Road Tests

Drive Review: Has the Mercedes A35 lost the hooligan gene?

The Mercedes-AMG A45 sold about twice the number its maker expected, but on the other hand it sits on a high and inaccessible shelf. The 2019 Mercedes A35, on the other hand, is AMG’s diffusion line, the entry-level ‘real AMG’, sitting midway between the full-fat A45 and the watered-down A250 AMG-line.

That territory, even by hot-hatch standards, still demands pretty big spec. So the A35 fields a 228kW engine, a standard seven-speed DCT transmission and four-wheel drive. That rubs it firmly up against the Audi S3 and Golf R. It is not, as we’ll see, quite in the A35’s nature to revive the spirit of the lamented Focus RS.

The base price of the 2019 Mercedes A35 looks tempting, estimated around R700 000, not just for that mechanical spec but also for the brilliant interior quality. But bear in mind this is an A-Class and there’s pretty well zero chance of going on the configurator without clicking the boxes for the signature Imax dash, available in three upgrade states culminating in the world’s biggest and most configurable head-up display.

The engine’s not entirely a pure AMG unit, having its roots in the A250 motor. Still, it’s modern enough. The transmission is a DCT job, with AMG-specific software to sharpen-up the shift times, and AMG-specific gear ratios.

The four-wheel-drive system operates on a maths-based torque model. In other words drive goes to the rear not just when the front ones start to slip, but in anticipation of that. Among the calculation’s inputs are how hard you’re going at the throttle and steering, the gear you’re in and other chassis variables.

Suspension modifications are far more than cursory too. Deep breath… the steering is solid-mounted to the body and has its own ratio; the front wishbones have solid joints not rubber bushes; the front uprights are different, the brakes are big discs and four-piston monobloc calipers from the A45. A stamped plate is bolted under the engine to keep the suspension mounts more stiffly located. At the back the subframe is solid-mounted rather than bolted through bushes. The springs, dampers and anti-roll bars are all specific.

It’s a long list of changes and we’ve not been complete, but this is enough to show they’re serious about making it more precise as well as grippy. The claim is the A35 will corner and stop as well as the A45. If not accelerate as hard.

The A35 might not be as quick as the A45 AMG, but still, 0-100kph in 4.7 is hardly shabby is it?

The engine is pretty keen to shake off any off-boost lethargy, summoning most of its 400Nm from well below 3,000rpm, and then giving that full total – with only slight lag – once the needle has swung beyond that. It’s well up for any trip to the red-line, albeit that comes to a halt at 6,500.

The predominant aural effect is less AMG GT and more AEG vacuum cleaner. That said, it’s smooth enough and there’s a bit of encouraging exhaust growl further back in the mix.

Look at the tyres, the spec and the measures they took to adapt the chassis to AMG purposes, and as you’d expect the A35 turns out to be a precise and grippy machine. That applies through pretty well any corner and any condition. Unless you yank it unsympathetically into slow, sharp bends, it’ll turn in pretty eagerly and stay neutral as you power through, especially in the sport setting which is keener to send drive rearwards. You’ll never run out of traction as you rocket out.

But it’s comprehensively lost the AMG hooligan gene. The steering is drably mute, and while the chassis does have some seat-of-the-pants feel, it certainly isn’t reactive to throttle inputs. It’s secure and very quick, but it’s a bit aloof. Which paradoxically tempts you to go a bit faster that you should, just to find the involvement.

If you really want the absolute minimum of involvement, well Mercedes keeps adding to its driver-assist systems. At the time of its launch the A35 has, if you tick the boxes, about the most comprehensive array of any European car.

Of course it’ll pretty much steer down a highway. More unusually it’ll adapt its cruise speed to the corners and junctions the map knows are coming up, even as tight as roundabouts (and yes, it takes them more vigorously if you’re in sport mode).

It will self-park in all manner of orientations, doing not just the steering but the braking and direction-changing. It steers away from oncoming traffic if it thinks you’re too close. And we like this bit; the blind-spot warning finds not just vehicles but bicycles.

Trouble is, these have all sorts of subtle, sometimes counter-intuitive and hard-to-learn conditions for activation and over-ride. Their technology is dazzling and their intent noble. But it often feels like the car has a mind, and a perverse mind at that, of its own.

Even if you don’t fork out a brass farthing in options, AMG adds cabin fitments to lift it beyond even the standard A-Class’s superbly rich cabin.

The seats are brilliant, their deep bolsters and fixed head restraints clamping you in for bends but caressing you the rest of the time. Step through the options packs and they’re first leather-dressed and heated, then electrified. Even the back seats are better shaped than usual, and the big chairs in front don’t rob too much leg room.

A special AMG steering wheel has rotary knobs to cycle through the sport modes. The centre console is scattered with buttons for particular subsets of the strategy: dampers sport or comfort; transmission manual or auto; ESP on or off or partial.

In a fully optioned A35, with the two big screens and the head-up display, there are a near-infinite number of graphical setups. Many of the performance-related readouts are specific to the AMG. You can light the dash up like Piccadilly Circus, with dials and graphs and numbers and arrows and maps and pictograms – and that’s just the driver’s pod, not the central screen. You’ll probably spend ages experimenting with them, then revert to a slightly quieter simpler layout.

When you do, it really is a dazzling piece of design and execution.

Now while it’s fine to have the choice, the system is controlled by a pair of touch-pads on the steering wheel spokes. It’s far too easy to accidentally brush them with the pad of your hand and alter the whole setup.

We’ve never actually seen an A-Class with the base system but we suspect it might be less distracting. The displays shrink from 10.25-inch to 7.0.

Then there’s the voice activation system, which responds to your saying ‘Hey Mercedes’. In practice it also cuts in when you or your passengers say all sorts of other entirely unrelated things which might possibly sound like Hey Mercedes to an ill-programmed artificial intelligence audio algorithm. This is ridiculously inconvenient as it pipes up with ‘how can I help you?’ and obscures the navigation instructions at what might be a critical junction.

Bottom line, there are too many conflicting ways to control this car, and you’ll end up deactivating some or most of them. Maybe it’s good to have the choice, but as with the driver-assist systems, the learning curve is steep and can be slippery.

Get your kick from going quick? Then this A35 is an awesome thing. The engine bolts it forward with a vehemence that’s rare in hot-hatchery, and the grip, steering accuracy, traction, transmission and brakes entirely live up to the engine’s demands.

But beyond the sheer forces, stimulation is in surprisingly short supply. The steering’s numb, the cornering unwilling to go along with any dance invitations from the throttle. If the optional aerodynamics pack leads you to think it’s a lairy little badass, we’re here to disabuse you.

But the Mercedes  A35 has other talents. The cabin’s exquisitely crafted and you can pile it up with the kind of connectivity, displays and active driver aids a top-end limo owner would envy.

So the A35 stands well above an A250, but there isn’t the drama of the old A45 (that’s what the new A45 will be for). Does that make it a goldilocks car, or is it stuck between stools? Depends what you’re looking for.

Original source: https://www.topgear.com/car-reviews/mercedes-benz/amg-a35

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