MERCEDES-AMG A35: CHEAP THRILLS IN AMG’S BARGAIN HOT HATCH

“THE A45 CONSTANTLY NAGS ITS DRIVER TO USE ALL IT HAS, WHEREAS THIS A35 IS HAPPY TO CHILL, BUT EVER READY TO THRILL”

JOHN CAREY

EVERY crackling corner entry and every blaring exit is audible long before the A35 can be seen, a fleeting flash of yellow far below. We’ve parked our Mercedes-AMG at the top of the pass, just where the road makes a sharp left into a tunnel that punches arrowstraight through a rocky ridge.

The view here is worth a pause. Nearby looms a bare peak called Puig Major, while in the distance the sea beyond the Majorcan resort town of Port de Sóller glistens in the light.

The driver of the A35 is enjoying a clear run up the serpentine ribbon of smooth bitumen. Braking hard for the turn into the tunnel, the driver taps a series of phlegmy, spitting downshifts. The A35 blurs by, then accelerates hard. Rock-bounced echoes briefly amplify its brassy boom, then it’s into the light at the far end of the tunnel and gone.

Mercedes-AMG chose wisely when it selected the test route for the introduction of the A35. The winding roads of northern Majorca are hot-hatch heaven. However, if the brand’s most affordable model has any weaknesses, they are sure to be exposed here.

The A35’s ‘entry-level-model’ mission means aiming for a price point well below the outgoing A45, which cost almost $80K by the end of its life.

With the local launch of the new A35 scheduled for very late in 2019, Mercedes-Benz Australia is still many months away from finalising pricing. But in Europe, where deliveries began in January, prices are thousands of euros below the old A45. Even though our spec will include some items that are optional extras in Europe, like adaptive damping and 19-inch wheels, it’s likely to come in below $70K. So, where have the savings been made? Nowhere obvious is the answer...

Rene Szczepek, AMG driving dynamics engineer, knows every tiny detail of the changes made to the chassis of the A-Class hatch to turn it into the A35. It takes some time to work through the list with him.

Handling and ride; interior design and tech; dramaon-demand exhaust

Can feel underpowered; noisy on coarsechip surfaces

Structural stiffness is increased with the addition of a sturdy sheet-steel stamping to the bottom of the engine bay. A pair of small diagonal braces between body and front suspension subframe are added down there, too. The rear suspension subframe is rigidly mounted to the body, where the A-Class has bushings.

There are new knuckles for the rear multilink and the front strut suspension features a new A-arm with a rigid uniball joint, a new knuckle design and a more rigid top mount. As for the steering, the A35 has a more direct rack that’s more rigidly mounted.

Handily, all of the A35’s shipped to Majorca seem to be fitted with adaptive dampers and the 19-inch wheel-and-tyre package. This means they’re more or less exactly Australian specification.

The A35 has a broad and very impressive spread of dynamic talent. There are three different levels of damping available with Ride Control, and none of them is bad. Sport+ is good for smooth public roads, not just hot laps, while Sport is a useful step up in firmness from Comfort, which is surprisingly and very pleasantly pliant.

Suspension firmness varies according to which AMG Dynamic Select mode is chosen. This now offers a Slippery mode in addition to Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and pick’n’mix Individual set-ups. These impact engine responsiveness, transmission shifting behaviour, steering-assist levels and exhaust volume, plus the dampers. Happily, the new menu logic in the A35 gives a broad range of set-up choice.

“THE A45 CONSTANTLY NAGS ITS DRIVER TO USE ALL IT HAS, WHEREAS THIS A35 IS HAPPY TO CHILL, BUT EVER READY TO THRILL”

Memorable passes aside, there were plenty of regular roads to test on, with the drive clearly plotted to showcase the width of the A35’s comfort zone.

Comfort mode delivers discreetly disciplined damping, early upshifting, light-ish steering and quiet exhaust.

The only thing that disturbs the calm confidence is the high level of tyre noise on coarse road surfaces. Otherwise, the A35 seems as smooth and quiet as an ordinary A-Class.

Sport, which sharpens the drivetrain and adds a little steering weight, is fine for brisk driving. Sport+, which ratchets all these up a notch at the same time as opening the exhaust, is perfect for maxattack driving on mountain roads.

Underpinning the A35’s broadspectrum usability is a chassis that’s endowed with great equilibrium. Front grip feels almost inexhaustible, partly because the rear of the car deals with its fair share of the cornering workload. The steering is direct and nicely weighted. The wilt-free brake system of the A35 combines discs from the old A45 with a bigger front caliper.

This is a very different kind of AMG hot hatch. Frantic, jittery and ferociously fast, the A45 constantly nagged its driver to use all it had, all of the time. The A35, on the other hand, is happy to chill, but ever ready to thrill.

The A35’s engine is an AMG-improved version of the updated turbo 2.0-litre four in the new A250. Its power and torque maximums of 225kW and 400Nm are not high enough to lift it to the elite level of the old A45, current Audi RS3, or even the Ford Focus RS.

Drive is delivered via an AMG-modified seven-speed dual-clutch auto, and AMG-specific software controls the clutch at the heart of the car’s on-demand 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.

Result? A claimed 4.7-second 0-100km/h time, around half a second slower than the old A45. The A35’s rolling responsiveness is lively and largely lag-free, especially in the upper half of its usable rev range. The problem is the car’s terrifically capable chassis, which whispers insistently that it could easily cope with more.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF R $56,490

You’d expect the latest AMG to be compared to its German rivals, but maybe not this German rival … but if the A35 does land below $70K, it will surely be cross-shopped against the demonstrably capable Golf R, which, like the AMG, runs all-wheel drive, and, with 213kW and 380Nm, comes awfully close on power, too. A 4.8-sec sprint to 100km/h makes it marginally slower than the A35, but at what should be at least $10K cheaper, will that be enough to deter buyers?

The A35 also benefits from all the changes bestowed upon the new A-Class; more space, beautiful interior design, and an unrivalled arsenal of infotainment and safety technology.

When the new A45 arrives, it is likely to be as manic as the old car, and much more costly. The new entry-level A35, in contrast, will attract those who appreciate serenity as well as speed.

JOHN CAREY