Mercedes-Benz didn’t hold back when they vaulted into the hot hatch cauldron back in 2013 – the absurdly rapid W176 Mercedes-AMG A45 gave the establishment a rude shock, its raw pace leaving most in its wake, at least in a straight line. But while the A45 packed a mighty wallop, it was perhaps too highly strung to be appreciated daily, unless the route to work resembled a lap of Nordschleife.
Truth is, even the most hardcore of hot hatch devotees don’t drive ten tenths all the time. Conventional wisdom also dictates that a hot hatch should be as fun as it is usable, which meant that the chasm that existed between the A250 and A45 needed filling, something which the W177-generation A35 slots in nicely.
All-wheel drive is your friend
Any Mercedes bearing ‘AMG’ in its model name is bound to be quick; the A35 doesn’t disappoint; idle to 100km/h takes 4.7 seconds on paper, it pips the new and torquier BMW 135i and just about every other notable hot hatch sold in Malaysia, including the Volkswagen Golf R, Renault Megane RS Trophy and Honda Civic Type R. Remember, the A35 is only the supporting act to the A45.
Laying down gobs of torque through the front axle which also steers has always been the bane of front-wheel drives. Hot hatch makers have gone to great lengths to contain torque steer, from the use of limited slip differentials (mechanical and electronic) to elaborate suspension geometry, but when every new hot hatch is more powerful than before, all-wheel drive is your friend.
The damp weather which persisted over the course of this test drive presented the opportunity for the A35’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive system to show how it copes with 306hp and 400Nm from the M260 2.0-litre four-cylinder motor, uprated from the A250’s 224hp and 350Nm. The A35 can send up to 50% of that torque to the rear axle but the complex workings are imperceptible. Even with injudicious inputs from the right foot, A35 rarely breaks traction.
Left on its own, the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission always finds the right gear and it’ll respond with crisp changes when you tug at those aluminium paddles on the fat AMG Performance steering wheel. ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ modes are docile enough for city traffic, but when you’re in the mood to hoon, ‘Sport+’ noticeably sharpens up all the primary controls and summons a hard-edge, metallic exhaust note that can only hail from the hills of Affalterbach, barking pops and bangs to other vehicles within earshot. AMG says that decibels will be slashed to meet EU noise regulations soon, we are not looking forward to that.
The incentive of customised fun
If you like your hot hatches feelsome, the A35 can come across as ‘manufactured’ and clinical. While the W177-generation compact models have considerably improved their ride quality over the last generation cars, the A35 isn’t into communicating subtleties nor is it as forgiving as a Golf R when it meets tricky road surfaces.
What the A35 offers is a myriad of customisable drive settings that can be dialed to preference, there’s even a ‘Slippery’ mode for presumably wet or icy conditions; our favourite is to leave the adaptive dampers in ‘Comfort’ to take the edge off the ride, likewise with the steering for a light effort, with the rest of the gubbins in either ‘Sport’ or the angrier ‘Sport+’ modes.
Set up as such, the front end is sharp and responsive, there’s also a reasonable compromise between roll stiffness and ride pliancy with the powertrain ready to provide a wallop. The massive four-pot front brake calipers also make light work of shedding speed. Objectively, the A35 is right up there with the best, yet it doesn’t quite deliver the spine-tingling thrills in bends and corners as it does on the straights.
At RM366,785.05, the A35 hatch is actually pricier than the last generation A45 in Malaysia (the A35 sedan sans Edition 1 is RM336,277.51), part of that tab is to foot the Edition 1 extras which include the AMG aero kit and Night package, 19-inch alloys that look like they’ve been lightly dusted with gold, with matching decals on the sides. It’s unusual to see a colour combo of blue and gold on a Merc, but it does work.
There are also a set of tasty front buckets with large swatches of suede-like Dinamica microfibre dotting the cabin, as well as various AMG-specific bits and bobs to spruce things up, not to mention the impressive MBUX infotainment system that does just about everything but brew a double Espresso.
Where the A35 falls a little short in driver engagement, it makes up for the slack by offering the richest set of creature comforts among the competition, something which current Mercs have delivered persuasively. The A35 is in many ways the modern, multifaceted athlete, entirely capable in its craft as a hot hatch, but also wholly conversant as a premium product representing a luxury brand.
Mercedes-Benz A35 4MATIC Edition 1
Price: RM366,785.05 Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged, AWD Output: 306hp / 400Nm Transmission: 7-speed DCT Performance: 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds; top speed 250km/h (limited) Wheels/tyres: 235/35 R19 Safety: 7 airbags, Electronic Stability Control Warranty: 4-year/unlimited mileage