It's not a very PH-y car, the A35, is it? In fact, it came as something of a surprise to hear they'd put it back into production. After all, you'd think its safety standards would prohibit such a thing these days. Even so, it's hard to see quite how it earned its place on the pages of PH; a top speed of 72mph and a 0-60mph time of 30.1 seconds hardly mean 'speed matters'. Mind you, to be fair, there were some pretty hot racing A35s back in the day, so maybe...
Eh? What's that? You meant the Merc, not the Austin? Right. Oh yes. Of course you did. The Mercedes-AMG A35 we tested last month, in fact, which Mr Bird can confirm is categorically not an Austin. It's not the full-fat A-Class either; that's still to come. Instead - as the name ought to suggest to anyone not familiar with BMC's back catalogue - the A35 is AMG trying not quite so hard to rip the hot hatch concept from its moorings, as it did with the dearly departed A45.
That car, lest we forget, had 381hp and a licence to do terrible things with your jowls as it careened about the place. The A35's mission is less overtly dramatic because the competition is less so. Whereas big brother had the Audi RS3 in its crosshairs, the new model is all about taking the fight to the VW Group's other all-wheel-drive hot hatch: the buttoned-down and seriously big-selling Golf R. Consequently it starts from £35,580, which buys you 306hp from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, a seven-speed twin-clutch 'box and sub-5-seconds-to-62mph spiritedness.
Of course the immediate chink in that full bodykit of armour is the fact that its direct rival has already been around for yonks, and £17,790 is more than enough to net you a range-topping Golf like this one. It's a 2014 car with 42,000 miles on the clock, and while it is clearly not as shiny inside as the A35, the similarities elsewhere are striking. Both major in outright poke and all-weather capability; both feature sober good looks and the practicality that comes with five doors. But one will cost you half as much as the other.
Job done, then. Well, yes, but isn't the Golf a bit... obvious? Surely we can find something a little more entertaining? Like this BMW M135i, for example. It's a post-facelift model, which means it gets a smidge more power - 326hp to the older car's 320hp - and while it doesn't boast class-leading agility, its rear-drive balance and lyrical six-pot engine mean it feels heaps more invigorating than the Golf. What it must do without, of course, is the all-weather ability that comes with four-wheel drive. This, then, is not a car that can do all things as well as the A35 - even allowing for the few things it would claim to do better.
What to do, then? Settle for the Golf R as our half-price hero this week? Or... think outside the box? Naturally the latter is much more fun, not least because that's where we found this Audi RS4. It's 12 - count 'em - years old, it's done 83,000 miles, and it's a size up from the A35. In short, it's not really a like-for-like alternative at all.
But bear with us, because there's method to our madness. This RS4 might be old, but it's about as cheap as it's going to get. For sure, this is no investment purchase, but it's hard to imagine B7 RS4s slipping much further than they have done; chances are the value of this one will sit on its plateau for a while - which is, needless to say, not what will happen to a brand-new A35's residual.
Yes, there is the prospect of a hefty repair bill or two. Or five. That much we don't dispute. It's true, too, that the 20-ish MPG you'd get from the Audi is... well, let's just say it's considerably worse than the 38.7mpg of the Merc. But it'd take an awful lot of repair and fuel bills to make up the £18,630 deficit between the two cars. And look at what you get. For starters, there's a V8; a really proper one with a proper soundtrack. That four-wheel drive system is rear-biased, too, which makes the RS4 an absolute hoot to drive; let's not forget that this generation is widely revered as the best of the breed - and for good reason.
The power of that engine means the RS4 will more-or-less match the A35 to 62mph, too, despite its extra weight. And we haven't even started on practicality, in which the RS4 is leagues ahead, thanks to its proper, estate-shaped boot. It's Sprint Blue on the outside; inside you get an Exclusive tan leather interior with carbon inserts - a circumstance you'll undoubtedly have a view on, but it does at least make this example a little different to the norm.
As a purely maths-based Trade-Off, it is a weeny bit tough to make it properly stack up against the A35, we'll grant you. But crikey, it doesn't half tug at the heart. If you're feeling just the right kind of daft, it feels almost note-perfect - and while you'd lack the mod-cons of the Merc, the noise of that V8 would surely be enough to make up for them. Besides, when we set out today, it was to find alternatives to an Austin A35. A 12-year-old RS4 is at least much closer to the brief than that.
SPECIFICATION - MERCEDES-AMG A35
Engine: 1,991cc, 4 cyl, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@5,800-6,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@3,000-4,000rpm
Top speed: 155mph
SPECIFICATION - AUDI RS4
Engine: 4,163cc V8, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 420@7,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 317@5,500rpm
Top speed: 155mph