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road test

The 2021 Mercedes-AMG A35.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Founded in 1967 by Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, AMG is a storied brand with a history of building some of the wildest machines to hit the road. But since Mercedes brought the former speed shop under its corporate umbrella 15 years ago, Mercedes has been squeezing the AMG badge for everything it’s worth. Where AMG was once a rare delicacy, now it is a sort of seasoning to be sprinkled on every vehicle in the Mercedes portfolio.

Occasionally, the approach can feel a little ludicrous, as with the GLS63, which is basically an elephant in running shoes. However, at the opposite end of the market is the A35 hatchback, a Canada-only offering that promises fiery flavour in a tiny package. It’s basically My First AMG.

AMG takes the A-class hatchback, one of Mercedes’s freshest models, and cranks up the boost. Power rises to 302 horsepower thanks to a larger turbocharger, and the chassis is suitably stiffened to handle the extra power. A seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox snaps off extremely rapid shifts, and a clever all-wheel-drive system gets all that power to the ground.

Select one of the more aggressive driving modes, and the A35 is one spicy little German meatball. It’s quicker than even the specification list would suggest and surefooted when the going gets slippery.

The A35 is impressively quick and surefooted.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The steering is Mercedes-level light but extremely precise, and the whole car feels more solid than you’d expect from its small footprint. The AMG recipe feels concentrated here, crisp reflexes and and a torque-rich engine in a small, well-made package.

The only real issue with the A35 is that it appears to offer something of an old-school AMG approach. Most of the vehicles that wear the Mercedes-AMG badge have a split personality; they can offer either wafting luxury or corner-carving excellence, depending which button you press.

The A35 doesn’t. At an accelerated pace on a curving backroad, it is endless fun and feels quicker than even more powerful offerings from the AMG range. Back in the real world, it lurches unhappily, the seven-speed automatic transmission occasionally banging through a hard shift and the turbocharged engine sometimes slow to respond to the throttle.

As a true German hot hatch, the A35 is visually subtle, able to blend in in a parking lot.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

As a hot hatch, it doesn’t quite have the flexibility you’d expect from something like a Golf R. The luxury and technology is all here on the inside, with finely crafted materials and an ultra-modern high-resolution screen crossing the dashboard. But the drivetrain has a feel of Teutonic hot-rod to it, slightly high-strung and unable to calm down.

More polish is needed. Or is it? The regular A250 is plenty quick enough for those looking for a snappy hatchback with more genteel manners. Perhaps it’s actually a boon that the A35 is always on the boil.

If you’re looking for an entry point to the AMG badge, then the A35 is a diamond in the rough. It has all the quickness you’d hope for but comes with sharp edges. Not everyone will love its day-to-day behaviour, but Hans and Erhard would approve.

Tech specs

2021 Mercedes-AMG A35

The A35 is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

  • Base price: $49,800
  • Price as tested: $53,000
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four
  • Transmission/drive: seven-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100kms; city/hwy): TBD
  • Alternatives: Golf R, Audi S3

Looks

A more aggressive aerodynamics package is available for the A35, but part of the appeal of a German hot hatchback is its ability to not stand out in a parking lot. Sitting on 18-inch wheels, the A35 is quite subtle. No one needs know of your need for speed.

Interior

The interior of the A-Class features high-quality materials and switchgear.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Despite being the entry-level model in the Mercedes range, the A-Class is actually nicer inside than some of its more expensive stablemates. All the switchgear and materials used here are very high-quality, and the twin 10.3-inch screens on the dashboard offer high-resolution futurism.

Performance

The A35 feels quick and rock-solid.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The A35 offers the kind of power levels you’d expect in a compact performance car, but there’s a bit more substance to it. Compared to the already fairly rigid A250, chassis stiffness has been increased through added welds and unique suspension pieces. The result is a car that feels rock-solid despite its small size. Paired with turbocharged power and all-wheel-drive capable of adding torque to an outside wheel to sharpen cornering, the A35 is very quick indeed.

Technology

The A35 gets the same array of technology features as Mercedes's flagship S-Class.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The A35 features Mercedes’s new MBUX voice-recognition system, which responds to conversational prompts. Hands-free operation of everything from climate control to audio is much easier than it was with the old COMAND system. This is the same level of technology offered on the top-of-the-range S-Class.

Cargo

The hatchback allows for more cargo flexibility.Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Canadians have the option of choosing the A35 in either sedan or hatchback form (it’s only sold as a sedan in the U.S.). The sedan has 420 litres of seats-up capacity as compared to the hatchback’s 370 litres, but the hatchback configuration is a lot more flexible.

The verdict

An espresso-sized serving of AMG fury, but includes some everyday jitters.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

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