Two austere German hatchbacks drive onto the same stretch of damp asphalt … That sounds like the start of a bad dad joke, doesn’t it? Although, in this instance, we’re being quite serious because although they possess different drivetrains, they are remarkably similar. Each exists a notch below their out-and-out performance brethren – the Mercedes-AMG A45 and BMW M135i xDrive – each has a four-cylinder turbopetrol, each has a two-pedal transmission and each appeals to the performance-minded motorist at its specific price point. To decide which, if any, is worth your hard-earned Rands, we took them to one of the Western Cape’s finest, most scenic, driving roads.
Four to the floor: Mercedes-AMG A35 Hatch 4Matic 7G-DCT
To many, Steenbras Mountain Road is little more than a quick and stupendously pretty detour along Clarence Drive (R44) that connects Gordon’s Bay with Rooi-Els. Perhaps distracted by the jaw-dropping scenery in every direction, few genuinely appreciate the ingenuity that went into building this remarkable road that climbs the steep north-west face of the Hottentots Hollands mountains up to Steenbras Dam. We love it because it isn’t a through-route to anywhere, so it’s usually traffic-free for our photoshoots and except for a short section below the look-out point where the road cuts through rock, it doesn’t penetrate the mountain range in any meaningful way.
So, that well-worn adage, “a ribbon of tarmac draped along the mountain” actually rings true in this instance. Its 1-in-12 grade means it is the steepest engineered road in the whole of the Western Cape and while any other road would have had to be “flattened”, the outrageous steepness was tolerated because it was merely a service road for the waterworks at the dam. We’ll take it, thanks very much.
Perhaps because it’s just 1,2 km long, the civil engineers who built the Steenbras Mountain Road are rarely celebrated. A bit like the Affalterbach boffins who built the AMG A35. Firm, squat, four-wheel drive and boasting a hard-earned motorsport pedigree (seven consecutive Formula 1 Constructors’ Championships), we last tested it in our 2020 Performance Shootout where it placed 10th out of 12 entrants. The team praised it for its stable cornering, direct steering and impressive lap time around Aldo Scribante, but bemoaned the high price tag, jarring ride and tyre roar from its low-profile Pirellis. Fast forward nearly 18 months and we’ve got fresh information with which to evaluate Stuttgart’s hot hatch. In the intervening months, the retail price has climbed from R755 199 to R883 000 … ouch. And then there’s our 2021 Performance Shootout which saw the more powerful (310 kW/500 N.m), and dearer (R1,1 million) A45 S place fifth overall. So, all things considered, it’s the A-Class AMG turned up to 11 we’d go for, right?
The steep blast up Steenbras Mountain Road had us reconsidering this stance. Not a word of a lie, behind the flat-bottomed, suede-covered steering wheel, the sensation of the A35 travelling up a road is the same as the A45 S. Its four-cylinder din, overt flatulence on upshift and overrun, transmission whine of the 4Matic, slight glassiness to the steering which transitions into darting turn in and tremendous mid-corner grip and the shimmy across all four corners as power is deployed; they are one and the same for the AMG twins.
The only difference is the testing data that registers on the V-Box. Zero to 100 km/h comes up in 5,05 seconds for the A35; 3,90 seconds for the A45 S. Likewise, a quarter-mile takes 13,42 seconds and 12,36 seconds respectively, and so it goes with any performance metric you care to mention. Critically, what we have learnt is the impression of speed each delivers is the same. So, in the hands of the same driver, the A45 S may alight at the top of the 1,2 km run a few seconds ahead of the A35, but the sensation along the way, the smile across the driver’s dial? No different.
As a practical conveyance for moving people and things about daily, the A35 has the same engaging, colourful digital displays as the A45 S, the same utility space, of course, some of it sacrificed at the altar for the great-looking and supportive AMG bucket seats, and there’s its low-slung chin spoiler which will scrape against sleeping policemen just as it does in the A45 S. Our test unit foregoes the optional wings and spoilers available on the AMG Aerodynamics package (R27 200). Instead, it looks demure and understated in standard guise with nothing but chrome detailing and multi-spoke 19-inch wheels (R11 300) that fill the wheel arches snugly to draw attention to its ample performance.
Mercedes-AMG A35 Hatch 4Matic 7G-DCT
Price: R883 000
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch, four-wheel drive
Power: 225 kW @ 5 800 r/min
Torque: 400 Nm @ 3 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 5,05 seconds*
Top speed: 250 km/h
Claimed fuel consumption: 8,80 L/100 km**
CO2: 169 g/km
** CAR fuel index
Is this the one to have? BMW 128ti Steptronic
After a refreshingly short gestation period from international reveal to local arrival, boom, here it is: the BMW 128ti (ti stands for Turismo Internazionale, of course). It’s taking the fight to the people’s hot hatch, the Volkswagen Golf GTI. And well-timed it is, too, as we wait patiently for the eighth-generation of Wolfsburg’s venerable hot hatch to touchdown.
Styling-wise, the ti has torn a page out of the GTI’s playbook: red brake callipers, red ti badging down its flank and red flashes on the side skirts and front and rear bumpers mirror similar accents on the inside, including red stitching in the seats and a ti badge embroidered into the centre armrest. Yet, despite what some might consider the Bavarian’s overzealousness with the rouge, there is no denying that this vehicle resonates with people. It’s noticeable enough in execution but not over the top, and we had everyone from hardcore BMW fanboys to regular folk approaching for a closer look. The sentiment appears to be that, visually at least, BMW has captured the essence of a limited-edition model, and yet – sans crazy spoilers and splitters – the ti is not taking itself too seriously either. You can’t help but crack a smile when you’re in its presence.
The 1 Series cabin is reminiscent of many others from BMW, which is to say the architecture is well laid out and logical to use, as you’d find in a 3 or 5 Series, for example. Except, in this particular test unit, there’s more of a pared-down execution with the traditional speedo and rev counter, and not a lot of the (optionally available) digital gubbins you find fitted to the Mercedes-AMG.
Setting off in pursuit of the Merc up the steepest tarred climb in the Western Cape, what is immediately apparent is quick though it may be, the BMW is not overly sporty. This puts it in the same category as the VW GTI; a premium product with a sporting edge rather than an out-and-out driver’s car. We say this because it runs on regular tyres, Bridgestone Turanzas, with a beefy profile so it sits that little bit higher off the road at each corner like it’s on tippy-toes. Then you realise the acoustics are also somewhat muted. The engine is quiet and when you do rev it out to the redline, the note is flat. The upside is the entire drivetrain is less coarse than the 4Matic Mercedes and this lends it a welcome air of refinement. On our highly scientific iPhone app, under hard acceleration, the BMW is a whole 4 dB quieter than the Mercedes. And there’s the fact that the eight-speed Steptronic – a non-M gearbox, remember – goes about its business far more conventionally. Whether in Normal, Sport or Manual mode accessed via the steering wheel-mounted paddles, shifts simply aren’t as slick or quick as the AMG DCT’s.
Beneath the easy-shifting gearbox, the 2,0-litre turbopetrol punches harder than its middling outputs suggest. The 180 kW and 380 N.m is on par for a sporty hatchback nowadays, but peak torque starts at just 1 500 r/min which means it is less peaky than the 2,0-litre in the AMG. With a limited-slip differential up front and M Sport suspension which beefs up the stabilisers and lowers the car by 10 mm, it makes use of every single kW and N.m on offer. The 0-100 km/h claim is 6,30 seconds and, bang, we achieved that figure straight out the blocks with no torque steer or axle tramp in the process: “ti” could very well stand for BMW bequeathing it a “tidy” front end.
So, the Mercedes may pull a few car lengths off the line as it squats down with all-paw drive, but once you’re up to speed attacking the twisting road up to the waterworks, the 45 kW and 20 N.m shortfall in output becomes less obvious and the front-drive layout begins to show some benefits. There’s a sense you’re lower in the BMW because there’s no drive being transferred rearwards, of course. This simplifies the whole process. The steering feels uncorrupted, purer, and doesn’t suffer the slight numbness in the centre of the Mercedes.
Sidewinding up the sinewy spine of the mountain route it was evident just how malleable the BMW’s stiffly sprung M Sport chassis is, too. You can drive the 128ti cleanly and tidily as you learnt at advanced driving school, tracing a wide entry and tightening the line to get back on the power as soon as possible; however, if you want to get it moving around, it does respond to trail braking on the way into the apex which kicks the tail out just a touch. The same deal with the car’s tendency towards bump oversteer before the rear tyres are up to temperature. In each case, simply boot the throttle and the 128ti pivots back into line on demand. What a hoot for a front-wheel drive.
BMW 128ti Steptronic
Price: R687 418
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Power: 180 kW @ 5 000 r/min
Torque: 380 Nm @ 1 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 6,30 seconds*
Top speed: 243 km/h
Claimed fuel consumption: 8,20 L/100 km**
CO2: 156 g/km*
**CAR fuel index
After a dozen or so spirited runs up Steenbras Mountain Road, our two hot hatches finally ticked themselves cool at the lookout point over a foggy False Bay and we were able to draw a couple of conclusions for you on these second-division hot hatches from Germany. As far as their engine notes are concerned, neither are Juilliard Music School graduates, that’s for sure, but of the two it’s the four-pot in the Mercedes-AMG that sings the sweeter tune and is a bit more percussive on the overrun and upshift.
The 128ti takes a more muted approach to its work, which is a surprise considering the same basic four-pot in a Mini John Cooper Works Hatch can be seriously loquacious with plenty of snuffle and boom when it wants to. That being said, the 128ti is the best and most connected of the new 1 Series models we’ve driven to date; and, yes, that includes the M135i xDrive, our wooden spooner in the 2020 Performance Shootout. We’d prefer a touch more drama to the otherwise versatile drivetrain, but for the most part, there’s plenty to like about Beemer’s front-driven four-pot, particularly its ti-dy, yet playful chassis and excellent refinement.
Against the stopwatch, there’s no denying the A35 is the faster car and if that’s your be-all and end-all, that makes it the better car here. With that extra power and two more driven wheels that is as it should be for an A-Class costing nearly R900k, surely?
Dynamically, it must be held to the same standard as the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3, against which it equips itself admirably. It possesses the sort of drive that always keeps you in the hunt, egging you on to take advantage of its immense traction. If you had to blindfold a passenger and take them for back-to-back spins in the A35 and A45 S, odds are they wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. It’s the same deal for the driver. Ultimately, the only reason to opt for the full-fat A45 S ahead of its more modest sibling is bragging rights … to say your hot hatch gets from 0-100 km/h in less than four seconds which is a pretty impressive boast! In all other respects, the AMG A35 is a fine vehicle and every inch the hot hatch it should be.