Looking on cars more fondly in sunnier climes is as inescapable as it is predictable; probably shouldn't happen, all too often does. Same happens with food, same most certainly happens (and will continue to happen) with people - guilty as we all must surely be charged...
Anyway, that's for another time. Point being that now there's no escape for the most junior AMG now available, the A35, because the autumnal Majorcan warmth of last month has been swapped for north east Scotland. In January. In the dark. With a shovel in the boot, supplies in the door bins and emergency numbers on hand. It doesn't feel so much test drive as regulation rally.
Still, fading light in an airport car park might be best for the A35; even on 19-inch wheels and with a very expensive paint option it packs neither the drama of the class's more overt alternatives or the effortless cohesion found among its German-built contemporaries. Or not to these eyes, at least. Some may appreciate the potency cloaked in subtlety vibe, though there's surely an argument to say it verges on plain. The lack of razzmatazz seems all the more conspicuous when you consider the (as tested here) £48,000 price. Yes, really.
Still, if razzmatazz is what you're after, the A-Class interior is where it's to be found. Now certainly, the cabin requires some getting used to, the incredible screens are part of a £4k option pack, and the MBUX voice recognition pipes up incessantly - don't dare talk about other Mercedes with your passenger in here, for example. But in contrast to the bleakness outside, the A-Class interior is a joy: modern, innovative and sufficiently luxurious as well.
Features like the virtual reality sat-nav are genuinely futuristic (and useful), important stuff like the gearbox paddles feel very expensive and the sense of occasion - for what is ostensibly a Golf rival - is fantastic. Again, as should be expected for so much money, but don't underestimate the appeal of shock and awe interiors when so much of UK driving is so tedious. And when social media showing off is so important.
What about when it's not tedious, though? Well, one thing is for certain: those buyers who believe they're getting an A45 or the cheap here, or the de facto replacement for the old '45, are most certainly not in luck. The A35 isn't bad - in some areas it's really very good indeed - but it's most certainly (and clearly) been devised to allow an amount of headroom for the A45 to slot into above.
Examples? The engine. This is not a detuned M133, that monster of a four-cylinder found in the A-Class flagship. Instead it's a more powerful version of the A250's 'M260' 2.0-litre turbo, making the same sort of power that all its direct rivals do. And it's a perfectly good engine, in the way that most of these 2.0-litre turbocharged units are perfectly good, albeit lacking the rabid edge that defined - and hopefully will continue to define - the range-topping motor. It's brisk enough in the A35 to keep pace with everything you hope it would, but not sufficiently fast that anyone with experience of the more senior engine will sit up and take note. Which is understandable, though still a tad disappointing.
Its sense of impressive if not inspiring quality extends to the way the A35 tackles a road. By and large it's really very good, while lacking one stand-out feature - see the old 6.2-litre V8, for example - that used to characterise AMG products, or the fearsome (yet characterful) completeness that now does. It very much aims for the new school, offering a smorgasbord of driving modes and settings, yet arguably without the conviction and compelling ability of the very best in the AMG range.
The ride is the perfect representation of this. Like the facelifted version of the A45, this A35 is optionally offered with adaptive damping in two modes - Comfort and Sport. Nothing unfamiliar there. Nothing unfamiliar, either, about a pretty resolute firmness in either mode at low speed that translates to good control at higher speeds. But that uncanny steeliness of body control that was found in the A45, the ability to shrug of anything at any speed, isn't here - high though the limits are, they are discoverable, and consequently the car never provides quite the same peerless level of confidence.
While the effect will have certainly been exacerbated by winter tyres, the A35 in this instance also lacked the incisive and genuinely eager change of direction that was present in its big brother. The response from the wheel is measured and consistent, though a touch more alertness wouldn't go amiss. Combine that with an all-wheel drive system that allows some wheelspin before transferring any power back and the process can feel a little - if not plain - then not all that AMG. That doesn't mean ludicrous oversteer, either; it means a sense of purpose and of methodical development, as evident in a C63 as it is in a G63.
It's not all doom and gloom, of course. Beyond the cabin, there are most certainly other good points to tot up. The latest dual-clutch transmission feels a world away from those early '45s, clean and crisp in its changes up and down. The brake pedal, always a highlight in AMG A Classes, is fantastic here; firm, accurate and markedly better than found in typically numb, grabby VWs. The A35 sounds great as well, angry but also authentic and with enough silliness to not feel overdone.
Furthermore, intangible and difficult to explain though it may be, there's a lot to be said for a car that makes its drive feel safe and secure - while also allowing them to travel quite quickly - on an unknown country road somewhere near Aberdeen, during January. In the dark. Meganes and the like are fantastic, though never underestimate the appeal of stability done well.
Despite all that, it's impossible to escape the impression that the A35 feels more Mercedes-Benz than it does AMG. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given the manifest quality and ability present in the regular product. But it does mean that there's little to distinguish the car; it lacking a remarkable engine or a notable piece of dynamic technology - not unlike a BMW M140i, another model above the mainstream, yet short on star quality. The trouble for the Mercedes (as distinct from the BMW) is that it's been badged as an AMG, and therefore has to be judged by a higher standard.
So no, the A35 is not a jump-the-queue option for those desperately hankering after a new A45. We'd expect more from that car in terms of powertrain excitement and chassis quality, regardless of what Mercedes says about the two cars' commonalities. No surprise there, really, given that around £10k will surely separate them. Truthfully, the more interesting discussion involves the segment's better established options. Because, let's be honest, anybody considering a car as demure as the A-Class (without the aero pack, granted), would never countenance something as wild as a Civic Type R, great car though it is. Both Audi S3 and VW Golf R, despite facelifts, are now five years old, and the BMW M140i even older still. None is the last word in adjustability, poise or entertainment - and all are second to the AMG's interior comforts.
So the A35 is far from a bad car; it's just wearing a badge that its abilities can't quite do justice to - which says as much about the regard that contemporary AMG cars are held in as anything else. Obviously it has been built to cater for those at a lower price point, and while it does that job well enough, it feels nothing more (or less) than its halfway house positioning would suggest. That it won't be received as a cult AMG hero will be of little consequence to Mercedes; should it remain the right side of £40k - if you're careful with those options - it dutifully ensures that the three-pointed star is now a credible option for more hot hatch buyers than ever before. But it also suggests that best of AMG is still very much to come.
SPECIFICATION | 2020 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
Price: £35,580 (price as tested £48,045 comprised of AMG Advanced Navigation Package for £1,295, AMG Style Package for £2,595, Premium Plus Package for £3,895, Mountain Grey Magno paint for £1,795, AMG Ride Control suspension for £695, Driving Assistance Package for £1,695 and Advanced Connectivity package for £495).
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