My dinner companion was convulsed while I explained the role of the Wallace and Gromit’s A35 van in Nick Park’s animated capers. Then he chortled at the thought of diminutive A35 saloons racing at the Goodwood Revival, or James Hunt’s A35 van, which the 1976 Formula One World Champion chose to drive in preference to his extravagant, 6.9-litre Mercedes 450SEL.
He also scoffed when I pointed out how important the little A35 was in those pre-Mini days. Produced by Austin in England between 1956 and 1968, it was designed by Argentinean Ricardo Burzi, Longbridge head of styling, inspired by the drawings of Holden Koto of Raymond Loewy’s industrial design group.
These two were absolutely top-flight designers, more than the equal of any one working at Mercedes, yet my companion’s sense of history deserted him at this point. He simply was not going to acknowledge the tiny car from which his company has lifted the name for its new hot hatchback, the Mercedes-AMG A35.
In fact he almost failed to acknowledge his company’s previous attempt at the genre, the A45, a four-wheel-drive sledgehammer.
This memory lapse might be more forgivable, however, since of chassis balance, fine steering, delicate manners and the finesse shown by hot-hatch rivals such as Renault’s Mégane RS, VW’s Golf GTI, or R Honda’s Civic Type R, Ford’s Focus ST or RS, or Seat’s Leon Cupra, there was no sign.
So now they are having another go, with less power, but still driving all four wheels. Did they consider just driving the fronts?
“Maybe for two or three seconds,” said Andreas Meyer, vehicle development chief. “It is lighter and cheaper, for sure, but we don’t just use 4x4 for traction at the corner exits, it’s the entrance to the corners as well; 4x4 stabilises the car.”
Rene Szczepek, AMG’s driving dynamics engineer, considers the same question. “It’s a powerful car, we are selling it to lots of young people and 4x4 is safer,” he says.
So that’s it. They’ve popped a Borg Warner twin-scroll turbo atop the M260, four-cylinder, 2.0-litre engine which normally sits across the front of the A250. This yields 302bhp and 295lb ft of torque. They’ve also revised the seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission, case-hardening the first three gears and changing the control software. Power goes to the front wheels and via a conventional propellor shaft to a multi-plate clutch in an oil bath and an open rear differential. Normally this is a front-drive car, with the clutches sending up to 50 per cent of torque rearward when conditions dictate. All torque vectoring and the stability control is done via the brakes.
The result is a top speed limited to 155mph, 0-62mph in 4.7sec, an EU Combined fuel consumption of 38.7mpg (though we averaged 14.2mpg during spirited driving around mountain roads) and CO2 emissions of 167g/km. It’s on sale for delivery this spring, with prices starting at £35,580.
While there's a rumoured replacement A45 on the way, this is most definitely not a warm hatch, a fact born out when we start up in the small Majorcan fishing village, where the booming exhaust echoed off the walls. With big air intakes, a huge roof spoiler and rubber band Pirelli P Zeros stretched over 19-inch rims, the appearance is a lairy as the exhaust note, although the front of the car is fussy rather than handsome.
The cabin basics are pretty good, with comfortable and supportive seats, and a decent driving position awaiting those with patience with the seat and steering wheel adjustment. But it's crammed full of AMG's touchstones, which isn't a good thing. You'd struggle to improve the appearance of the high-spec A-class facia, and in places the AMG stuff looks just fussy, particularly the nasty plastic steering wheel switches to activate ever-more super driving dynamics and stiffen the dampers.
The dash has Mercedes's twin 12.3-in screens though the graphics are AMG's own. These include cliched Gran Turismo-style flickering bar graphs showing how much throttle you're using and how much torque is left, and a side-force indicator to tell you how hard you are cornering, athough why you'd be looking at these when you are driving so hard is beyond me.
The suspension has been given a workover that wouldn't seem out of place on a Seventies special saloon. There's a hefty alloy sump guard strengthening the chassis, plus separate front bracing bars, with offset springs for the front MacPherson-struts with stronger top mounts, stiffer track rod ends, negative scrub radius geometry and solid steering rack mounts.
The less compromised independent multi-link rear suspension gets attention to springs and dampers, with spherical bearings instead of rubber. You've got to love AMG's engineers, who leave no part unmodified, but it soon becomes clear this car hasn't been set up on the pot-holed, slippery roads of Majorca - or Britain.
On a dry road, even in the softest setting it feels as though the dampers have been welded up and mid-corner bumps brutally expose the spectacularly sharp bump stops. The nose much prefers to travel straight on in fast corners, though in the more extreme chassis settings electronics will trail-brake the inside wheel into a corner to pull the nose in.
This works reasonably, if crudely, on open, dry roads, but when it gets wet and slippery you find that one minute the electronics are pulling on the brakes trying to make the car oversteer into the corner, and the next those same electronics are pulling on the brakes trying to create understeer and prevent the car from spinning.
It's clumsily counterproductive; a conclusion tacitly acknowledged by one AMG engineer, who told me: “There is a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of electronic stability braking and torque-vectoring electronics.” Actually it just feels quite hairy.
And control isn't helped by the super-heavy steering, with absurdly over-eager self-centring in the sport chassis settings, which made my wrists ache after an hour at the wheel. Nor is there much in the way of steering feedback and the electronic assistance does some pretty weird things at times, although turning off the lane-keeping assistance makes it feel slightly less robotic.
Clearly the A35 is aimed at the market created by the Volkswagen Golf R, with its 306bhp engine, four-wheel drive and slightly cheaper price. In that respect you can see what AMG was trying to do, but while there's little doubting the A35's chassis balance and finesse is a huge improvement over the A45, it's not a patch on the better ride, more adjustable chassis and far more instinctive steering feel of the VW.
Despite its evident shortcomings (and high price), it's likely that the Mercedes-AMG A35 will sell by the bucket-load. But I wonder which A35, old or new, history will recall in the most favourable terms.
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 17/01/2019 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.
Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic
TESTED 1,991cc four-cylinder petrol turbo, seven-speed twin-clutch semi-automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £35,580/spring
POWER/TORQUE 302bhp @ 5,800-6,100rpm/295lb ft @ 3,000-4,000rpm
TOP SPEED 155mph (electronically limited)
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 4.7sec
FUEL ECONOMY 38.7mpg (EU Combined)
CO2 EMISSIONS 167g/km
VED £515 first year, then £140
VERDICT Was Mercedes aiming to create a warm hatch version of the acclaimed new A-class? If it did, it failed; performance fiends will love the looks and the performance, but against some highly accomplished rivals the A35 comes across as over-wrought and lacking in finesse.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five