WHAT IS IT?
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
Does the A35 really deserve to wear a Mercedes-AMG badge? The international media launch, ahead of the car's January on-sale date in Europe, provided a chance to answer this crucial question almost a year out from its arrival in Australia.
THE WHEELS REVIEW
EVERY crackling corner entry and every blaring corner 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, right where the road makes a sharp left to enter a tunnel that punches arrow-straight through the rocky ridge.
The view here is worth a pause. Nearby looms the bare peak called Puig Major, while in the distance the sea beyond the resort town of Port de Sóller glistens in slanting morning light.
Drivers in Majorca, one of Spain's islands in the Mediterranean sun, don't hit the road early, so the driver of the A35 is enjoying a clear run up the serpentine ribbon of smooth bitumen. Judging by volume of exhaust expression, the driver has chosen muffler-valve-open Sport+ mode.
The level of sonic intensity increases. Here they come. 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, and confidently, when it selected the test route for the international introduction of the A35. The winding roads of northern Majorca are hot-hatch heaven. If the brand's most affordable model ever has 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. That car cost near enough to $80,000 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. In Europe, where deliveries begin in January, prices are thousands of euros and pounds below the old A45. Even though Australian spec will include as standard some items that are optional extras in Europe, like adaptive damping and 19-inch wheels and tyres, it's likely to come in below $70,000. Maybe quite some way under.
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. Here are the main points...
Structural stiffness is increased with the addition of a sturdy sheet-steel stamping to the bottom of the engine bay. As well as this shear panel, a pair of small diagonal braces between body and front suspension subframe are added down there. The rear suspension subframe is rigidly mounted to the body, where the regular A-Class has bushings. There are new knuckles for the rear multilink, and stiffer bushings throughout. The front strut suspension features a new A-arm with a rigid uniball joint, a new knuckle design and 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 for the launch seem to be fitted with AMG Ride Control adaptive dampers and the 19-inch wheel and tyre package. This means they're more or less exactly Australia-market specification. And brilliant...
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.
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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 affect engine responsiveness, transmission shifting behaviour, steering assist levels and exhaust volume, plus the dampers. Crucially for picky types, the new menu logic of the A35 gives a broader range of set-up choice than in other AMGs.
The drive program wasn't all magically memorable mountain passes. There was also plenty of motorway, plus some arterial roads and urban streets. It was as though the drive had been carefully plotted to showcase the wonderful width of the A35's comfort zone.
Comfort mode delivers discreetly disciplined damping, early upshifting, light-ish steering and quiet exhaust. In this mode the A35 is just right for short-run commuting or long-distance cruising. The only thing that disturbs the calm confidence is too-high levels 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 racks all these up a notch, at the same time as opening the exhaust, is perfect for max-attack driving on mountain roads in Majorca and elsewhere.
Underpinning the Mercedes-AMG's broad-spectrum usability is a chassis that's endowed with great equilibrium. Front-end grip feels almost inexhaustible, partly because the rear end of the car deals with its fair share of the cornering workload. The steering is beautifully direct and nicely weighted. The wilt-free brake system of the A35 combines discs from the old A45 with a big new front caliper.
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This is a very different kind of Mercedes-AMG hot hatch. Frantic, jittery and ferociously fast, the A45 constantly nagged its driver to use all it had, all of the time. It could be tiresome. 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 are 225kW and 400Nm, 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. It spends a lot of time open in normal driving, but the wilder modes direct an increasing proportion of output aft.
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 cope easily with more.
The A35 also benefits from all the changes that make the new A-Class so much better than its predecessor; more space, better all-round vision, beautiful interior design, and an unrivalled arsenal of infotainment, driver-aid and safety technology.
Even when the new A45 arrives, with 300kW or so promised from its all-new engine, it won't make the A35 irrelevant. Mercedes-AMG's forthcoming top-dog A-Class is likely to be as manic and focused as the old A45, and much more costly. The new entry-level A35, in contrast, will continue to attract those who appreciate serenity as well as speed...
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The new A35 entry-level model from Mercedes-AMG is a very fine hot hatch. Quick but not crazy-fast, it has a chassis with a breadth of ride and handling talent rarely seen in the class.
PLUS: Handling and ride; interior design and tech; drama-on-demand exhaust
MINUS: Can feel underpowered; noisy on coarse-chip surfaces
Model: Mercedes-AMG A35
Engine: 1991cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 225kW @ 5800rpm
Max torque: 400Nm @ 3000-4000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
0-100km/h: 4.7sec (claimed)
Economy: 7.4L/100km (EU)
Price: $70,000 (estimated)
On sale: November 2019
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