Ger­man hot hatchs head to head

While there’s more on the hori­zon from AMG, the M Per­for­mance-fet­tled 1 Se­ries won’t see a full-fat M car within its range – this is it

IT’S AL­MOST LUNCHTIME and only a hand­ful of corners have been taken in anger. Storm clouds brood above as the boss man, editor In­wood, and I serve as light­ing gofers. Our res­i­dent snap­per, Ellen De­war, cap­tures it all through the cam­era lens. The storm is get­ting closer; sin­gle heavy drops start to fall. With key fobs in hand but no au­tho­ri­sa­tion to use them, the skies above seem as ag­i­tated as us. Yet we’re un­der strict or­ders to get the ‘hero shot’ be­fore Mother Na­ture un­leashes her fury.

The down­time al­lows a mo­ment to con­sider this du­elling pair. Both the Mercedes-AMG and BMW five-doors are among the pre­mium hot hatches of the mo­ment yet they al­ready carry unique bag­gage. Sim­ply put, the $69,300 A35 could be per­ceived as some­what of a half­way house; a car built solely to plug the nar­row gap be­tween the A250 Mercedes and the un­hinged A45 S from AMG. View it this way and you could write it off sim­ply as a cash-grab con­cocted by cyn­i­cal mar­keters. It takes all of two corners to re­alise this isn’t the case. Throw the A35 at an apex and it’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that we’re deal­ing with an AMG-lite here, not a tarted up A250. Phew.

The al­lure of the BMW is less ob­vi­ous. It too can be viewed more as a mar­ket­ing ex­er­cise than an en­gi­neer­ing one, given it seems to place so lit­tle weight on tra­di­tion. Where the pre­vi­ous M135i (and the 140i that fol­lowed it) stayed true to BMW’s iconic for­mula of rear-drive with straight-six power, this new car is much more con­tro­ver­sial. All-wheel drive and four cylin­ders is the new recipe, and there’s also the sober­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that while AMG is still to of­fer the feral A45 S, BMW fans have no such hard­core vari­ant to look for­ward to. When it comes to the M Per­for­mance-fet­tled 1 Se­ries, this is it.

“All right, I’m done – have at it boys,” says pho­tog­ra­pher De­war. And there it is, the green light we’d been wait­ing for. After all, we’re atop Lake Moun­tain in Vic­to­ria’s Yarra Val­ley, an area adorned with great driv­ing roads. If these hatches can’t prove their worth here, then nei­ther back­sto­ries will mean a thing. The threat­en­ing rain is mer­ci­fully hold­ing off.

Slide into the heav­ily bol­stered AMG Sports seats and the A35’s sport­ing in­tent in­stantly comes into fo­cus. Large screens con­sume your pe­riph­eral vi­sion, while the per­fectly formed steer­ing wheel is fes­tooned with use­ful con­trols. Press the starter but­ton and the M260 pow­er­plant comes to life with a raspy ex­haust note. Keen afi­ciona­dos will pick up on the fact that the en­gine code be­longs to an A250, and not the un­hinged M139 as­signed to the in­com­ing A45.

How­ever, this is more than an A250 en­gine with the boost wound up. It’s been sig­nif­i­cantly fet­tled with a freer-flow­ing ex­haust, wa­ter-to-air in­ter­cool­ing, big­ger valves and, cru­cially, a big­ger twin-scroll turbo. So while the in­ter­nals and block re­main the same, it’s a sig­nif­i­cant up­grade. And it’s no­tice­able, too. After all, 225kW and 400Nm from a 2.0-litre four-cylin­der turbo is noth­ing to be sneezed at. Nor is a 0-100km/h claim of 4.7 sec­onds, which feels ut­terly fea­si­ble. While peak power is made at 5800rpm, the strong 2.0-litre four-pot en­cour­ages you to search for the red­line as it con­tin­ues to make mean­ing­ful grunt through­out the rev range. There is a meaty mid-range torque win­dow to ac­cess, too, be­tween 3000-4000rpm.

New­ton me­tres are where BMW’s 2.0-litre four-cylin­der turbo claims top trumps thanks to 450Nm, and also has a greater torque band­width of 1750-5000rpm to play with. How­ever, de­spite equalling the Merc on power, the B48’s iden­ti­cal 225 kilo­watts (4500-6250rpm) don’t feel as strong as the A35’s. The party is over after 5000rpm, so shift­ing up a gear early pro­vides the best re­sults. While its 0-100km/h time of 4.8sec is a tenth be­hind the A35, op­tion the $1900 Per­for­mance Pack (which in­cludes an over­boost func­tion and lighter 18-inch al­loys) and the marker falls to 4.7sec.

In terms of acous­tics, the AMG takes the win. Its the­atri­cal over­run and up­shift blurts per­vade the cabin, cre­at­ing more au­ral ex­cite­ment than the BMW, which has a sound­track that can verge on ar­ti­fi­cial. So while these two are com­pa­ra­ble in terms of on-pa­per per­for­mance and straight-line pace, the re­al­ity is their dy­namic tal­ents di­verge.

The A35 has a se­ri­ous de­meanour, right down to the sim­ple things like its lower driv­ing po­si­tion. The AMG is tied down, with the Miche­lin Pilot Sport 4S tyres of­fer­ing high lev­els of grip. The front-end de­nies un­der­steer ve­he­mently and pow­er­down trac­tion past the apex is im­mense. There’s a del­i­cacy,

too, with an un­der­ly­ing neu­tral bal­ance that af­fords a small, play­ful squirm from the rear as the ra­zor-sharp front axle arrows into a cor­ner. This is pos­si­ble thanks to the beefed-up A250 chas­sis, which gains stiff­ened springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. The up­rights have also been changed and the rear sub­frame is now solidly mounted. With the adap­tive dampers set to Com­fort mode, the ride qual­ity is ac­cept­able with only a slight body-con­trol com­pro­mise. How­ever, Sport and Sport+ need to be re­served for smooth roads given the taut na­ture of the A35’s chas­sis tune.

The AMG also gets the nod over the BMW when it comes to its gearbox. While the BMW’s eight-speed auto is smoother around town, it isn’t as quick on the run as the seven-speed dual-clutch found in the A35. In its sporti­est mode, the A35’s shifts aren’t only faster, but have a pos­i­tiv­ity and im­me­di­acy lack­ing in the BMW.

De­spite both hot hatches be­ing able to send up to 50 per­cent of drive to the rear wheels, it’s the BMW that be­haves dis­tinctly more front-driven, even with its Torsen lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial. The M135i’s nose pushes wide ear­lier un­der hard ac­cel­er­a­tion and the front wheels, wrapped in Con­ti­nen­tal Premi­umCon­tact 6 tyres, will tug at the thick-rimmed tiller. It isn’t as will­ing to lock onto an apex, then ro­tate and fire out the other side of a cor­ner as the AMG.

The fixed-rate sus­pen­sion set-up does an im­pres­sive job in pro­vid­ing a ride qual­ity ad­van­tage over the A35. How­ever, you have to pay $400 on top of the Per­for­mance Pack, and cop smaller 18-inch wheels, to op­tion adap­tive dampers. The Merc is the most af­fected by road noise and tyre roar, which is quite in­tru­sive, giv­ing the BMW an edge in re­fine­ment lev­els.

In terms of steer­ing, there is a vague­ness on-cen­tre that con­tin­ues through to the ini­tial stages of lock that makes the M135i hard to place on cor­ner en­try. Jump back into the A35 and the steer­ing has a co­he­sive and meaty na­ture. The AMG’s brakes also feel more pos­i­tive, with an im­me­di­acy to the pedal that’s re­as­sur­ing in re­la­tion to the M135i’s ini­tially soft re­sponse.

Sum­mit­ing Lake Moun­tain one last time, it’s hard not to no­tice the M135i strug­gling to keep up. It’s just not as con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing or tac­tile enough near its lim­its to de­liver a dy­namic at­tack on the A35. The Merc car­ries more speed through corners with greater pre­ci­sion – it’s the one you want to keep driv­ing just for fun.

As we ar­rive at the cafe for a fi­nal de­brief, the rain fi­nally falls. And it’s tor­ren­tial. Both hatches re­main in view through the win­dow as In­wood and I muse over the ex­te­rior de­signs. Ad­mit­tedly, the Mis­ano Blue M135i looks bet­ter in the metal than it does in pictures, its sub­tle mon­grel re­vealed in its finer de­tails. But it’s the A35 that makes the greater vis­ual state­ment, es­pe­cially in this be­winged Edi­tion 1 guise (a $5377 pre­mium). Yes, you can have an A35 sans the winged para­pher­na­lia should you wish to live a more stealth-like ex­is­tence, but shouldn’t an AMG be a bit brash?

So the AMG is the bet­ter driver’s car, but the re­turn jour­ney to Mel­bourne sees the BMW sal­vage some points on the prac­ti­cal front. Its cabin feels more tightly screwed to­gether, and the

AMG does dis­play some lower-rent ma­te­ri­als if you go look­ing for them. Plus the 1 Se­ries’ shift to the UKL2 front-wheel-drive plat­form has brought pack­ag­ing ad­van­tages in­clud­ing a 380-litre boot that’s 10 litres big­ger than the A35. Strangely, though, it’s the AMG that has greater rear seat knee- and head­room.

Ul­ti­mately, the F40 M135i isn’t with­out new­found ad­van­tages. The prob­lem is it will for­ever be haunted by what it once was to en­thu­si­asts who cham­pion the Bavar­ian brand. There’s a sense there should be a rung above to come – but there isn’t one. There­fore the AMG-honed A-Class claims the pre­mium hot hatch hon­ours here. It’ll make you smile more when you re­ally want it to. And the true rev­e­la­tion is that the A35 isn’t a half­way house at all. Its cre­den­tials and per­for­mance ren­der the A45 S’s baby brother more than wor­thy of its Af­fal­ter­bach ad­dress.

Both cars guz­zled go-go juice on the fast-paced test route, with the A35 drink­ing 16.2L/100km to the M135i’s 14.2L

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