All-weather sportscar killer

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be especially excited about heading out on a rainy and miserable day behind the wheel of a performance car, compact or otherwise, with my coordinates set for some of my favourite winding country roads. But then the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 is no ordinary car.

It’s like the spiritual successor to the superb – and short-lived – Ford Focus RS, only refined to the point of near perfection. This is the kind of car that will have you talking about it in terms usually reserved for hipster hand soaps, all crafted this and infused that. It’s not just the product you’re paying for here; it’s the experience.

Styling: 10/10

With the Volkswagen Golf R on hiatus, it didn’t take long for the A 35 to cozy up into the role of sleeper hot-hatch. Subtlety reigns supreme as far as the AMG-tuned A-Class is concerned, with few visual clues to give away what’s hiding beneath its sleek sheet metal. While its wide rear hips hint at its performance prowess, the rest of the styling makes it look about as understated as they come.

One quick way to wake this fast five-door from its slumber is to add the aero pack that amps up the aesthetic aggression. It’s only the impossibly low ride height and big wheels that betray the look of a Group B rally car for the road, the fixed spoiler and rear diffuser appearing particularly pugnacious. Both are finished in black – as are the extended front lip and bumper splitters – and, when set against a contrasting colour like this tester’s Patagonia Red paint, make the A 35 positively menacing.

It’s slightly less in-your-face inside, though racing seats and red leather are available for those so inclined. Instead, the standard faux suede upholstery and red accent stitching that cloaks the seats, steering wheel, and door panels are satisfyingly subtle reminders of what this car is capable of.

Power: 10/10

That capability starts under the hood, but it certainly doesn’t end there. While boasting the same cylinder count and displacement as the engine that powers the new CLA 45 and GLA 45 models, this 2.0L turbo isn’t a hand-built affair. It is, however, quite the howler, the four-cylinder spinning up a head-turning 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.

The swiftness with which it builds combustible force belies the spec sheet, which claims peak torque comes online at a rather late 3,000 rpm and remains there through just 4,000 revs. Though that may be the case, it doesn’t account for the fact that the majority of the muscle is flexed at anything above idle and stays there until redline.

More than half that maximum torque count – 175 lb-ft, to be exact – kicks in at 1,500 rpm, which means it needs just 1,500 more to get the full serving. Throttle response is snappy enough that the tach gobbles up hash marks like Pac-Man, reaching 3,000 rpm before you know it. Better still, it barely drops from there, with upwards of 225 lb-ft of torque on tap all the way to the rev limiter.

Driving Feel: 10/10

Without the slightest hint of turbo lag to worry about, torque rushes to the pavement via all four wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Yes, you read that right: there’s only one gearbox available, and it’s not manual. Sure, that takes some of the sensation out of my claim that this is the heir apparent to the Focus RS, but it’s forgivable for at least a couple of reasons. First and foremost, neither Mercedes-Benz nor its AMG sub-brand have offered a three-pedal setup in years. If that’s not a sufficient excuse, know that this seven-speed is sublime.

It doesn’t quite make the powertrain, but it doesn’t break it either, instead acting as the lightning-quick conduit through which the engine’s potential is fully realized. Stomp on the skinny pedal and the transmission answers the call, working in tandem with the all-wheel-drive system – it can distribute torque evenly front and rear for optimal acceleration – to slingshot the five-door along whichever surface lies beneath it.

A keen eye will note that the A 35, while certainly no slouch, generates less output than the Focus RS, which made 350 each of both horsepower and torque from its 2.3L turbo motor. But this Mercedes at least manages to feel like it’s doing more with less. Whereas Ford’s hottest hatchback was almost brutish in execution, the A 35 is polished and precise. Aim the nose at a decreasing-radius turn and the car claws its way ever tighter towards the inside. Understeer simply never enters the equation, with endless amounts of grip to work with.

Even on a cool and rainy day, the Pirelli P Zero tires as hard as hockey pucks and equally as proficient at clearing water, the unflappable little AMG kept its composure with the drive mode set to sport. The impeccable electromechanical steering is crisp and direct, while the brakes – measuring 350 mm up front and 330 mm around back – provide outstanding stopping power from the top of the pedal’s travel.

Comfort: 9/10

With my tester riding on an upgraded suspension that features three-stage adjustable dampers, you’ll forgive me if I was a little pessimistic heading into my week with this particular A-Class. However, I soon discovered how surprisingly comfortable the setup is in spite of its low ride height and high spring rates. Even in their sportiest setting, the dampers do well to absorb imperfections while contributing to the A 35’s impeccable road-holding. In fact, it’s only the short rebound that would indicate this is a performance machine first and foremost.

While not bolstered to the point of excess, even the standard seats feature enough contouring to forget about the upgraded buckets Mercedes-Benz offers. Their fixed headrests help them look the part of proper racing seats while boasting the kind of cushioning that ensures they stay comfortable even after hours of driving. Front-seat ventilation is a $1,200 addition that my tester wasn’t equipped with, though the standard three-stage heat was used often.

Features: 8/10

Should ventilated seats be standard in a compact car that starts at $50,000? I’m inclined to think so, but then there are at least a few other features that are omitted from the list of standard items that should be included in the price of admission. Take Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – connectivity functions that are only offered with a $3,200 upgrade package that also includes a wireless phone charger, satellite radio, a 12-speaker stereo, blind-spot monitoring, and self-parking.

Another feature one might expect in a car like this is navigation, a $1,000 option. Otherwise, the list of standard features includes 12-way power-adjustable front seats that come heated, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system, four USB-C charging ports, interior ambient lighting, power-folding heated door mirrors, and a panoramic sunroof.

One upgrade that’s easily worth its $2,500 asking price is the AMG driver’s pack that adds those adjustable dampers, as well as 19-inch wheels (18-inch ones are standard), a performance data recording app built into the head unit, and a synthetic suede steering wheel complete with quick-access controls.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Those steering wheel controls include a dial to run through the various drive modes – comfort, sport, sport+, slippery, and individual – and a pair of customizable buttons that can be set to adjust everything from the traction control system to the suspension, and even the ignition start/stop function that shuts off the engine at idle. While the centre console houses switchgear for the majority of those features, the ability to manipulate them on the fly all without taking your hands off the steering wheel is a nice touch.

The steering wheel is where you’ll also find controls for the infotainment system, as well as the 10.25-inch digital display that replaces a conventional gauge cluster. Both are simple enough to adjust to, with touch-sensitive controls to swipe around in the same manner you would with an old BlackBerry Bold (seriously, though, I’m not convinced the optical trackpads aren’t the same ones found on that old smartphone). And while the central display uses a touchscreen, a touchpad controller is found on the console, too.

That’s the only place you’ll find a physical tune function, and even then it requires a rather ridiculous press-and-swipe sequence in order to cycle through songs or radio stations. It’s but one way this cabin feels like the place where the brand’s past, present, and future collide in an occasionally confusing manner. The redundant console controller, a throwback to the days before Mercedes used touchscreens, runs counter to the technology that fills the space inside, as does the augmented reality display built into the optional navigation system that can otherwise look outdated.

Then there’s the problem of the both smartphone mirroring systems feeling like afterthoughts, failing to stretch to the outer edges of the infotainment screen. Considering Kia’s system uses the entire widescreen display in vehicles like the Seltos for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it’s disappointing Mercedes couldn’t manage to do the same here.

Practicality: 9/10

Frustrating functionality aside, the A 35 is a useful little hauler. It doesn’t dial back its performance persona quite as well as the Golf R, always feeling eager to have some fun, but Mercedes has managed to make good use of the space inside. Again, it’s not quite as roomy as any version of the Volkswagen Golf, but fitting four adults in the cabin for a weekend road trip won’t take any kind of contortion, while the trunk is big enough to stash stuff in the back without leaving anything behind. The rear seats also split in a 40/20/40 pattern so longer items can ride inside without cutting into passenger capacity, while the roof features mounting points for accessories like bike racks and cargo boxes.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Anyone that can resist the urge to toss the A 35 around at every opportunity will manage to do better than I did at the pumps after a week-long test. My final tally came in at exactly 11.0 L/100 km after 595 km of flogging – er, driving – around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in late fall. While neither Mercedes-Benz Canada nor Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) provides fuel consumption estimates for the A-Class, its appetite for 91-octane fuel makes it an expensive car to drive every day.

Safety: 8/10

My sentiment about the Toyota Supra applies here, too: while I applaud automakers like Mercedes-Benz for developing and deploying advanced safety systems, performance cars like this simply aren’t the place for them. If there’s one place I want to remain unencumbered by beeping and flashing sensors – not to mention the extra weight that comes with them – it’s behind the wheel of something predicated upon fun. I’m also acutely aware that the A 35 is far more likely than a Supra to be used as a daily driver, and so having such features at the ready makes it all the more appealing to a wider audience.

While few of them are standard – blind-spot monitoring and automatic emergency braking up front make this list of what’s included – plenty can be added for a price. The government-mandated rearview camera can be upgraded to a surround-view unit for $650, while a $1,900 package adds lane-keep assist and all sorts of pre-collision systems. It also includes features like an assist function that will change lanes on the highway without driver intervention, but it only works with the optional adaptive cruise control that’s included in a separate $1,600 package.

Value: 7/10

Those advanced safety upgrades have the unfortunate side effect of pushing the price of the Mercedes-AMG A 35 ever higher, smashing to smithereens its value proposition in the process. Because believe it or not, this hotted-up hatchback is pretty competitively priced. Paying a shade less than $50,000 before fees and taxes might seem like a lot, but that’s not much more than the MSRP of a Honda Civic Type R. Then consider that, while the Type R’s performance is unquestioned, it doesn’t feel like much more than a Honda Civic hatchback with red seats inside (mostly because it isn’t).

In contrast, the A 35 looks and feels like something special the moment you slip inside, not to mention when you’re pushing it through a switchback or blasting down a country road. It’s well worth what Mercedes wants to charge you for it, but all the extras add up quick. Take my tester, for instance: with its exterior styling packages and various upgrades, the asking price ballooned to $60,050 – and it didn’t include any advanced driver aids, or ventilated seats.

The Verdict

As far as I’m concerned, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 is an all-around outstanding car. Where the Ford Focus RS was rather brash, this Mercedes-badged successor is polished without losing any of the fun in the process. It also feels endlessly usable, with an ideal amount of engine output that pairs so well with the rest of the package.

This easily counts among the best cars I’ve driven all year, though the price tag looms large. It’s worth every penny of its base price, but the cost grows quickly once you start to add extras – including at least a few that should probably be standard equipment. But if you’re able to look beyond the bottom line, what you’ll find is one of the most well-rounded performance cars on the market today.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Hatchback
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $49,200
Peak Horsepower 302 hp @ 5,800 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 295 lb-ft @ 3,000–4,000 rpm   Destination Fee N/A
Fuel Economy N/A   Price as Tested $60,150
Cargo Space 370 / 1,210 L seats up/down  
Optional Equipment
$10,850 – Premium Package, $3,200; AMG Driver’s Package, $2,500; Patagonia Red Metallic Paint, $1,400; AMG Aerodynamics Package, $1,250; AMG Night Package, $1,000; Navigation, $1,000; 19-inch AMG Multi-Spoke Wheels, $500