Mercedes-AMG's top execs had expected the A45 to sell well, but apparently not to be such a storming sales success. Sure, a £40k hatch was always going to appeal to a younger demographic and bring in buyers the larger, pricier AMGs couldn't. However not even Affalterbach's most optimistic statisticians had expected the A45 to lead AMG's most significant growth period and sell twice as quickly as first thought. Turns out the average A45 buyer was 10 years younger than those interested in AMG's other models.
Confidence in the appeal of a four-cylinder AMG is therefore high as the launch of the second-generation A45 approaches, but it wasn't an easy decision for AMG to launch an even cheaper version in order to continue the sales growth. This is a division synonymous with high performance and luxury, so the development of a new entry-level model always brings with it risks to image and brand value. AMG also makes the near-£150k GT R, after all. And, well, Renault Sport does not, to be blunt.
But the success of models like the Volkswagen Golf R - another performance car that's achieved far more than its maker predicted - meant the lure of the lower end of the super hatch segment was too great to resist. Plus, with prices for the next A45 expected to edge towards £45k and its power output set to surpass 400hp, there was a growing window of opportunity for a new version to sneak in.
Step forward the A35: a £35,580, 306hp take on the four-cylinder AMG formula that will go head to head with the Golf R (as well as, by association, the Audi S3), while also serving as an all-wheel drive alternative to the likes of BMW's M140i and perhaps even Honda's Civic Type R. AMG says it's a different beast to the A45 - this burgeoning sector of the market already has some really good options for a driving enthusiast, so offering first-gen-A45-like handling with less power would risk leaving AMG's new contender looking a little boring. "Fun" is a term in constant use at the A35's launch.
AMG has at least been presented with a sleeker, more rigid A-Class platform to work with this time around; the A35 builds on this further with an aluminium shear panel beneath the engine and two additional diagonal braces to really stiffen things up. The chassis itself is made up of MacPherson strut suspension and weight-reducing aluminium wishbones up front, set with unique axle geometry to boost steering response. At the back, there's a four-link axle while, as before, adaptive damping is optional (for £695).
Much of the above setup will almost certainly be shared with the A45 - engineers even hint that the chassis setting parameters will be the same or at least very, very similar - meaning the biggest difference between the two hatch variants will be the engine. The A35 uses a twin-scroll turbocharged 2.0-litre four-pot like the A45, but it's essentially a revised version of Mercedes' M260 engine, as used by the A250, rather than the old A45's M133. The closest ties to the A45 are in its die-cast aluminium crankcase and shared bore and stroke measurements.
On the winding country roads of the Majorcan test route, it certainly doesn't feel lacking in power. Unsurprisingly it never offers the ballistic performance of the old 381hp A45, but you'd be hard pressed to describe the A35 as anything less than rapid. Torque peaks at 295lb ft between 3,000-4,000rpm so you can lean on the mid-range to boost out of corners, but you're also rewarded higher up the rev range - at 5,800-6,100rpm, to be exact - when peak power is channelled into the tarmac through the swift-acting seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Given that traction was somewhat unrelenting in the more potent old A45, it's no surprise to feel that 306hp certainly is not enough to break the bond between rubber and tarmac beneath the A35. Not even an armful of lock and heavy right foot can trigger a Focus RS-like corner exit out of tight hairpins. That's the inevitable result of a 4Matic system that sends no more than 50 per cent of torque to the rear axle.
Where's the fun in that, you ask? Well, it's not exactly boring to be slingshot from hairpin to hairpin at this pace - honestly, it feels little else this side of a Porsche 911 Turbo S could do a more effective job. But yes, despite that, the driver will never feel as engaged as in something a little more - how best to phrase it - adjustable; it's very much a turn where you want to go and smash the right pedal jobbie. Things are a little more involving on corner turn in, where the front end gives its driver - even when surface conditions include patches of moisture - bags of confidence to really make use of the quick reacting steering. Like the old A45, the A35 can't provide your palms with much in the way of feel, but perhaps that's as much to do with the fact grip never really diminishes on the road.
Even after a downpour the nose remains predictable, and it takes an aggressive turn of the wheel with a closed throttle (or a trailed brake) to unlock some movement from the rear. Yet, even in this circumstance, it never fully lets go, instead allowing only a degree or so of rotation in the hunt for mechanical bite, asking for little more than a small corrective input from its driver. As such, cross country pace in all weathers would be as good as the very fastest road cars, but not even that nicely hooked up front axle can leave you giggling with excitement like you might in something less straitlaced from Japan or France. Nevertheless, much of the A35's appeal will be in its ease of use, so that easy to manage pace will be a big plus for many - as it was with the A45.
Surprisingly for a hatch that sits on 19-inch alloy wheels (part of the £2,595 styling package that also adds a rear wing), the junior AMG rides nicely - although Majorcan tarmac is very fine indeed. In the harshest Sport+ mode, the A35 felt composed and confident with very limited body roll. It took a jaunt off piste onto ageing, cracked village surfaces to reveal a slight lack in vertical body control in Comfort and short, unforgiving bump stop travel in Sport and Sport+. As is always said, ride remains something to test again when we get an A35 in Britain.
Elsewhere, the A35's kit is familiar, and you can bet most if not all of it'll be handed up to the following A45. The cabin is dominated by Mercedes' latest MBUX multimedia system with two seven-inch displays, a laptop-style touchpad and a (rather cool) augmented reality function when the sat-nav's on. The system's intuitive and quick to respond, although, like a lot of high-tech systems, requires more attention to navigate through the menus. The voice activation tech (it can be activated by saying "Hey Mercedes") is therefore very useful if you want to change the sat-nav route when you are, er, exploring the limits of grip on offer.
All things considered, this places the A35 in a very strong position - one that should leave us in no doubt that the sound of a 2.0-litre AMG will become ever more present on roads. For buyers intent on the most dynamic, engaging experience, Affalterbach's new junior model is unable to affect the status quo - no doubt the A45 will aim to emphatically occupy that niche in time. For other buyers, however, those intent on getting an AMG party bag of power, pace and quality that hitherto hasn't existed, they will find a lot to like in this A35.
SPECIFICATION - MERCEDES-AMG A35
Engine: 1,991cc, 4 cyls, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch
Torque(lb ft): 295@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 secs
Top speed: 155mph