2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Review: Junior Touring Car

How do you build the entry-level model of a luxury marque’s performance sub-brand?

It’s a tricky set of hoops to jump through. It needs to be relatively affordable without seeming cheap and diluting the main brand’s image.

Mercedes-Benz has its own take on the formula with this, the 2020 AMG A 35. It takes the brand’s well-executed small hatchback and piles on the aggression. More power? Oh yes. Meaner looks? Of course. More engaging? Absolutely.

Far from a luxury ride with a dash of sportiness, the A 35 is an all-wheel drive weapon. It’s fast and practical,  like all the best hot hatches. It’s a barrel of laughs when you find the right road, too. But getting there can be a bumpy ride.

“Diet” AMG still has plenty of firepower

The 35-series cars—the CLA, GLA, GLB, and this—all use the same engine, a production-line, turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four. It hooks up to a quick-action seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, sending up to 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. That’s down from the 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of the hand-built 2.0-liter in the CLA 45 (nevermind the 415-horsepower S version sold outside North America), but the 35 is hardly what you’d call lacking.

No, this entry point into AMG territory is still plenty quick. It flexes its muscles from little over idle, doing its best work right in the 2,000–3,000 rpm range. After that there’s another step up in power, as the turbo’s wick is now fully lit, catapulting the A 35 from merely quick to seriously so.

With the standard-fit 4MATIC all-wheel drive, none of the four-pot’s potential is wasted, as every bit of it is transferred into forward motion. Leave the transmission in the normal setting and it’ll click off upshifts quickly and cleanly. Switch to Sport, however, and the seven-speed picks up the pace, and holds gears for longer. When it needs to downshift—or you force it via the wheel-mounted shifter paddles—you’ll get that sweet crackle-and-pop DCTs pull off so well. The engine sounds good too, like a modern touring car with table manners. It’s a surprisingly deep sound for such a small engine, and it’s ever-present without becoming grating. The classic engine-dominated AMG feeling is still present here.

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Race car ride

Mercedes hasn’t taken the challenge of creating a hot hatch for the North American market lightly. Our tester has the AMG Aerodynamics package ($1,250 CAD), toughening the look with a lip spoiler, front bumper canards, and an enormous rear wing. The additions give the already-handsome A-Class shape about three serving sizes of aggression. With the tasty-looking multi-spoke 19-inch wheels fitting perfectly in the wheel wells, it looks like a race track refugee, and that impression carries over to the suspension.

The A 35’s ride is tough and nuggety even in the default setting; the $2,500 AMG Driver’s Package includes three-stage damping. Those big wheels probably don’t help, and Toronto has notoriously terrible roads, but the point remains. When we pitched the Merc against the Civic Type R last week, it was the outrageous-looking Honda that proved more pliant on city streets. We didn’t expect that either.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda Civic Type R vs 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Comparison

Thankfully, the A35 settles into its suspension tuning as the speeds rise and we get out of the city core. Out on smoother tarmac it comes together. The AWD system keeps the car’s attitude neutral through corners, sending power to the wheels that need it on these occasionally damp autumn roads. Highway driving is also smooth, even with those 19-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile rubber. During the week I had to drive the A 35 100 miles in a torrential downpour, and it was the best place to be. The car is there for you, building confidence in even the most adverse conditions.

Everyday livable

The ride might be jarring occasionally, but you’re unlikely to grow weary of the A 35’s interior. It’s not much different from other A-Class innards, but when so many of the basics are nailed as they are here, that’s more than fine. The twin-screen setup for both the instrument panel and the main infotainment is smart, and I’ve personally sung the praises of MBUX numerous times already. It’s a clever system, with super-crisp menus and multiple input methods. I’m a big fan of Merc’s tiny wheel-mounted touchpads, letting you access everything on either screen without having to take your hands off the wheel. Voice activation is present too—and just like in other vehicles, it’s very eager. Be prepared to tell it to leave you alone if you say anything close to “Mercedes”.

The rest of the interior looks and feels better than any other performance hatch on the market. The dual-level dash hides Mercedes’ ambient lighting, which was a particularly fun color-changing scheme when I picked the car up. I did the right thing and left it that way all week. The AMG steering wheel initially struck me as odd in the GLC 43, not for its flat bottom but the subtle indents at 10 and 2. It’s grown on me since, as it sits right in your palms when the car’s pointed straight ahead. The leather-and-Alcantara seats are certainly less racy than the CTR’s, finding a much more acceptable balance between looks and comfort. That’s the recurring message here: the A 35 interior is sporty, but never sacrifices everyday appeal on its mission.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 Review: Aufrecht Melcher Goldilocks

This being a hatchback, it’s also practical. The trunk will store 370 liters (13.0 cubic feet), but you can stretch that right up to 1,210 (42.7 cubes) if you drop the rear seats. Speaking of which, the second row is an acceptable place for adults. Legroom is fine for those under 6’0″, and the panoramic sunroof does let in a little bit of light just ahead. The seat base is low though.

Forbidden fruit

If you’re reading this and trying to build an equivalent to our tester on the American Mercedes-Benz site, we’ve got bad news: you can’t. The US passed on the A-Class hatch, though there is the A 35 sedan. The experience is likely similar, just with the decreased practicality of the three-box shape. Our tester rings up at an estimated $62,050 CAD—there’s no blanket country-wide destination charge—whereas the US-spec A 35 sedan begins at $46,845.

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Verdict: 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Hatchback Review

The A 35 isn’t some pretender. Don’t listen to the sneers of “not a real AMG”. It’s involving, entertaining, and mixes performance and livability in a way only hot hatches can. It loses some points for a tough inner-city ride and the need to bump up its reasonable starting price ($49,200 CAD, before destination) with necessary options. $3,200 to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto?!

If you’re looking for a hot hatch with just a little more grown-up feel—I mean it, just a little—this AWD pocket rocket is great all-rounder. Just be prepared to pay out for the privilege.

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