What difference does ten years and two turbochargers make to the quintessential mid-engined Ferrari?
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£35,010 when new
The cheapest AMG, right? Right. At £35,580 this is indeed the most affordable car Mercedes-AMG builds. Weirdly that’s almost identical money to an Audi S3 Sportback (£35,275) and BMW M140i (£35,240). Who’d have thought it? Because it’s a Volkswagen, the Golf R is cheaper (£33,740 for a five door DSG). But this is the sweet spot in the hot hatch firmament currently. Hardcore hatches such as the Civic Type R and Focus RS are all well and good, but a larger majority of people want their speed with a measure of style and desirability. That and some ridiculously tempting finance deals were what made the current Golf R such a ballistic success. Are the numbers similar on all of them? Of course they are. Besides costing almost identical amounts, all hit 60mph in between 4.6-5.0secs, claim around 37-39mpg and emit 165-175g/km of CO2.
So which would you have? Wrong question to answer here. We haven’t yet had the chance to get them all together. From memory the Golf R has beaten the Audi and BMW every time they’ve met though, so that’s got to be the key opponent. However, Merc’s launch timing looks very canny when you learn the current Golf R won’t be around for much longer. An all-new Mk8 Golf arrives later this year, and a new R is unlikely before late 2020. So for at least the next 18 months the A35 has things its own way? In a way it does, not least because it feels very fresh. The cabin design and equipment options definitely move the game on – they’re a big part of the reason that the standard A-Class is selling so well at the moment. However, the regular A-Class is pretty ropey to drive. You get the sense all the investment went into the – surprise, surprise – interior and infotainment. Which is what people seemingly want these days. Unless they’re buying an AMG, of course… You’re right, the driving experience has to measure up. To that end, AMG has done a lot of work behind the scenes. The steering ratio is sharper, the column is solid-mounted. The front wishbones and rear subframe are solid mounted to the chassis rather than bushed, the brakes are from the old A45, a brace plate now sits under the engine to further stiffen the front end and the springs, dampers and anti-roll bars are all bespoke. That’s a comprehensive effort. And yes, the engine does have a lot in common with the dull motor that powers the A250, but at least the outputs make more pleasing reading. Power from the 2.0-litre four cylinder turbo is up 82bhp to 306, while torque is now 295lb ft, a 37lb ft climb. 0-62mph is dispatched in a claimed 4.7secs. But is it a good engine to use? It’s OK. It’s not as punchy at the bottom end as VW’s 2.0-litre, and you can tell it wants to boost more as it climbs through the mid-range. It’s quite conservative, and isn’t that pleasant to listen to. Unless you shove it in Sport+ mode and lift-off, in which case you get the full crackle-barrage. But in conjunction with the 7-speed dual clutch DCT it is very effective at delivering speed. The gearing is close set enough to make third and fourth very usable, which is just as well since the engine calls time at 6,000rpm unless you press the manual button or got to Sport+ in which case you get another 500rpm. And how is it on a good British B-road? Can’t tell you. Can tell you what it’s like on some exceptional ones, though. Aberdeenshire is full of them. And on every single one of them the A35 is taut, secure and rapid. Ours didn’t have the £695 adaptive dampers, but I’m not sure you need them. They’d only be useful if they smoothed out the low speed ride which, as it stands, is a little brittle. While we’re on the subject there’s more tyre roar and harshness than is perhaps ideal when cruising. Blame the solid bushes and optional 19s. Push on and the damping’s excellent. Roll develops progressively, body movements are well contained, the whole car feels well supported and effective. It’s nimble, fast, grippy. And has nice steering. Quick rack with immediate off-centre response helps here, boosting confidence, even if it’s not brilliant at communicating remaining grip. An issue that’s common across almost all modern steering systems. And it’s a tenacious thing around corners. The front end bites well on the way in, it carries speed very ably the whole way through and when you get back on the power both axles distribute the power very evenly, so there’s no real understeer or oversteer, more this fast, neutral, nose-led exit. It’s efficient and satisfying and for the vast majority of buyers, probably exactly what they’re looking for. But what we loved about the Golf R was that when you scratched the surface there was so much connection and nuance to its handling. Less of that here. Good at riding bumps though in a way that belies its chunky 1,555kg kerbweight. How does it compare to the old A45? Merc claims it’s just as fast around a track. So probably equal under braking, quicker through corners, slower up the straights. But then it is close on 80bhp down. How’s the cabin? Lovely looking. Quite confusing to use until you’re used to it. Reckon on that taking around six months. There is a lot going on. Basics: seat could have more lateral support, but strikes a good balance of comfort and hold. You don’t have to lever yourself out of it. Driving position is good, steering column could perhaps do with another inch of reach adjustment, but that’s all. Rear seat space is fine, the boot has a high sill and smallish aperture, but there are no major practicality concerns that would force you to look elsewhere. It’s big enough, the seats fold, the kids fit, the shopping fits, what more do you need? Stick a roofbox on if you want. That would look cool. One small thing. If you tick the £2,595 AMG Style pack box, besides the 19-inch wheels, privacy glass and gloss black diffuser, you get a mean rear wing. You probably want the mean rear wing. But every time you slam the boot, the mean rear wing rattles cheaply. What other cool stuff is there? Masses. As standard you get the ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice activation, lane keep, 18s, reversing camera, two-zone climate and a pair of side-by-side 7in screens. Want the wide screen 10.25in displays? Merc very meanly locate the upgrades in two separate packs; the £1,395 ‘Executive Pack’ brings the upgraded media screen, while the widescreen dash is part of the £2,395 ‘Premium Pack’. You get plenty of other kit, too, but you’re looking down the barrel of a £40k bill to get the larger screens. But maybe you don’t want them. There’s so much functionality (each of the dials, revs and speed, can be reconfigured to show eight other bits of information. And the bit between them has more options still), that you quickly get lost in menus. One very cool thing: The £1,295 ‘Advanced Nav’ pack has augmented reality, which overlays instructions on the view from the forward facing camera. It’s ace. Just as well because zooming in and out of the map is an utter pain in the neck. Not cheap though, is it? Not as affordable as the entry ticket suggests. Merc’s own finance pack quotes £5,500 down and £399 a month for four years, but lob a load of spec on top and that’ll build significantly. It’s good on fuel though. Even after a good chuck about it was still reading 26.5mpg, and on motorways closer to 35mpg. Would you have one? It’s better than I thought it would be, if that helps. Which it doesn’t. Look, the standard A-Class drives dismally and I was unsure of AMGs commitment to engineering the A35. I thought they’d be too busy focussing on the forthcoming 400bhp+ A45 to care about the A35. But no, this is a very capable fast hatch. It has big showroom appeal, and as we’ve found from the Golf R, a compact, 4WD, 300bhp hatch is a very compelling proposition for everyday life. That’s the case here. It’s not the most playful, but I don’t think for a second that the buyers Merc is aiming it at care about that. They want speed, efficiency, security and image. And this delivers. Score: 7/10
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