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Driven: The 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Is Better Than It’s Supposed to Be

Sometimes being second puts you in first place.

Mercedes-AMG A 35 4MATIC Limousine//Mercedes-AMG A 35 4MATIC Saloon, Kraftstoffverbrauch kombiniert: 7,3-7,2 l/100 km; CO2-Emissionen kombiniert: 167-164 g/km // Fuel consumption combined: 7.3-7.2 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 167-164 g/km, denimblau // denim blue

MALIBU, California—Perhaps there is something similar about the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 I've just tested and Buzz Aldrin. In the latter's case, you do not, not, not say anything to him about the fact he was the second person to walk on the moon. Apparently, he gets really upset. Don't worry about remembering this advice, though, because any time you're going to be in the same room or building or even county with Col. Aldrin, His People will warn you about this at least three- or four-thousand times.

I know this from personal experience: I worked on a TV show when Aldrin was a guest, and not surprisingly, My People never let me get within 20 feet of him, because they know me from personal experience. For the record, I would have mostly behaved. "Col. Aldrin, they'll be ready for you in just a second … oh, geez, sorry."

Frankly, I think the ol' Buzzster is looking at it all wrong. Sometimes being second is just fine, and as evidence I present the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35, a car that is only second-best in the A-Class series, behind the AMG 45 models, and perfectly happy about it. (Technically, there is no A 45 AMG, at least not in the U.S., but there is a CLA 45 and a GLA 45.) With only 302 horsepower and softer suspension tuning than the 45-series cars, you'd think the A 35 would get clobbered by its siblings.

No, no, no, no, no and no.

2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Test: This Is All the Mercedes-AMG I Need

I took the 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 out to my favorite curvy road, and the car proceeded to beat the snot out of it. Had I not known better, I would never have guessed I was driving the second-most-potent A-car Mercedes makes. Dialing up Sport + mode turns it into a teeth-gnashing monster. The ride gets stunningly firm, bouncing and bobbing and following the pavement's every contour. The Pirelli P Zero tires cling to the asphalt as if they've been told their spouses and children will be taken if they lose traction. The steering is in the finest German tradition, light and communicative but never threatening to wrest control from your hands. And power? Never once did I open the throttle wide and wish for more. In fact, I rarely had to open the throttle wide.

As I raced through the curves, all I kept thinking was, Buzz, can you get upset about being second? You walked on the effing moon, for duck's sake!

A better illustration of my point: A few weeks back, I drove the AMG GT 53 four-door on these same curves. It was a magnificent drive, huge fun, but it was obvious it was leaving a little something on the table—and no big sin there, because there's a GT 63 and it obviously needs to be better to justify its price.

I didn't get that could-be-better feel from the Mercedes-AMG A 35; I felt this little car was giving me its all. I've driven plenty of high-dollar metal on these same roads, and the A 35 attacked them the same way—not with the same levels of grip or speed, obviously, but certainly with that same same kill-or-die attitude.

2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Test: Split Personality

Now, it's been a while since I've driven a CLA 45, and I know it's more skilled. Our Conner Golden tested it recently, and if you read his review, you'll understand the CLA 45 is an unhinged lunatic of a car that ought to be locked up for everyone's protection. It's significantly quicker than the A 35—0-60 in 4.0 seconds, according to Mercedes, versus 4.6 for the CLA 35—and it operates through corners at a higher level, one that our resident racing driver Andy Pilgrim could no doubt appreciate and explore better than I.

But what the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 can't quite manage is civility. Like Aldrin being told, "You'll be our second guest tonight," the CLA 45 is an angry car, even when you don't need to summon its full fury. But the A 35 is happy to calm down: Pop it into Comfort mode and it becomes genuinely plush. The tire noise never quite goes away, but the engine and transmission will relax and stop all that silly popping and booming from the exhaust, and the suspension eases its grip and delivers a gentle ride. In other words, the A 35 is happy to transform into a true daily driver, a role the CLA 45 can't pull off convincingly.

And that makes perfect sense given the CLA 35's mission. I don't have hard marketing data to back this up, but from what I see on the streets of Los Angeles, I think a lot of people used to buy the AMG versions of Mercedes cars simply because they were the nicest and most expensive ones. Rather than soften the AMGs to make them more palatable to the masses, Mercedes started doing two levels of AMG, much as BMW did with cars like the M550i—a lesser, still quick and fast, but more palatable version. Makes sense, even if my supposition about the marketing is completely wrong. Of course, some (including us) have opined that cars like the M550i are a little too soft—but no one who drives the A 35 will make the same accusation against it.

Goodness knows it looks the part, inside and out. Our A 35 tester's cabin was done up in black faux-leather with red stitching, and while I'm not much of an all-black-cabin fan, I liked the serious, sporting feel it gave to the car. Gauges and infotainment are provided by 10.25-inch widescreens, and the crisply animated digital dash offers several skins.

2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Test: Arguing With the Instrument Panel

Funny enough, this actually led to the first argument I have ever had with an instrument panel. When I switched on one of the Sport modes—there are a few buttons and dials scattered about the car that accomplish this—the instrument panel inexplicably changed to some strange display with a digital speedo and a giant g-meter. I wanted to drive with a plain ol' tachometer, and it took four or five tries to figure out how to make that happen. (Yes, yes, I know, I could have read the owner's manual, but if I want to peruse an 800-page novel, I prefer Tom Clancy.) Mission eventually accomplished.

After a few miles I thought, well, I may as well try it AMG's way—but try as I might, I could not find the screen configuration the car had initially presented to me. I tried all of the dashboard modes I could find, I switched the various systems in and out of Sport mode in different order, and I even turned the car off and on a few times. No dice. It was as if the A 35 was throwing a tantrum: "You didn't want my fancy dash display then, so you sure as hell can't have it now!" Finally, I gave up and declared the A 35 winner of the argument. But hey, it wouldn't be a Mercedes test drive if I didn't find at least one thing beyond my comprehension.

2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Test: The Best Thing I've Driven in Months

Curmudgeonly electronics or no, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG A 35 is one of the best things I've driven all year. It inspired an honest-to-goodness smile on my face, and that's no easy task in these difficult days. The 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 is not a comfortable car trying to pretend it's sporty, or a sporty car trying to pretend it's comfortable; rather it's a car perfectly happy to live on either side of that line. It will thrill you when you want to be thrilled and won't annoy you when you don't.

So, in my estimation, this all means that being second best is the best. I hope Buzz Aldrin figures it out. If he does, maybe someday they'll let me talk to him.

 2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Highlights

2020 Mercedes-AMG A35 Pros

  • Fast and fun in Sport mode, relaxed in Comfort mode
  • Looks the part of a performance sedan
  • Price is high, but not crazy

2020 Mercedes-AMG A 35 Cons

  • Steep learning curve for infotainment system
Mercedes-AMG A 35 4MATIC Limousine//Mercedes-AMG A 35 4MATIC Saloon, Kraftstoffverbrauch kombiniert: 7,3-7,2 l/100 km; CO2-Emissionen kombiniert: 167-164 g/km // Fuel consumption combined: 7.3-7.2 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 167-164 g/km, denimblau // denim blue