All hail the hatchback

From the October 2020 print edition

Long live the hot hatch.

It’s a sentiment that’s largely falling on deaf ears these days. Cars of all kinds, including this all-new 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic hatchback, make up only 20 percent of the automotive market in Canada as buyers go all-in on SUVs and pick-ups. In response, many automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, are making cuts to the lower-slung products in their portfolios.

In short, Mercedes didn’t have to build this car. If they hadn’t, people would have understood. But they did build it, which means the people who understand and sign on the dotted line for are in for a treat.

Of course, being that it’s a treat that starts at just shy of $50,000 – and this test unit rings in at a tick over $60,000 – it also had better be good.

And it is. The Mercedes-AMG A 35 takes all the individual elements that the brand has been developing throughout its line-up for years and packages them into a single model where they make sense all at once.

The look
There’s the ideally proportioned exterior styling, for a start: not so ostentatious that an adult with a family would be embarrassed to own it, but with just enough attitude to show it means business. And on the inside, the designers haven’t shied away from suede-like material, performance pedals, and an optional performance steering wheel, but have instead finessed them all to give them a look befitting the brand.

Input for the infotainment system is possible through the 12.3-inch touchscreen display or the user interface on the centre console, or thumb pads on the steering wheel.

The 2.0-litre single-turbo four-cylinder suits the character of the car ideally, producing 302hp and 295lbs-ft of torque. The band on the latter is relatively narrow, hitting its peak at 3,000rpm to 4,000rpm, but that makes it ideal for hanging out in second or third gear while flicking through an autocross track or some twisty country roads.

The seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission hits like shuffling a deck of cards when using the paddle shifters in the sportier drive modes, and while it’s a crying shame that there is no manual available, it’s high time we all accepted that’s because almost no one would buy it anyway.

By choosing the AMG Driver’s Package ($2,500), buyers add a sport suspension with three-stage damping plus 19-inch wheels and the performance steering wheel with digital drive mode adjustments. Comfort mode renders the throttle slightly numb and keeps the suspension perhaps stiffer than some drivers will enjoy on rougher winter-ravaged roads, but the latter is appropriate for the body style and both attributes are liveable. The Sport and Sport+ modes pick up the slack with incremental responsiveness from the throttle and gearbox along with notably tighter handling. For non-track purposes, Sport mode is definitely the sweet spot.

And all that performance doesn’t come at too horrible of a hit at the fuel pumps, at least according to this test drive. While official fuel efficiency figures are not yet available from Natural Resources Canada, my week of spirited driving netted a result of 9.7L/100km. This car does request premium fuel, but the figure still feels like a fair exchange for the degree of fun it provides.

Voice command
As for the rest of the Mercedes box of tricks, this is the first car in which I’ve found the multi-hue interior lighting system to be a visually appropriate fit. And it’s made all the more entertaining by being able to play with it through a voice command to the MBUX infotainment system: “Hey Mercedes, change the interior lighting to blue.” It will be a big hit at parties, once they resume someday.

The designers haven’t shied away from suede-like material, while the multi-hue interior lighting system is a visually appropriate fit.

The rest of the infotainment system works well, with input possible through the 12.3-inch touchscreen display that sits alongside an equally sized digital gauge cluster, or through the user interface on the centre console, or thumb pads on the steering wheel. However, it should be noted that Android Auto and Apple CarPlay – along with other desirable features such as blind spot monitoring, keyless entry, wireless charging, SiriusXM capability and the premium Burmester sound system – require the Premium Package add-on ($3,200). The Navigation Package ($1,000), also equipped here, adds on-board navigation with an augmented reality mode, plus traffic sign assistance and live traffic updates.

If the market keeps trending ever further toward SUVs and trucks and away from cars like this one, hot hatches like the Mercedes-AMG A 35 may not be long for this world. My advice? If you appreciate driving entertainment in a pocket-sized package, snap these up while you still can.
As tested:

Price (incl. freight and PDI): Starts at $49,200; tested at $60,050
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Power: 302hp; 295lbs-ft @ 3,000 to 4,000rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Rated Fuel Economy (L/100km): TBD
Observed Combined Fuel Economy (L/100km): 9.7