Car reviews - Mercedes-AMG - A35 - hatch
Prestigious brand name, affordable price, dynamic performance, loads of style, room for four
Room for improvement
Fiddly dashboard with too much chrome, limited rear vision
Mercedes-AMG packs a punch in its cheapest model yet, the sub-$68,000 A35 hatch
8 Nov 2019
By NEIL DOWLING
MERCEDES-AMG has made the unprecedented move of dipping into the calmer waters of an urban performance hatch that combines all the aura and thrill of the AMG badge with a competitive price tag.
The A35 hatch, to be joined later this year by a sedan, is docile for the city yet engaging through the turns to retain all the AMG traits in a car that is family friendly and even boasts affordable ownership costs.
Unashamedly, it is aimed at the enthusiast who wants it hot – but not too hot – and has a modest expectation of the purchase price.
While Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific refuses to publicly put a sales target on the hatch and sedan – and would not even discuss expectations of the A35 becoming its most popular AMG model, a title held now by the C43 and C63 duo – it undoubtedly has the potential to hold that crown.
First drive impressions
Born from Mercedes-AMG’s desire to pull rank on rivals with the most powerful transverse-engined hatch, the arrival of the A-Class based A45 in 2012 was seen as being an accomplished exercise in intimidation.
It established a class and power war with Audi (S3 and RS3) and BMW (M135i and M140i) and Ford (Focus RS) … and that’s when things just became silly. Too much power in a world seeking restraint in fossil-fuelled mobility.
The arrival this month in Australia of the Mercedes-AMG A35 is a nod to that restraint. Clearly the junior to the A45, the latest – and cheapest – AMG model that is based on the A250 bridges desirable performance and pragmatic ownership.
The A35 hatch arrives with one engine and drivetrain specification at $67,200 plus on-road costs. It competes in the four-cylinder, all-wheel-drive category with the Volkswagen Golf R ($54,990) and Audi S3 Sportback ($64,200), though the price point collects shoppers visiting BMW (M140i at $59,990).
The A35 follows the styling of the A-Class hatch, emboldens it with an AMG grille, a wide stance, lower ground clearance, a duck-tail spoiler lip on the top of the hatch, and 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped by 35-profile Michelin rubber.
There is so much promise in the design. It looks like it could wipe the floor with any other hot hatch and presents a strong opponent to its own sister, at least from the curbside.
This will be where the A35 will win its market. It has all the muscle-pumping steroids of the A45 but has a subtleness only eclipsed by its affordable pricing.
The cabin appears compact, primarily because it is low, but interior space is good and the design easily carries four adults in comfort with surprisingly good rear headroom and legroom.
There’s even a big boot, with 370 litres available with all seats in place and a liberal 1270 litres with the rear seats folded almost flat.
It is all about the design with the two front occupants exposed to the bling of chrome, turbine-style air vents and Mercedes’ MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system.
The instrument panel, two 10.25-inch sheets of glass butted end-to-end to stretch from the driver’s door to encroach into the passenger’s space, remains simple and easy to read despite the technology.
Colour abounds. The speed is relayed through a digital readout surrounded by a circular tachometer, with a broad map for navigation supported by ancillary gauges, communication status and audio functions. Everything is bright, easy to read, simple to adjust by tapping or swiping and designed to be customised by the driver.
Backing that up is the ambient lighting with 64 colour choices, easing the tension of driving with soft colours – mauve is particularly soothing – or switch to red and watch the mist descend.
The steering wheel is a D-shaped, heavy-rimmed leather example from AMG’s inventory, blinged up and busy with touch controls for the digital screens and the operation of the audio, speed control and communications.
For the A35, it adds two LCD controllers to the lower section of the steering wheel that change the five drive model and on the left, a customised switch for the driver’s preferences such as ride comfort that is displayed on the dashboard. It’s a similar concept to the one started by Porsche.
The drive-mode selector offers the AMG Dynamic Select options of Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Individual. These adjust the engine, transmission, exhaust noise and suspension.
There are layers of fine-tuning in these options, including AMG Dynamics that alters the electronic stability control (ESC) severity and extends to gently brake the rear inside wheel when cornering to improve handling and driver control.
The A35 uses Mercedes’ right-hand, steering column-mounted gear shifter stalk for the basic R-N-D pattern with a push-button tip for Park. The rest is up to the curved paddle-shifters for manual operation of the seven forward gears.
Dashboard design is great but there are sections of hard plastic that bring the car down a bit, more in line with the A250 on which it is based than the A45 that is its superior.
The seats, however, are the stand-out bit of cabin kit. From AMG’s Performance shelf, they are dramatically winged to laterally grip the body, moulded to the curve of the back, with long thigh support and finished in a soft, full-grain leather that Mercedes calls Lugano.
Like the A45, the newest AMG is based on a W177 chassis and inherits the M260 2.0-litre engine rated at 225kW at 5800rpm and 400Nm from 3000-4000rpm.
That’s a far cry from the 310kW/500Nm of the next A45’s hand-built M139 mill, but it’s enough to give it the 0-100km/h sting of 4.7 seconds and the dynamic road grip of a factory-spec rally car.
A twin-scroll turbocharger is designed to overcome low-speed lag and breath hard at the top-end of the rev-range.
Fuel economy is claimed at 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres (7.4 L/100km for the more aerodynamic sedan), with 9.8 L/100km recorded on this spirited test drive.
While the engine is the same as fitted to the A250, it has been tweaked by AMG – be aware it’s not one of the handmade AMG engines – to add a blood-warming 60kW and 50Nm.
This drives through the same seven-speed dual-clutch box as used in the previous A45 – the new A45 uses an eight-speed unit – and then to an all-wheel-drive system that morphs rapidly and seamlessly from 100 per cent front drive (default) to a maximum of 50/50 front and rear.
Bolting this down are AMG perforated and ventilated disc brakes, measuring 350mm at the front and 330mm at the back.
The suspension is logically an extension of the A250 but in fact is bespoke, using new components and aided by a substantial redesign of the chassis.
Now, unlike the A250, the steering rack is now bolted directly to the subframe, the suspension rubber has been removed so the front and rear subframes are also bolted directly to the body, there are additional braces, the suspension towers have been reinforced, and there’s an alloy “shear panel” beneath the engine to increase rigidity.
Clearly, the A35 is unlikely to share similar road dynamics to the A250 and that’s exactly the result.
The A35 is far more precise, sitting flatter on the straight roads with the AMG Dynamic Select button on Comfort and the AMG Ride Control adaptive damping to its softest setting.
It has all the hallmarks of a well-tied-down hatch, with the body accepting and shrugging off-road blemishes and the tautness of the body noticeable as it corrects any bumps.
There is also the comfort of the car despite the rather firm damping rates on the soft setting, sufficient to cope with city roads and freeways without hassling occupants.
Dial the drive select up to Sport and the ride becomes a bit more jiggly, the car reacting more noticeably to bumps but showing an almost disregard to cornering forces when put through the first bend.
There’s a lot of ways in which this car is more sports-oriented than the A250 – tick engine, tick suspension, tick seats – but none more than the feel and effect of the steering system.
It is one of the most predictable hatch through the bends, especially where the road twists – as on the Cethana leg of Targa Tasmania used for the A35 launch – repeatedly and seemingly following tighter arcs.
Here it flicks from one apex to the next, almost totally neutral in its handling and flat in its stance, while the steering remains light enough not to physically drain the driver while being firm for some degree of road feel.
Yes, you need the power to enliven the suspension and steering, but it really comes down to how rigid the car is through corners and how resilient it is to being shuffled off-line by road irregularities.
In these aspects, the A35 is simply brilliant. No, it’s not an A45 and doesn’t have the bite and ooh-ahh power delivery. But it is tempered enough to be enjoyable without being overkill.
And at the end of the day, it fits the family, fits the traffic commute and is gentle enough on ownership costs to be a car that can be thoroughly enjoyed.
Model release date: 1 November 2019
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