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Mercedes-AMG‘s entry-level model is a compelling alternative to the vastly more expensive A45 (read our review here), but that doesn’t automatically render it great value; the BMW M135i and soon-to-be-replaced Audi S3 Sportback offer much the same for less. Still, that’s a one-dimensional assessment of the A35 … if it drives better than its rivals, there might just be merit to its bullish price positioning. Let’s find out if it does.

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND

The A35 derivative is new to this generation of A-Class. The previous line-up sported only a fiery A45, while the earlier bread-van A-Classes didn’t offer a bespoke AMG derivative (not that you would’ve wanted sportier versions of the top-heavy first- and second-generation As – moose test, anyone?). The A35 has the 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol from the A250 but with a larger twin-scroll turbocharger fitted for more power and more incisive throttle response. This tweak hikes the power output from 165 to 225 kW, while maximum torque receives a boost to 400 Nm, enough, says Mercedes-AMG, for a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 4.7 seconds.

Power is filtered to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. In general driving, the engine powers the front axle but 50% of the drive can be diverted via a multi-disc clutch to the rear wheels should traction be a problem (it can do so pre-emptively when it starts detecting conditions that might lead to reduced grip levels). The Dynamic Select drivetrain-management system’s sport/sport+ modes also favour more rear-axle interaction. Curiously, adaptive damping is an optional extra (R24 000); our test vehicle went without.

Elsewhere, the A35 sports more cosseting seats, an AMG Performance steering wheel trimmed in Nappa leather (this vehicle had the Dinamica microfibre option, an appealingly tactile feature until you see the price … R15 800) and various styling tweaks that place it somewhere between an A250 and A45 on visual aggression.

HOW DOES IT GO, STOP AND TURN?

Very, very well. There’s the occasional tardiness in the dual-clutch ‘box but generally it shifts quickly and slickly. The engine, too, is smooth and punchy. The A35 quite obviously isn’t as powerful as the A45, nor is it as loud despite an amplified exhaust tone in sport/sport+ modes, but it feels every bit the 4.7-second hot hatch Mercedes-AMG claims it to be. Mid-range punch is strong, making the A35 a fantastic cross-country companion, and there’s welcome fizz at the power peak of 5 800 r/min. Dial it back and the revs sit unobtrusively low at the national limit.

The brakes, too, are immensely impressive thanks to linear brake pedal response and strong bite at the top of the travel. The front discs measure 350 mm and the rear units 310 mm, and they’re ventilated all-round.

As for handling, the A35 is all about stability. Because no more than 50% of drive can be diverted to the rear axle, it’s not quite as playful nor as adjustable on the throttle as you’d like, preferring to negotiate a corner as quickly and cleanly as possible. However, its responses are razor sharp and the A35 feels lighter than its portly kerb weight of 1 555 kg. The steering is perfectly weighted in comfort mode (I prefer a lighter, more natural setup to the artificially heavy responses the Germans love to engineer into their products) and body control is excellent.

My only real dynamic criticism is that, due to the lack of adaptive damping, the ride never quite settles. It fidgets at town speeds and remains a touch too alert on smooth highways. Experience with a number of other A-Class derivatives fitted with the optional adaptive system has shown it’s an essential add-on. Refinement on the move is also average, with elevated levels of road and wind noise penetrating the cabin. Worryingly, this test vehicle, with less than 10 000 km on the clock, had a number of rattles and squeaks in its interior.

VERDICT

Overall, the A35 is an impressive piece of kit that manages to feel like an AMG. Which is just as well considering it’s also priced like an AMG. At R883 000 (R273 840 less than the A45, mind), the A35 is quite a lot more expensive than the M135i (R808 188) and S3 Sportback (R772 189). Granted, the Mercedes is the sportiest one of the trio and more entertaining to drive, but it’s also the least well equipped of the bunch. For some, the A35’s dashing looks, superb chassis and badge will be persuasive enough. At nearly R900k, though, some extra-cost options should be standard (such as a reversing camera and the larger infotainment and instrumentation screens) and the interior better built and finished. Still, this reacquaintance with AMG’s junior model has shown the performance division hasn’t lost its ability to infuse everyday Mercedes-Benzes with a touch of magic.

PRICING

All Mercedes-Benz models offer a two-year/unlimited km warranty and five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan as standard.

Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic Speedshift-DCT 7G: R883 000

About the Author: Terence Steenkamp
Editor. Car lover. Traveller. Doggy dad. Pinot noir drinker.