Coachbuilders and tuning specialists combine for road-and-racetrack-ready special
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£38,030 when new
Which small Mercedes is this? It’s the Mercedes-AMG A35 Saloon. What it isn’t is a Mercedes CLA. You can get that with the same engine and chassis, but you’ll pay another £1,300 for the privilege. Such is the price of fashion. Give me numbers. As per the A35 hatchback, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo drives all four wheels, serving up 306bhp and 295lb ft. That makes it good for 0-62mph in 4.8secs – basically the same as its Audi S3 arch rival, while almost a second slower than the big-boy AMG A45. A seven-speed automatic gearbox is standard fit, as is AMG’s latest suite of driver modes and clever electronic nannies which are designed to flatter your abilities rather than hurt your pride.
What’s new? The wheelbase is exactly the same as the A35 hatch, and tall rear passengers will suddenly have their hair mushed into the headlining, but you do get a bit more boot space over an A-Class hatch without its rear seats pushed down. And, to these eyes, it looks pretty damn good. It’s less overwrought in styling than the pricier CLA and, without the chintzy optional spoilers of the A45 hatch, it just comes across as an altogether classier item in four-door form. Which, as we’ll see, is actually kinda crucial. Explain. See, the A35 may rumble into life a little uncouthly and pop and crackle away when you lift off the throttle, but it’s actually a very well behaved car. When hot hatches typically behave like a toddler on a Haribo high, that can be construed as a bit of a misstep. In a more svelte, stylish body, such decorum fits a bit more snugly. The driver still doesn’t feel like a vastly important part of the process, mind. The front turns into corners incredibly keenly and then – no matter how clottish you are with the throttle – the A35 just dumps all its power down and slingshots you out at barely credible speed. It’s as cultured as lobbing a long ball to Peter Crouch. Mightily effective a lot of the time, but little for the connoisseurs to eulogise about. Not for driving nerds, then… There’s more interactivity on damper roads, when the A35’s hips start to loosen the tiniest bit, but it’s otherwise locked down and serious, with none of the yobbishness performed on a whim by larger AMG saloons. There’s no doubting its startling cross country pace is impressive; objectively, they’ve nailed this car. Subjectively, though, it just comes across as a tad emotionless. If you like going fast in straight lines, you’ll fall for it. If you like a car that’s hyperactive in corners, it’ll leave you wanting more. Which is perhaps easier to forgive when its four-door shape allows it to duck out of a tremendously fighty hot hatch class. And there’s a real feelgood factor about a tenacious little sports saloon that’ll slink through width restrictors and which doesn’t require a billion parking cameras to negotiate an inner-city multi-storey. You’ve not been the kindest about A-Classes in the past. Nope, and some old bugbears remain. The suspension is heroically firm, which is fine on a tight and twisty backroad, but a bit of a pig in town. And while the seven-speed paddleshifter is largely very sophisticated, it’s still capable of dropping you clunkily into the top of second gear with just a millimetre too much of throttle, its kickdown function occasionally too boisterous. Similar issues affected the old A45 and remain here. Cars that are natively front-wheel drive just aren’t the AMG speciality, so there’s still a tangible sense it’s catching up to rivals with more mainstream badges. Ford, Honda, Seat and VW all make small performance cars that are more cohesive as well as more exciting. Even Hyundai, nowadays, and its i30N Fastback channels the titchy saloon vibe for nearly nine grand less than an A35. But I love how this thing looks. Therein lies the A35’s appeal. It’s a lovely thing to walk up to, you’ll always glance back as you walk away, and the bit in between will be spent looking at a stunning spread of screens with almost infinite personalisation options. So long as you don’t have too much of a regional lilt, you’ll operate many of its functions by voice, too, thus avoiding some disappointingly cheap switchgear. For those who really love driving, though, there’s not enough nuance, involvement, or feeling like you’re anything more than a bit of flesh hanging onto a really sodding fast small saloon. But for everyone else, here’s a car with tonnes of style and just about enough substance to back it up. Score: 7/10