, with little carried over from the A250. The geometry is unique to the A35 whilst the front wishbone bushes have been annexed in favour of uni-ball joints in search of greater steering precision. AMG has also added an aluminium sheer panel below the engine compartment to increase structural rigidity, whilst the rear axle has been solidly mounted, further increasing the strength of the shell.
The revised 4Matic four-wheel-drive has also received similar attention. True, in normal situations, the car is front-wheel-drive until slip is detected, when up to fifty per cent of the torque is shuffled rearwards, however, the new multi-plate clutch is operated electro-mechanically rather than hydraulically, sharpening response times, and the four-wheel-drive controller has developed the power of precognition, using the ESP & ABS sensors to anticipate load, dialing in some torque vectoring if necessary. Left to its own devices the system learns from driving styles and adapts accordingly, but the driver can dial up a variety of calibrations from slippery, comfort, sport and sport plus, or customise via individual, cherry-picking from similar modes for the steering, throttle and dampers if specified.
AMG states the engine mapping has been deliberately calibrated to encourage drivers to explore the upper RPMs - the full 300bhp isn’t delivered until 5,800rpm, whilst the torque peak of 295lb-ft doesn’t arrive until 3,000rpm is on the dial. For a modern turbocharged engine that’s a rather lofty delivery, and raises eyebrows when the chunky 1,555kg kerb weight is factored in. This means the power-to-weight ratios are both cut to sub-two hundred: 194bhp/tonne & 190lb-ft/tonne respectively, despite the application of a new twin-scroll turbo with water to air intercooling and a revised intake tract.
That heft doesn’t seem to blunt the acceleration against the stopwatch mind – using a draggy we log a 4.7 second 0-60 sprint and 13.0 quarter-mile pass, which is by any measure a very fast car but one that still concedes ground to its rivals - in particular the new Golf. Normally we aren't overly concerned with straight-line performance, however, this is an AMG, and it shouldn't be outrun by less prestigious fare.
It's a similar story with the roll-on performance too. Once over the ability to launch away from the lights like a startled cat in a YouTube video, the A35 never really feels as quick as the numbers suggest, the in-gear thrust not quite matching the snap, crackle & pop coming from the exhaust. Blame the comically short gearing, each ratio is blink and you’ll miss it quick, with third gear barely breaching 70mph. The result is in manual mode you spend more time concentrating on avoiding the soft-close 6,500rpm redline, rather than noticing the impressive throttle response. Has AMG compromised in order for the car to do the numbers? Still, the paddles themselves have a crisp, positive throw and the steering wheel they are attached to - lifted straight from the AMG GT - feels great in the hands.
Some might suggest it’s a shame there is no manual option, but the A35 doesn’t seem like the sort of car to suit three pedals. It thrives in point and squirt situations, clawing the maximum amount of grip and speed out of the ground and not concerning itself with the details. As is the modern way, the steering does lack feedback but the weighting is confidence-inspiring and being a variable-ratio rack it doesn’t require twirling arms to operate. The car goes exactly where you point it with very direct responses, but nothing more. Diving into a corner, the A35 has strong resistance to any form of roll. In fact, the chassis feels very much like a well-sorted front-wheel-drive car, although right at the point where a Megane RS or Civic Type R is offering its driver some adjustability, the A35 is sending its power aft - there is never really enough twist being sent down the prop shaft to provoke some oversteer. In the dry, the Pirellis simply refuse to relinquish their purchase on the road.
Making up for this lack of playfulness is the speed at which you can get back on the power exiting a corner, and whilst you’re at it the ride lets you know you’re moving at speed but filters out the roughest imperfections. However watch out for potholes - the suspension travel is as short as the gearing, this is not a car we’d recommend fitting lowering springs to.
Switching to the left-hand pedal, the four-piston, 350mm brakes have little trouble reigning in the easily acquired speed, the fat pedal remains encouragingly firm and responsive throughout hard driving, despite the bloated kerb weight. Later in the week, a light sprinkling of rain permits the chassis to show a more adjustable side - a sharp stab of the throttle exiting a junction or tight ninety-degree bend will see the rear axle carving a wider arc rather than following the leader. It’s a pleasing discovery and a side of the car that shouldn’t be too hard to find given the UK’s inclement weather. The formidable cross country pace hardly diminishes in such conditions either.
Adopting a more grand touring critique, those impressive-looking standard leather seats are actually found wanting after prolonged exposure, lacking in support and mounted a fraction too high. Thanks to the previously mentioned solid mounting points and fat UHP tyres, significant road noise is transmitted into the cabin but that is the only compromise - wind noise is nil and the secondary ride improves noticeably with the dampers set to comfort, whilst the engine does it work silently. During a motorway run the A35 returned an impressive 36mpg, with the long term average clocking in at 28, and the optional LED headlights x-ray any oncoming traffic.
By the end of our time with the car, we’ve toggled through all the driving modes on offer and settled on an individual calibration for serious driving – sport plus throttle, advanced dynamics, sport dampers and manual gears, then pretty much leave it there. One member of our team - who will remain nameless - must be a secret sadist however as whenever he handed the keys back the car was in sport plus damping too, which the owner of this particular car comments is the mode closest to the passive springs and that he simply wouldn’t buy the car without adaptive dampers. It grates then to discover they are now only available when you go premium plus, as originally they were a stand-alone option priced at £695.
Another note of caution is that we’ve sampled two A35’s now – one fresh to the market early car and this later 2o2o model year, and it feels like there has been some tweaking going on behind the scenes as this later example has a noticeably smoother powertrain. Sadly, it doesn’t yet appear Mercedes has recaptured its durability of years gone by either, as many owners continue to report minor niggles online.
Overall, summing up the A35 is pretty straightforward. As sure footed as the chassis is, it still isn’t at the absolute sharp end of the handling envelope offered by the likes of the much lighter, front wheel drive Civic Type R. The Mercedes trades more on ability than engagement. However as an all-round, 365 day a year car that’s a lovely place to spend time in, but can still indulge the devil in you, an A35 is what you want. It's filled the niche temporarily vacated by the Golf R, even if it hasn’t moved the game on dynamically, and against the new mk8 still has the sharper design. So it's a triumph for Mercedes, albeit an expensive one with the necessary optional extras factored in. Even so, it still represents better value than the VW - it's not hard to spec an R up to £50,000, although more attractive lease deals might counter this.
But what about the A35’s merits as a true AMG? We can’t help but feel the A35 is more like a development of the previous generation A45 rather than a lower abv version of the pleasantly unhinged current model. Question marks remain over the engine for it lacks that definitive fire & brimstone to truly justify being regarded as a full bore Affalterbach nutter. You can tell the A35 has been held back in order to not encroach on the A45’s patch - the engine has always been the centrepiece of any AMG and the A35 feels like it needs another 10% of power & decibels to properly come alive, to corrupt potential customers into signing on the dotted line the first time the throttle is floored and the exhaust bellows. In this arena, AMG merely matches its competitors rather than overwhelms them.