THE NEW MERCEDES-AMG A35 could well be called the Goldilocks. Not because it has a penchant for breaking and entering, but because it’s ‘just right’. It’s been carefully engineered to inhabit the sweet spot between the 165kW A250 and forthcoming 300kW A45, appealing to those who find the former a bit docile and the latter too raucous. Particularly as early information suggests the new A45 will be slightly berserk.
Then again, it’ll need to be, as the development target for the A35 was to match the original A45, a car that didn’t so much rewrite the hot hatch rulebook as invent a completely different game. In some areas AMG has exceeded its target, in others come up a little short, the most notable of which is outright speed. This is unsurprising, as the A35 has just 225kW/400Nm compared to the 265kW/450Nm of the original A45. Nevertheless, on paper it’s very close, the newer car’s 4.7sec 0-100km/h claim just 0.1sec slower than its more powerful older brother.
Key to the A35’s jack-rabbit-like acceleration is the efficacy of its launch control system, which incorporates lessons learned during A45 development. The first three gears are extremely short, running to 50km/h, 79km/h and 115km/h respectively, while the new electro-mechanically controlled rear multi-disc clutch (previously electro-hydraulic in the A45) is much quicker in its reactions. Front wheelspin is no longer required to send drive (a maximum of 50 per cent) to the rear; thanks to a multitude of sensors examining everything from individual wheel speed and accelerator position to lateral and longitudinal g force (to name just a few) the 4MATIC system is able to effectively pre-empt the required torque distribution.
All very impressive, but the A35 doesn’t feel as quick as the headline figure suggests. It’s certainly potent, but its acceleration will be familiar to anyone with experience of a VW Golf R or Ford Focus RS. The A35 shares its 1991cc turbocharged four-cylinder with the A250, but AMG hasn’t simply added a bit more boost and called it a day. The block and internals are the same, but the turbo is now a twin-scroll unit, there are bigger valves, water-to-air intercooling and a less restrictive exhaust. The latter is particularly important as the inclusion of a petrol particulate filter, required to pass the new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP), creates a lot of back pressure as well as strangling sound at higher rpm.
Not too much, thankfully. Select Sport Plus and the A35 growls and crackles like an AMG should. A few more revs would be nice – the show’s over by about 6000rpm – but the power curve is incredibly linear. Maximum torque is spread from 3000-4000rpm but around 95 per cent is available from 20005000rpm. After a number of frustratingly futile attempts at downchanging into second gear approaching a corner you’ll realise that third is fine for all but the very tightest bends. Upshifts are crisp and mechanical, sending a shock through the entire bodyshell, a process that was both deliberate and very difficult to get right, according to AMG’s Overall Vehicle Development Manager, Andreas Meyer.
Around town there’s the occasional dual-clutch lurch but with the drivetrain set to its most subtle mode you’d be hard-pressed to separate the A35 from its more sensible siblings. AMG even claims a combined fuel figure of just 7.4L/100km.
Happily, the chassis is capable of similar subtlety. The facelifted A45’s inclusion of adaptive dampers transformed its everyday useability and the A35 will also include AMG’s Ride Control suspension as standard. But there’s more to it. Even accidentally traversing a town with the dampers set to Sport Plus didn’t necessitate a visit to the chiropractor; the suspension is able to retain its compliance in part thanks to the stiffness of the bodyshell.
Every effort has been made to eliminate flex and provide the suspension with as stable a platform as possible. The only frontend parts to carry over from the A250 are the lower wishbones and the front subframe. According to AMG’s driving dynamics guru Rene Szczepek (nope, no idea how to pronounce it either) the regular A-Class’s front subframe is very stiff but AMG added an aluminium shear panel to its underside as well as solidmounting it to the body with a pair of diagonal braces.
In addition, stiffer strut top mounts, radially-mounted brake calipers, new steering knuckles and uniball joints are all designed to improve camber and toe stability under heavy cornering loads. Every rear suspension bush was changed, the rear subframe is also bolted directly to the body while back at the front, the revised steering rack (2.5 turns lock-to-lock) is attached directly to the subframe. It’s fair to say Szczepek and his team aren’t big fans of feedback-sapping, response-dulling rubber bushings.
Nonetheless, rubber does a great job of absorbing vibrations and Szczepek admits “for sure we do some serious development” to avoid the refinement issues inherent with solid mounts. The thuds that reverberate through the bodyshell of AMG’s own E63 S are a perfect example of the cost associated with chasing ultimate handling response. Thankfully, the A35 avoids any such issues and the benefit of all this work is a front end that is nailed to the road and offers plenty of communication through the steering wheel. If your A35 is understeering on the road, you’ve done something seriously wrong.
On cold tyres this sharp response can induce oversteer, easily mopped up by the ESC, but with temperature the A35 becomes grippy and neutral. A little more Focus RS-style playfulness wouldn’t go astray, as in tighter corners Merc’s new baby is a bit one-dimensional, but when quizzed Szczepek explains: “We want to achieve some younger target groups with the car, so it was very important to have a very safe and stable car, but to give them all the agility an AMG is able to give to them.” To this end, in addition to the Dynamic Select programs (Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and the customisable Individual) the A35 offers a pair of AMG Dynamics programs – Basic and Advanced – which control the all-wheel drive response.
With systems set all its to maximum attack, the A35 becomes an entertaining hot hatch that relishes being driven hard. It won’t power oversteer, but the quicker-acting rear drive unit avoids the ‘pulled-by-the-nose’ sensation that made the previous A45 effective but not particularly entertaining. Full throttle can be applied very early in corners without any fear of the front end sliding wide, which makes the A35 very easy to drive quickly. On quicker, more open roads, softening the dampers to Sport proves the sweet spot, not because Sport Plus struggles to absorb the bumps, but because the extra body movement introduces an element of entertainment. It’s never truly playful, but nor is it a tied-down automaton. The biggest question mark regards the brakes. The hardware is identical to the current A45 (350mm discs and four-piston calipers at the front mated to 330mm discs and single-piston calipers at the rear), but a spongy pedal after repeated hard road use doesn’t inspire a huge amount of confidence in their stamina. The jury remains out.
Switching drive modes on the fly is a piece of cake using either the toggle on the centre console or the giant touchscreen. Option the AMG Performance steering wheel, though, and a dial sprouts beneath each spoke, the right one cycling through the drive modes (push for Individual) and the left altering damper stiffness, ESP setting or transmission mode (manual or auto). It works brilliantly, allowing the driver to effectively dial up an Individual mode in moments. The only slight issue is that steering weight is linked to engine mode rather than chassis setup, so while you can match an angry engine with supple suspension, the steering can’t be altered independently.
The interior is, in general, superb – it’s not difficult to imagine A35s walking out of the showroom before a test drive has even taken place. The cheap, scratchy plastics around the centre console and lower dash are disappointing, but everything you look at and interact with is top notch. Whether clad in leather or Alcantara, the steering wheel feels great, the AMG Performance seats are superbly supportive and the widescreen cockpit, consisting of twin 10.25-inch digital displays, never fails to impress. Mercedes’ latest MBUX infotainment system is a huge improvement over the previous COMAND system; if anything, there are too many control options, with the choice of the central touchpad, touchscreen, touch-sensitive steering wheel buttons or ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice commands. Equally impressive are the small touches, like the ambient lighting and the beautifully styled air vents which light up red or blue when the temperature is increased or decreased respectively.
So the A35 slots perfectly into the new A-Class line-up. It’s neither too fast nor too slow, nor too hard or too soft. The only question mark is whether the price will be equally spot on. Currently, Mercedes will only say that the A35 will sit halfway between the A250 and A45, but given we don’t know how much the A45 will cost there’s still some room for conjecture. At $65K it’s a quick, classy premium hot hatch, whereas at $70K it starts to look a little pricey given more performance is available elsewhere for less. Patience will also be required, as the A35 isn’t due to land locally until Q4 2019 alongside the new A45, but all good things come to those who wait.