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Which of these German hot hatches is best?

By Trent Giunco | Photos by Ellen Dewar, 13 Jun 2020 Comparisons

Which of these German hot hatches is best?

AMG and M Sport’s most accessible wares face off. New game, new rules, same bad blood.

It’s almost lunchtime and only a handful of corners have been taken in anger. Storm clouds brood above as the boss man, editor Inwood, and I serve as lighting gofers. Our resident snapper, Ellen Dewar, captures it all through the camera lens. The storm is getting closer; single heavy drops start to fall. With key fobs in hand but no authorisation to use them, the skies above seem as agitated as us. Yet we’re under strict orders to get the ‘hero shot’ before Mother Nature unleashes her fury.

The downtime allows a moment to consider this duelling pair. Both the Mercedes-AMG and BMW five-doors are among the premium hot hatches of the moment yet they already carry unique baggage. Simply put, the $69,300 A35 could be perceived as somewhat of a halfway house; a car built solely to plug the narrow gap between the A250 Mercedes and the unhinged A45 S from AMG. View it this way and you could write it off simply as a cash-grab concocted by cynical marketers. It takes all of two corners to realise this isn’t the case. Throw the A35 at an apex and it’s immediately apparent that we’re dealing with an AMG-lite here, not a tarted up A250. Phew.

Read next: Can the Mercedes-AMG A45 S keep up with a Porsche 911 Carrera?

The allure of the BMW is less obvious. It too can be viewed more as a marketing exercise than an engineering one, given it seems to place so little weight on tradition. Where the previous M135i (and the 140i that followed it) stayed true to BMW’s iconic formula of rear-drive with straight-six power, this new car is much more controversial. All-wheel drive and four cylinders is the new recipe, and there’s also the sobering realisation that while AMG is still to offer the feral A45 S, BMW fans have no such hardcore variant to look forward to. When it comes to the M Performance-fettled 1 Series, this is it.

“All right, I’m done – have at it boys,” says photographer Dewar. And there it is, the green light we’d been waiting for. After all, we’re atop Lake Mountain in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, an area adorned with great driving roads. If these hatches can’t prove their worth here, then neither backstories will mean a thing. The threatening rain is mercifully holding off.

Slide into the heavily bolstered AMG Sports seats and the A35’s sporting intent instantly comes into focus. Large screens consume your peripheral vision, while the perfectly formed steering wheel is festooned with useful controls. Press the starter button and the M260 powerplant comes to life with a raspy exhaust note. Keen aficionados will pick up on the fact that the engine code belongs to an A250, and not the unhinged M139 assigned to the A45.

However, this is more than an A250 engine with the boost wound up. It’s been significantly fettled with a freer-flowing exhaust, water-to-air intercooling, bigger valves and, crucially, a bigger twin-scroll turbo. So while the internals and block remain the same, it’s a significant upgrade. And it’s noticeable, too. After all, 225kW and 400Nm from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo is nothing to be sneezed at. Nor is a 0-100km/h claim of 4.7 seconds, which feels utterly feasible. While peak power is made at 5800rpm, the strong 2.0-litre four-pot encourages you to search for the redline as it continues to make meaningful grunt throughout the rev range. There is a meaty mid-range torque window to access, too, between 3000-4000rpm.

Read next: Buy the new Renault Megane RS 280 or get a used BMW M135i?

Newton metres are where BMW’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo claims top trumps thanks to 450Nm, and also has a greater torque bandwidth of 1750-5000rpm to play with. However, despite equalling the Merc on power, the B48’s identical 225 kilowatts (4500-6250rpm) don’t feel as strong as the A35’s. The party is over after 5000rpm, so shifting up a gear early provides the best results. While its 0-100km/h time of 4.8sec is a tenth behind the A35, option the $1900 Performance Pack (which includes an overboost function and lighter 18-inch alloys) and the marker falls to 4.7sec.

In terms of acoustics, the AMG takes the win. Its theatrical overrun and upshift blurts pervade the cabin, creating more aural excitement than the BMW, which has a soundtrack that can verge on artificial. So while these two are comparable in terms of on-paper performance and straight-line pace, the reality is their dynamic talents diverge. 

The A35 has a serious demeanour, right down to the simple things like its lower driving position. The AMG is tied down, with the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres offering high levels of grip. The front-end denies understeer vehemently and power-down traction past the apex is immense. There’s a delicacy, too, with an underlying neutral balance that affords a small, playful squirm from the rear as the razor-sharp front axle arrows into a corner. This is possible thanks to the beefed-up A250 chassis, which gains stiffened springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. The uprights have also been changed and the rear subframe is now solidly mounted. With the adaptive dampers set to Comfort mode, the ride quality is acceptable with only a slight body-control compromise. However, Sport and Sport+ need to be reserved for smooth roads given the taut nature of the A35’s chassis tune.

The AMG also gets the nod over the BMW when it comes to its gearbox. While the BMW’s eight-speed auto is smoother around town, it isn’t as quick on the run as the seven-speed dual-clutch found in the A35. In its sportiest mode, the A35’s shifts aren’t only faster, but have a positivity and immediacy lacking in the BMW.

Read next: What the hell is a ‘hyper hatch’, and should you care?

Despite both hot hatches being able to send up to 50 percent of drive to the rear wheels, it’s the BMW that behaves distinctly more front-driven, even with its Torsen limited-slip differential. The M135i’s nose pushes wide earlier under hard acceleration and the front wheels, wrapped in Continental PremiumContact 6 tyres, will tug at the thick-rimmed tiller. It isn’t as willing to lock onto an apex, then rotate and fire out the other side of a corner as the AMG.

The fixed-rate suspension set-up does an impressive job in providing a ride quality advantage over the A35. However, you have to pay $400 on top of the Performance Pack, and cop smaller 18-inch wheels, to option adaptive dampers. The Merc is the most affected by road noise and tyre roar, which is quite intrusive, giving the BMW an edge in refinement levels.

In terms of steering, there is a vagueness on-centre that continues through to the initial stages of lock that makes the M135i hard to place on corner entry. Jump back into the A35 and the steering has a cohesive and meaty nature. The AMG’s brakes also feel more positive, with an immediacy to the pedal that’s reassuring in relation to the M135i’s initially soft response.

Summiting Lake Mountain one last time, it’s hard not to notice the M135i struggling to keep up. It’s just not as confidence-inspiring or tactile enough near its limits to deliver a dynamic attack on the A35. The Merc carries more speed through corners with greater precision – it’s the one you want to keep driving just for fun.

Read next: Mercedes-AMG A35 tackles winding passes to prove its worth

As we arrive at the cafe for a final debrief, the rain finally falls. And it’s torrential. Both hatches remain in view through the window as Inwood and I muse over the exterior designs. Admittedly, the Misano Blue M135i looks better in the metal than it does in pictures, its subtle mongrel revealed in its finer details. But it’s the A35 that makes the greater visual statement, especially in this bewinged Edition 1 guise (a $5377 premium). Yes, you can have an A35 sans the winged paraphernalia should you wish to live a more stealth-like existence, but shouldn’t an AMG be a bit brash?

So the AMG is the better driver’s car, but the return journey to Melbourne sees the BMW salvage some points on the practical front. Its cabin feels more tightly screwed together, and the AMG does display some lower-rent materials if you go looking for them. Plus the 1 Series’ shift to the UKL2 front-wheel-drive platform has brought packaging advantages including a 380-litre boot that’s 10 litres bigger than the A35. Strangely, though, it’s the AMG that has greater rear seat knee- and headroom.

Ultimately, the F40 M135i isn’t without newfound advantages. The problem is it will forever be haunted by what it once was to enthusiasts who champion the Bavarian brand. There’s a sense there should be a rung above to come – but there isn’t one. Therefore the AMG-honed A-Class claims the premium hot hatch honours here. It’ll make you smile more when you really want it to. And the true revelation is that the A35 isn’t a halfway house at all. Its credentials and performance render the A45 S’s baby brother more than worthy of its Affalterbach address.

VERDICT

1st – Mercedes-AMG A35 (8.5/10)

2nd – BMW M135i (6.5/10)

MERCEDES-AMG A35 SPECIFICATIONS

  • Price: $69,300 ($76,792* as tested)
  • Engine: in-line 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
  • Layout: front engine (east-west), AWD
  • Capacity: 1991cc
  • Power: 225kW @ 5800rpm
  • Torque: 400Nm @ 3000-4000rpm
  • Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
  • Body: steel, 5 doors, 5 seats
  • L/W/H/W–B: 4436/1797/1405/2729mm
  • Track (F/R): 1573/1570mm
  • Weight: 1480kg
  • Boot: 370 litres
  • Fuel/tank size: 95 octane/51 litres
  • Economy: 16.2L/100km (test average)
  • Front suspension: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Rear suspension: multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Steering: electric rack and pinion
  • Turn circle: 11.5m (2.5 turns lock-to-lock)
  • Front brakes: ventilated discs (350mm)
  • Rear brakes: ventilated discs (330mm)
  • Tyres: Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S
  • Tyre size: 235/35ZR19 91Y
  • Safety: 5 stars (ANCAP)
  • Options*: Edition 1 Package: Denim Blue metallic paint, AMG multi-spoke 19-inch alloys, AMG Performance seats ($5377); Driver Assistance Package ($1454); Vision Package: multi-beam active headlights, 360-degree camera ($761)

BMW M135I SPECIFICATIONS

  • Price: $64,990 ($69,960* as tested)
  • Engine: in-line 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
  • Layout: front engine (east-west), AWD
  • Capacity: 1998cc
  • Power: 225kW @ 4500-6250rpm
  • Torque: 450Nm @ 1750-5000rpm
  • Transmission: 8-speed automatic
  • Body: steel, 5 doors, 5 seats
  • L/W/H/W–B: 4319/1799/1434/2670mm
  • Track (F/R): 1560/1563mm
  • Weight: 1525kg
  • Boot: 380 litres
  • Fuel/tank size: 95 octane/50 litres
  • Economy: 14.2L/100km (test average)
  • Front suspension: Front: struts, A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
  • Rear suspension: multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
  • Steering: electric rack and pinion
  • Turn circle: 11.4m (2.4 turns lock-to-lock)
  • Front brakes: ventilated discs (360mm)
  • Rear brakes: ventilated discs (330mm)
  • Tyres: Continental PremiumContact 6
  • Tyre size: 235/35R19 91Y
  • Safety: 5 stars (ANCAP)
  • Options*: Comfort Package: lumbar support for driver and front passenger, seat heating, steering wheel heating ($1200); Enhancement Package: Metallic paint, Panorama glass roof, active cruise control with stop & go function, automatic tailgate, luggage compartment package and storage net, through-loading system ($3770)

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