8

Asked if he would describe the new Mercedes-AMG A35 as more like a fun car or more like an everyday car, AMG engineering lead Steffen Jastrow is unequivocal. “The A35 is a fun car first and foremost,” he says. That could be significant.

Mercedes-AMG’s first attempt at a hot hatch was strangely unsatisfying, despite its frantic straight-line performance and bonded-to-the-Tarmac cornering grip – as well as what you might tastelessly call ‘driveway appeal’. Costing more than £40,000, the A45 AMG was a touch expensive, too. That made overlooking the fact that it didn’t quite deliver the single most important commodity for any compact performance car, which, we can all agree, is driving fun, all the more difficult.

Nonetheless, the A45 and its coterie of derivatives – the high-riding GLA45, the CLA45 saloon and the CLA45 Shooting Brake – were runaway sales successes. Mercedes-AMG says it shifted double the number of 45-badged models it had originally anticipated, many of those going to younger buyers who hadn’t been able to afford any sort of AMG before.

Eventually, there will be a new A45 based on this latest A-Class – expect it to have more than 400bhp – but for now, we have the A35 to become acquainted with. Priced from £35,580 in the UK, it is several thousands of pounds cheaper than the old A45 and its purpose is a very simple one: bring even younger buyers into the AMG fold so that they might graduate every two or three years up the ranks.

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What does the A35 do to earn its AMG badge?

This, then, is the most affordable AMG yet. It hardly seems to be the runt of the litter, though, because the depth of engineering that turns an A-Class into an AMG is even greater here than it was five years ago when the A45 was new.

The new A-Class body is much stiffer than its predecessor’s for one thing and, for the first time, AMG has fitted an aluminium shear panel beneath the engine compartment that reinforces the front end of the bodyshell, while a couple of additional braces do more of the same. Better torsional rigidity improves steering precision and allows the suspension to do its job more effectively. (Imagine trying to hang a heavy light fitting high on a wall while standing on a step ladder with one wonky leg, compared with standing on a perfectly stable one.)

The 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is a development of a unit you’ll find in the A-Class, but it uses a twin-scroll turbocharger for immediate throttle response. Peak power is 302bhp and torque is rated at 295lb ft from 3000rpm. The gearbox is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and the four-wheel-drive system powers the front axle only in normal driving before sending up to 50% of the available torque aft.

The drivetrain is still somewhat restricted, then, and it’ll never make the car feel as adjustable or as playful on the throttle as the more rear-biased four-wheel-drive system in the recently departed Ford Focus RS, for instance, but AMG does insist that this latest version is a big improvement on the system used by the A45.

The multi-disc clutch that is integrated into the rear axle and is responsible for diverting drive towards the rear wheels is now actuated electro-mechanically rather than electro-hydraulically, so it’s quicker to respond. The system as a whole is predictive now, too, and therefore able to determine exactly when drive should be shunted rearwards, rather than simply waiting for slip at the front axle, by which point it is, by definition, too late.

The 4Matic system also has a Sport mode – activated in ESP Sport Handling or ESP Off – which favours the rear axle more readily for even more agile handling behaviour.

Beyond all of that, there’s a rigidly mounted rear axle and uniballs rather than rubber bushings for the front wishbones, a range of five driving modes with a new one labelled ‘Slippery’, four-piston brakes on the front axle with 350mm discs, optional adaptive dampers and an active sports exhaust that’s standard equipment (and sounds very good indeed in its noisiest setting). The A35’s top speed is 155mph and 62mph is registered in 4.7sec.

Does the A35 drive like a compact performance car?

It all adds up to a car that is not quite as fast as the old A45, but one that is more engaging and more enjoyable to drive. The A35 feels lighter, more responsive and less insistent on belligerently imposing its own will on both the driver and the road. It hardly steers beautifully – no modern hatchback truly does – but its steering is at least precise and intuitive, in the sense that your inputs are made instinctively rather than with any conscious thought, and that’s no small victory.

Whatever your chosen drive mode, you can switch between Comfort, Sport and Sport+ for the adaptive dampers, where fitted, which means you can always find the right balance between bump compliance and body control to suit the road beneath you. On the ultra-smooth Majorcan blacktop of our test route, the A35 was at its best in the two firmer settings, where body control is supreme.

On Pirelli P Zero tyres that are not the outright grippiest rubber of their sort in the dry, the A35 nonetheless claws huge grip out of the road surface. Point to point along a winding road, this car is surely no slower than the old A45. But the A35 has a sweeter balance and a keener front axle, so threading it along is an interactive rather than a one-dimensional experience.

In slippery conditions, you might be able to tease a very modest slide out of the car away from a tight corner, but that’s a consequence of your over-driving rather than anything the A35 is really primed to do. Better to approach it as a front-wheel-drive car that never runs out of traction and one that diverts torque to the rear so seamlessly that you are unaware it’s happening.

If there is one reservation, though, it’s that on the few sections of crumbling highway in Majorca, the A35 felt uptight and a little harsh even on adaptive dampers, failing to smother the road’s imperfections in the way that a VW Golf R would. When the suspension runs out of travel, it also does so quite suddenly and with little sympathy. That might yet be a limiting factor on UK roads.

Elsewhere, the car is easy to drive and comfortable on longer runs and the cockpit is hugely impressive for a compact car. (You’ll pay £1395 for the AMG Executive pack, which adds leather, parking assist and that signature 10.25in central screen.) The twin steering-wheel-mounted controls for toggling through the various drive modes and switching between damper settings, meanwhile, work brilliantly and can be used without taking your eyes off the road.

If you prefer a more extravagantly styled sort of hot hatch, you’ll be interested in the AMG Aerodynamics pack. Costing £2595, it adds a prominent rear wing, a diffuser blade, a front splitter and small flicks ahead of the front wheels, all in contrasting black. Without it and 
in a subtle hue, the A35 is quite pleasingly understated.

Does the A35 compete with more powerful hot hatchbacks?

So is it a new hot hatch masterpiece with which to celebrate the arrival of a new year? Not exactly.

Although the A35 is billed as a fun car, it isn’t anything like as single-minded as a Renault Mégane RS 280 or a Honda Civic Type R.

Among the more rounded, circa-300bhp, four-wheel-drive hot hatches, though – such as the rather flat-footed Audi S3 and the mighty Golf R – the A35 might yet prove to be the best in class.

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