Reasonable is not a big thing at Mercedes-AMG, a maker of 603-hp station wagons and, not long ago, exotic six-wheeled G-wagen off-roaders. Which has made its foray down-market into more affordable luxury segments a curious development to watch. That move started in earnest in 2014 with its original “45-series” models—the CLA45 sedan and GLA45 crossover—both of which brought, for the first time, AMG’s “one man, one engine” philosophy for hand-assembled powerplants to a four-cylinder engine. Yet, those first 45s also had the rough edges that you’d expect to find in hard-core sport compacts that had been turbocharged to the heavens.
Fast forward to today, and AMG’s two compact hot rods have entered their second generation and gained enough refinement (and size) in the process to move up a notch in the brand’s hierarchy—which is a good thing considering both can top $70K with options. In their place at the bottom of the lineup is a new range of “35-series models,” including a CLA35 and new-for-2021 GLB35 crossover, but we’re focusing on the even smaller A35 sedan here. Benefitting from the developments found in Benz’s latest A-class, plus a $45,945 starting price and a moderately powerful factory-built engine, the A35 is AMG’s rather rational take on an entry-luxury sports sedan.
That formula starts with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four that makes 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque—stout but not as looney as the 382-hp CLA45. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission quickly and smoothly manages the power, at least until you pull to a stop, which can occasionally elicit a clunky downshift or two. Relax in the Comfort drive mode, and the A35 sounds almost subdued as it burbles around in casual driving. Steady cruising at 75 mph, as on our highway fuel-economy test route, returns 34 mpg, which is 3 mpg better than the EPA reckons for highway duty. Sure-footed stability is ever-present with the standard 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, which generally operates in front-wheel drive but can shift 50 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels as needed.
But uncork the A35 in its Sport Plus mode, and it can launch its 3513 pounds to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds. That AMG’s entry-level sedan runs 12s in the quarter-mile—12.9 seconds at 109 mph to be exact—is a sign that much is still right in the universe. Driven aggressively, the A35’s exhaust takes on a raspier tone with sharp, mechanical snorts accompanying full-throttle upshifts. Load up the direct but not overly quick steering, and the A35 changes direction with impressive assertiveness. While it lacks the CLA45’s torque-vectoring rear differential and available rear-drive Drift mode, the A35 feels nimble and utterly planted as it powers out of tight corners. Shod with our test car’s optional 235/35R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires (18s with all-seasons are standard), there’s enough stick to post an excellent 0.99 g on the skidpad and a 161-foot stop from 70 mph.
The A35 shares its platform and its 107.4-inch wheelbase with the second-generation CLA yet is about five inches shorter overall. You’re more likely to notice its roughly two-inch-narrower width, which makes its cockpit feel more intimate. But there’s still ample room to get comfortable in AMG’s standard sport seats (more supportive performance thrones cost up to $3290), and its back seat is relatively accommodating for a compact car, thanks in part to an upright greenhouse that lends the A-class a conventional three-box sedan profile with decent headroom. Despite the disciplined body control brought by our test car’s $850 AMG Ride Control sport suspension and adaptive dampers, the ride is fairly smooth on most roads. Traversing larger bumps and freeway expansion joints, however, had us bracing for impacts that sent jolts reverberating through the structure.
There’s also more road noise at higher speeds than we’d like in a Mercedes; it’s louder than its 72-decibel, 70-mph cruise suggests. And the less-than-intuitive touchpad controls of the A35’s MBUX infotainment system—with dual 10.3-inch instrument cluster and center-stack screens, upsized from the A-class’s standard 7.0-inchers—requires some acclimation. Yet, if the new S-class is anything to go by, a full touchscreen interface will be the way forward for Mercedes. While some of the A-class’s interior materials aren’t as posh as you’d find in a C- or E-class, there’s little else to complain about. The A35’s upscale ambiance is in sync with its price point—the $400 AMG Drive Unit controls on the $600 AMG Performance steering wheel are a welcome ergonomic touch in hard driving. There’s also plenty of active-safety tech available with the $2250 Driver Assistance package, which was absent on our test car.
We’d have to drive the A35 back to back with the mechanically similar CLA35 to say for certain if the latter is worth its $2275 higher base price. But even at our example’s as-tested $52,705, the A35 makes a compelling case for an exciting and affordably priced compact luxury sports sedan. We’d still prefer a bit more refinement, and AMG’s more powerful CLA45 and C43 sedans are a short stretch away, with starting prices around $55K. But that’s the point of the A35. It may be reasonable for an AMG, but its shortcomings also cultivate the temptation to step up to something higher up the ladder within AMG’s tightly packed lineup.
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