The Mercedes-AMG A 35 is the most accessible AMG model yet, and should swell both the brand's ranks and coffers as younger buyers get their first taste. Is it fun enough to take on the likes of the Honda Civic Type R, though?
In the metal
Hot hatches all look mean and muscular, right? Well, yes, for the most part, but the A 35 might just be the most spec-sensitive hot hatch we've seen in a while. In standard - let's call it 'vanilla' form - it can look almost disappointingly ordinary, and difficult to distinguish from a 105hp diesel A-Class wearing an AMG-Line body kit. Which is, let's face it, not what you want when you're lashing out this much money on a rocket-powered AMG Merc.
So, you'll have to spend a little more, and specifically get the 'Edition 1' launch version, which comes with 'Denim Blue' paint, cool eighties-style 18-inch alloys that have a faint gold hue to them and the all-important big hatch wing at the back. Plus some side graphics that put one slightly in mind of eighties (again) Ford Motorsport 'zebra' stripes. Thus attired, the A 35 has the sort of visual impact that it should.
Inside, it's nothing short of brilliant, though. The Edition 1 also gets (fantastic) high-backed AMG Performance seats, but those aren't the best bit. The best bit is the 'digital plank' of the MBUK electronic dashboard, that stretches out like an elongated iPad across the fascia. It's a brilliant piece of electronic engineering, managing to be useful, functional and also cool. We love that you can set the digital instruments to mimic the yellow-on-black look of an eighties (what is it about this car and the eighties references?) 190E Cosworth and, while it can take some time to learn the correct dance steps of steering wheel controls, touchscreen and trackpad, it's worth doing so. It's one of the best automotive interiors, at any price.
It also now has the 'Hey Mercedes' voice-activated digital assistant. Now, like all voice-activated systems, it can be a case of more luck than judgement in getting it to do what you want it to do, but we love the fact that it has an actual AI sense of humour. When we asked it to 'tell us a joke' it responded, in perfect deadpan fashion, that "I'm sorry, all my engineers were German..."
There are some AMG-specific tweaks to the MBUX operating system too, including the addition of a race car-style data-logging system, and built-in circuit maps of such racetracks as the Nürburgring and Spa-Francorchamps. Eventually, you'll be able to use the satnav's augmented reality system (which, brilliantly, overlays direction arrows on an image taken from the forward-facing parking camera) to show the right racing line around a given corner.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will also have spotted that the A 35 gets the extra steering-wheel switches from the Mercedes-AMG C 63. The one on the right is a rotary switch that controls the changes from Comfort to Sport and Sport +. The one on the left is an override switch that allows you to fine-tune the stiffness of the adaptive suspension dampers, and the level of traction control intervention.
On the mechanical front, the A 35 gets 4Matic variable four-wheel drive and, while it uses basically the same suspension as a regular A-Class, the body is stiffer thanks to an extra 'shear panel' under the front end, along with more triangular bracing panels elsewhere. There's also an AMG-specific steering knuckle incorporated into the front suspension.
The A 35 has an utterly peachy chassis. Now, that comes with the caveat that the roads of Mallorca, where Mercedes brought us to test the car, are incredibly smooth and free from bumps, so it's fair to say that we haven't tested the ride quality to destruction. Still, knowing that glassy-smooth tarmac awaited us, the first thing we did when we sat behind the wheel was to twiddle the rotary switch to select Sport + mode. Well, it's an AMG - you would, wouldn't you?
That changes the mapping of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and its twin-scroll turbocharger. It's far from being an engine with serious turbo lag, even in Comfort mode, but in Sport +, throttle response is especially sharp. It also opens up the exhaust for more noise, and induces some overrun pops and bangs, which we most certainly did not enjoy in a completely childish way. Not at all.
The problem is that this is an engine lacking in thrills. Or at least, it's an engine that lacks sufficient vim to shift the A 35's 1,500kg bulk with enough violence to make it fully worthy of the AMG badge. In fact, it's dangerously close at times to feeling more like an A 300 Turbo, than it is an A 35.
On paper, it has positively neck-snapping acceleration of 4.7 seconds from 0-100km/h, but in use it feels much gentler than that, and it's likely that a lot of that time is down to the traction efforts of the 4Matic four-wheel-drive system. The power delivery feels much more progressive and linear than you'd expect. On the upside, that means that there's little-to-no turbo lag, but the downside is a slight lack of drama. Certainly, a Civic Type R feels much, much more thrilling than this.
At least the A 35's chassis brings its A-game to the pitch - it is truly delightful to drive. The steering, thanks to that unique AMG-spec knuckle attached to the front suspension, feels much weightier and chattier than the rack of the standard A-Class. Even on the tight and twisty mountain roads of Mallorca, there seemed to be never a corner that the A 35 couldn't tightly tuck its nose into and, even if you try and put the power down way too early in a hairpin, it just never seems to run out of grip, nor traction.
Again, the Civic arguably has a chassis that's a little more involving, in extremis, but the A 35's poise and precision really does take some beating. It's not as throttle adjustable as perhaps you'd like, but there just seems to be a bottomless well of ability and agility. It's hugely impressive.
It's good at the mundane stuff too - the ride quality seems pretty good for a high-performance car such as this (although the roads of Mallorca are smooth like a freshly made snooker table, so let's wait and see what it's like on lumpy Irish tarmac, eh?), the cabin is relatively hushed at a cruise and there's enough space in the back and boot to make it a practical daily machine. There's also a Slippery setting for the traction and stability control, in case you come across road conditions that might make you nervous in a 300-odd-horsepower hot hatch.
What you get for your money
The Mercedes-AMG A 35 starts at just under €60,000, which makes it the guts of €15,000 more expensive than the exceptionally talented Volkswagen Golf R, and a good €10,000 more than the utterly brilliant Honda Civic Type R. You could argue that the Merc's badge and the AMG brand will help it justify that gap, but we'd be a little more doubtful on that score. It's clearly never going to be a huge seller.
The A 35 AMG is sure not going to be cheap, and there's definitely a sense that (a), it's lacking a bit for outright drama and fireworks and (b), that such a lack of drama makes it hard to justify both the price and the AMG badge. That said, the chassis certainly shows the Warlock-like abilities of the AMG engineers when it comes to making a car handle; the four-wheel drive and the relatively good comfort levels make it arguably a more compelling day-to-day driver than some rivals; and the high-tech cabin is a definite high-point.