The Mercedes-AMG A35 Hatch Is a Golf R Rival You Can't Buy in the U.S.

·7 min read
Photo credit: Brendan McAleer
Photo credit: Brendan McAleer

From Road & Track

When you are Road & Track's European correspondent, you are tasked with reviewing the Yaris GR, which vehicle is thrilling, and exciting, and tantalizing. When you are a Canadian contributor, you get asked to cover the Hyundai Pony, which was not. Not even a little bit. But hosers take heart: we've got our own Canada-only hot hatchback up here, and it's pretty sweet, bud. Get your skates on, eh?

This is the Mercedes-AMG A35 hatchback, and if your currency is all the same green color, you can't have one. The 302 hp sedan variant of the A35 is available in the US, but the hatchback is only sold in overseas markets and Canada. It's the same situation with the AMG C43, which can be purchased in wagon form north of the 49th parallel, but not south.

The reason, somewhat boringly, is basically down to dealer supply. Because of the way Mercedes Canada manages its factory stores and franchises, dealers often stock lots of AMG models. Having the cars right there on the showroom floors leads to customers buying them (well, probably leasing them). This supply creates its own demand, with Canada having the highest AMG take-rate in the world. Roughly one in four Mercedes-Benz models sold in Canada have an AMG badge on the back.

Photo credit: Brendan McAleer
Photo credit: Brendan McAleer

This is the littlest AMG. It will doubtless increase the popularity of the breed. It is 17 kg lighter than the sedan and 13 cm shorter. Converting from the metric for you makes that 37 lbs and 0.00008 miles, if I've done it correctly.

The differences between hatch and sedan are minimal on paper, but it's nice to have the choice. Adding hatchback practicality makes the A35 a Golf R rival with nicer interior appointments, at least theoretically. From behind the wheel, it turns out Volkswagen's idea of a hot hatch is a far more buttoned down affair. But we'll get to that shortly.

First, be it resolved that the A-class looks better as a hatchback than a sedan. It just does. Mercedes' front-wheel-drive-architecture small sedans are far better than BMW's flared-nostril offerings, which look designed to trim nose hairs. But there's just something satisfying about a proper hatchback. You can get the A35 with a bigger rear wing for a dash more rally car flair, but this one's relatively subtle, sitting on thick-rimmed 18” wheels.

Subtlety is what you mostly want in a German hot hatchback. Yes, there are exceptions, such as every GTI that's been modified to look like it's just suffered catastrophic suspension failure, but visually shouting about performance is best left to the likes of the Civic Type R.

Further, the interior of the A35 promises a dash more luxury than you typically get from a Japanese performance compact car, where all the R&D money's been spent on the drivetrain. There's a trickle-down effect from Mercedes' more luxurious models, and the A35's switchgear and even the air vents are well executed.

Photo credit: Brendan McAleer
Photo credit: Brendan McAleer

The main pieces of interior theatre are the twin 10.3-inch screens atop the dash, with infotainment on the right and instrumentation on the left. Add in the MBUX voice-command system and the whole experience is slick and futuristic. In times like these, getting into a car should feel a bit like climbing into your own private escape pod, and the A35 delivers the vibe with sci-fi flair.

So hit the eject button, operated by your right foot. There's a noticeable pause. And then the A35 rockets forward on a wave of boosted 2.0-liter fury. As mentioned, there's 302 hp on offer and 295 lb-ft of torque from 3000-5000 rpm, with 60 mph coming in about 4.5 seconds. The engine is a hopped-up version of the A220's M260 four-cylinder, fitted with a twin-scroll turbocharger and an air-to-water intercooler. Shifting duties are handled by a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, with power shunted to the road at all four tires.

Taken together, these ingredients sound a bit like my daily-driver STI hatchback, albeit with a dual-clutch transmission and without the maraca band's worth of ever-present Subaru dashboard rattles. It's a recipe for a tarmac rally car with leather seats, and hopes are high as I hit the rain-slicked mountain roads.

For the most part, the A35 delivers. Redline, at 6000 rpm in full-auto and 6500 rpm in manual, seems relatively low, but that's not a real barrier to fun as power peaks at 5800 rpm. The dual-clutch shifts as quickly as in any AMG product, and the cool feel of metal paddle shifters under your fingertips is particularly satisfying.

This car is stiffened over the regular A-class, and it feels it, a chip off the ol' AMG monobloc. The steering rack is different from the standard A-class, and while it's not particularly talkative, it's very accurate. This is a small, agile car, but there's no flimsiness to it.

The all-wheel-drive system is biased to the front, but sends 50 percent of the power to the rear in the more aggressive drive modes and uses torque vectoring to improve turn-in. At pace, the A35 shrugs off the damp weather and feels secure, precise, and very, very quick.

Things start to come apart at the seams a bit as traffic builds on the way back to town. The A35 makes a decent highway cruiser, but it doesn't have the two-mode functionality of the Golf R. Even with drive modes set to their softest settings, the dual-clutch gearbox can be a bit grabby and the throttle lag and turbocharged engine occasionally conspire to have you lurching in your seat. It's all a bit unpolished, especially at lower speeds.

Photo credit: Brendan McAleer
Photo credit: Brendan McAleer

To use a hockey metaphor, as I'm required to by Canadian law, the A35 is a Brett Hull, a forward with great physicality and a laser-accurate slapshot. But it doesn't have the soft hands you need to make or catch a quick pass; it doesn't have the versatility of a playmaker. That versatility is the difference that elevates a hot hatchback to Wayne Gretzky levels. All hail the Great One.

Speaking of great ones, there's another small issue with the A35 hatch in that the A45 exists overseas. Previous to driving the A35 hatchback, I had a go in a CLA 45. I found it to be even more bonkers than I remembered. That you can get that car's 382 hp of insanity in a stubby little A-series is (a.) slightly deranged, and (b.) yes please may I have a go.

Should you lust after the forbidden hot hatch fruit of the Yaris GR? Absolutely you should. That car looks like the real deal, and I would rather have fifteen minutes driving it than an hour in a McLaren.

But should America be jealous of Canada's A35 hatch? Possibly not. The more hot hatchbacks there are the better, obviously, but the A35 isn't as well-rounded as the old Golf R was. And the new R will likely be even better.

So, for Canadians, the A35 hatchback remains an interesting drive, an accessible way to get a little dash of AMG in your life. It's recommended, with an asterisk or two. But if you're an American looking for rally car thrills with a Mercedes-AMG badge and a hatch, you might just want to skip straight to the GLA 45. You guys like your bigger portions anyway.

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