Twin test: BMW M135i vs Mercedes-AMG A35
BMW’s hot hatch now has a smaller engine and 4x4-drive. Can it see off the cheapest AMG?
Here’s a fun game you can play in the new BMW M135i. The only other equipment you’ll need is a nice wide roundabout. Tip the car in at 30-40mph, get it settled and steady through the curve, and then pull the upshift paddle behind the steering wheel.
For a nanosecond while drive to the wheels is interrupted by the eight-speed automatic gearbox, the overstuffed steering wheel stops torque-steering. You can actually sense the micromoment as it unloads against your hands then tenses up again. Yep, this is a BMW with torque-steer. It’s a very different kind of M135i.Advertisement - Page continues below
Because this is a very different new 1 Series. No more six-cylinder engines, no more rear-wheel drive. The new range-topper here is now much more in the VW Golf R / Audi S3 mould. Under the bonnet, a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine facing east-west, not north-south. Most of the time, to conserve fuel, it only bothers the front wheels with 302bhp and 332lb ft. Only when the computers say are the rear wheels entrusted with up to 50 per cent of the poke.
So, this is a much more rational, much more follow-the-herd kinda BMW hot hatch, which is a crying shame on one hand – the old M135i and M140i were truly naughty bits of kit, blessed with big engines and old-school rear drive balance, even if the body control was a bit sloppy. On the other hand, the new one’s packaging means there’s a bigger boot, a bit (but it has to be said, hardly an impressive amount) of space in the rear seats, and hey, there have been plenty of spectacular 2.0-litre 4x4 superhatches in the last few years. Focus RS, Golf R, and the recently replaced Mercedes-AMG A45.Advertisement - Page continues below
This… isn’t it. This is the new Mercedes-AMG A35. The cheapest, least powerful AMG you can buy – though £35k basic and a shattering £44k as tested here in raincloud grey hardly makes it a bargain. Since the replacement Mk2 A45 is a Drift Moded, 400bhp+ technological psychopath, AMG wisely considered that a fair few folks might fancy a parpy A-Class without a fifty-something grand price tag. So the A35 is here to breathe down the neck of the established 300bhp all-weather shopping trolleys.
Without the aero pack, the A35 is either Q-car cool or diesel-dowdy, but this one has it and as a result it’s probably still stuck near the Top Gear office waiting to be let out of a junction. A Mercedes with winglets? How very uncouth. But that’s the A35 in a nutshell. Hard-riding, crackers-sounding. It’s a boisterous show-off from a well-mannered family. It’s like driving around in one of the candidates from The Apprentice.
Inside we have the usual A-Class wow factor of twin screens, piano-key switches and jet turbine vents complete with ambient-lit rainbows. We also have the usual A-Class eurgh-factor of the whole shebang being made out of materials tinnier and more hollow than they look. The stalk you’ll use every time you engage drive? Grim. The window switches and temperature controls? Nasty. At least you can ask ‘Hey Mercedes’ to handle most of the menial tasks, if your A35 is as optioned-up-to-the-headlights as this one.
What you won’t find on the options list are a proper set of sports seats. And as a result, the flat and narrow-feeling A35 chairs don’t really set the tone when you first drop inside. And as a result, what comes next is a bit of shock, even before you’ve arrived at a corner and slipped out of the limp seat’s weak embrace.
The A35’s engine is angry. It’s quick to build revs, there’s a big hit of turbo lag (the full 295lb ft doesn’t land until 3,000rpm and is all done 1,000rpm later), and with maximum power not developed until almost 6,000rpm this motor begs to be wrung out. This isn’t a Golf R-like diesel-esque torque monster, oozed along by an invisible locomotive of momentum. Like the old A45, this is a snappy, fizzy engine. Completely out of character for a Mercedes, and possibly not what you’ll want in an everyday hatch.
It doesn’t even feel spectacularly quick, but it’s exciting. The metal shift paddles are the highest piece of quality in the cabin, so grab hold of ‘em to override the bonkers mapping in automatic mode and away you go. Make sure to have selected the screen layout with big red shift lights as the redline screams into view. Set aside a weekend to find that configuration.
The A35 has a problem, though. However you set the screens, even if you delete the wings, no matter which soul-vacuum colour you choose, this car cannot settle down. The engine’s always raspy, even if the exhaust can be sanitised, and the ride is just punishing. Everyone who drove it found the suspension unacceptable. It actually makes the A35’s cabin feel cheaper than it is because of the sheer crashiness, and the quantity of buzzes and rattles that pipe up as it bounces down a B-road. It might be better on the standard 18-inch wheels, but who selects those in 2019? Not Mercedes, obviously.Advertisement - Page continues below
Because it’s so firm and attention-seeking, good drives in the A35 seems to come in short bursts. You might attack a sequence of bends briefly to get your hit of giggles, and in the maelstrom of noise and vibration, enjoy how planted the car is, how assertive the brakes are and how obediently the nose follows the hyper-quick steering. But it’s sadomasochistic to keep it up, and there’s little sense you’re in anything more than a front-drive car with infinite traction rather than an AMG with any rear-driven intent.
Seeking some respite, I hide from the new BMW M135i’s face inside the BMW M135i. What an incredible design feat this is – the ugliest hot hatchback of all time – beating into second place the second-gen BMW 1 Series, and knocking the original BMW 1 Series into the bronze medal slot. The rear looks like a crossover that’s had a tree land on it, and what exactly is the front grinning about? Torque-steer and fake engine noise isn’t that amusing.
So, it’s hideous, but then almost all BMWs are these days. And I’m not going to bellyache about the demise of the straight six and rear-drive. Loads of stellar hatches have used the four-pot turbo and four-wheel drive to great effect. I just don’t think this is one of them.Advertisement - Page continues below
Let’s start with what’s good: the ride. This M135i has the best British road combo possible: the standard 18-inch rims, and adaptive suspension. In Comfort Mode, it actually rides better than the last 3 Series M Sport I drove. It’s bang-on – cushioning bumps long before they can rattle the disappointingly naff trim and bizarre techno-fabric upholstery. There’s more body roll than the AMG, sure – exacerbated by the sense of sitting up so high compared to what we’re used to in a BMW – but it’s a worthwhile trade-off to the brittle Benz. You could even drive it in Sport mode all the time, so long as you slackened off the stupidly treacly steering that comes with it.
The BMW is also quicker point-to-point. It’s usefully faster, because there’s more torque more of the time, from 1,750rpm all the way to 5,000rpm, and the motor makes maximum power for longer too. It’s uncanny. Like a diesel powerband, but twice as long. Pity it sounds like one too.
So you can see, these are two curious cars. The Mercedes will be overbearing to live with but much more stimulating. The 1 Series will melt into the daily sludge of everyday life painlessly, but surely a £35k hot hatch with all of BMW’s nous should be a more special, memorable device than this? BMW reinvigorated Mini after all, but left behind almost everything it had learned about making fun small cars when it reinvented one of the previous heroes of its range. I’m not sure why you’d buy an M135i now – what’s the USP?
On balance, I’d put up with the daily concussions and never being given way to, and of the two, have the A35. If you were seduced by the BMW’s more polished manners, I’d not blame you. Not unless you were selling an old M140i to finance the swap. And versus the Audi S3 or VW Golf R that’s been on sale for the past six years and is about to be killed off? Both of these newcomers are alternatives, but not really improvements.
1998cc 4cyl turbo, 302bhp, 332lb ft
8spd auto, AWD
34.3mpg, 155g/km CO2
0-62mph in 4.8sec, 155mph
1991cc 4cyl turbo, 302bhp, 295lb ft
7spd DCT, AWD
38.7mpg, 167g/km CO2
0-62mph in 4.7sec, 155mph