Is AMG’s new A35 the best four-wheel-drive hot hatch on the market? Winter’s first blizzard and access to a VW Golf R gave Matt Saunders the perfect excuse to find out
A new power has risen in the realm of the everyday hot hatchback – which, for the purposes of the next few pages, is rural Derbyshire. That’s where we’re heading. Right now, though, we’re waiting… for a nice chap in a Volkswagen Golf R, long-standing lord and champion of the realm in question (up yours, Mr Darcy), and another nice chap with a camera or two.
It’s two degrees below freezing and, after a few unseasonably mild months, the British winter has finally bitten. Around here there’s only about an inch of snow on the ground, but elsewhere the wintry barrage has been more severe – in the West Country, south Wales and the far north in particular.
And yet every national radio traffic report I’ve heard for the past few days has referenced those enigmatic passes of the Peak District, which have been opening and closing like a doorman’s umbrella. Snake Pass. The Woodhead Pass. The Cat and Fiddle. UK roads aren’t generally like the Great Ocean Road or the Route Napoléon; they’re not showbiz enough to make it beyond an alphanumeric identity. But when they’ve got this much nomenclative charisma, you can’t help wanting to drive them, can you?
The A35 is just beginning to seem like the more serious driver’s car
So that’s what we’re going to do. From here, we’ll be at the heart of the Peaks within an hour. And, as company for the Golf, we’re taking a car that threatens its unique selling point: that of the defining, any-occasion, any-weather, one-size-fits-all four-wheel-drive performance hatchback.
Today is just another day, after all – chilly, slippery, salty and generally quite unpleasant if you’re not lucky enough to be spending it in climate-controlled comfort. It’s a day the ideal everyday hot hatchback ought to take well within its stride.
So can a Mercedes-AMG A35 out-stride its key German rival over the next 36 hours and few hundred miles? Can we get around all the aforementioned passes before the next super-aggressive meteorological beast-from-wherever sweeps in? And can you now have as much fun with the right hot hatchback on the road when the ambient’s below zero, the gritters are out and everyone else is having a ‘snow day’ as you can with one on a sun-kissed track day?
The answer to that last question will depend, at least in part, on whether a Golf R on standard Continental ‘summer’ tyres can follow everywhere that a A35 on winter rubber might lead it. In a perfect world, both cars would have presented for this meeting wearing winter rubber – but the group test gods haven’t planned it that way. And since they didn’t give me the foresight to pack a suitable pair of boots, either, we’d better just get on with it.
WINNATS PASS, HOPE VALLEY
Stop one on our trip is more of a beauty spot than a mountain pass but, since we’re ‘passing’, we might as well check if it’s ‘passable’. Winnats Pass is a short wiggle of road between limestone cliffs running east-west across the Peaks for a couple of miles only. Snake Pass is a few miles to the north, the busier A623 a similar distance south – so the traffic here is pretty gentle and local.
I’ve been here in better weather and it’s a gorgeous place to visit. Not so much today. Icy fog is clinging to the air as if Zeus’s utility-room chest freezer had been opened and overturned above us. Other than Cheddar Gorge, I reckon this might be the most dramatic ravine in the country, and yet we can barely make out the sides of it as we climb.
Although the snowy, sloping car park at the foot of the pass proves a considerably greater challenge for the Golf than the A-Class, it doesn’t prevent photographer Olgun from getting the snap he wants. But the gritters have evidently been out on the pass itself, so the superminis and saloons are making it through as easily as the pick-ups and 4x4s.
The pass is narrow and two-way and, after climbing and descending several times in both test cars, there’s no mistaking which feels the more precise-handling and secure: it’s the A35. Much of its advantage flows from its winter tyres, but it also has a four-wheel-drive system that seems to cling to the road with slightly greater throttle-on stability than the Golf’s, and weighty, well-paced steering that inspires a little bit of extra assurance.
At the bottom of the pass, as we leave, we find an ungritted, icy dead end of a side road where an HGV on eastern European plates has almost got stuck looking for somewhere to turn around; and a chap in a Range Rover has actually got stuck while turning around.
An old bathroom towel under the snagged front wheel is enough to recover the Range Rover. But no such measures are required for either the Golf or the A-Class, the former dealing surprisingly well, at walking pace, with a surface on which it’s tricky even to stand.
This is disappointingly easy. From Winnats Pass, it was a short trip to the Ladybower Reservoir and the eastern end of Snake Pass. When we set off to get there, our fears were that it would be closed to all traffic – but a digital road sign we passed on the way suggested it was ‘passable with care’.
With 300 horsepower and a stable four-wheel-drive chassis underneath you, it turned out to be passable with very little pause for thought. The gritters had clearly been through here, too, and had cleared any snow from the road, and while there was plenty on the verges and the odd bit blown onto the carriageway, there was none falling from the sky. Our timing was perfect, then, as an hour of warmth and light bathed a momentarily calm winter scene, and the traffic on the A57 remained light.
When it’s like this, the Snake Pass is a great drive – but I imagine it’s as often busy, slow going. The road’s fairly wide, and rises and falls as it winds quite tightly left and right. Then it opens and straightens as it descends towards Glossop and, with Stockport and Manchester farther off in the distance, you suddenly feel like you’ve just crossed the rural spine of the country. You also feel a little as if the grand geographical outline of Britain has somehow been revealed to you, squeezed within the bounds of your windscreen.
By the time we get to the Woodhead Pass, only 15 miles or so further north, the weather has worsened and the views are nowhere near as good. But the passes themselves have both granted a chance to have a proper drive in our test cars, and to interrogate their abilities more closely.
On faster, wider, smoother roads like these, it’s the A35 that shades the Golf R in most of the ways that seem to matter. On those winter tyres and in these conditions, it may be developing a shade more mechanical grip than the Golf – but that’s not all it’s doing. It has tauter, closer body control and a crisper turn-in than the VW, so it gets into corners more cleanly and deals better with bigger, longer-wave lumps and bumps. It’s that bit more instinctively composed than the Golf; its engine has more rasp and growl and spit than the Golf’s, a shade more authenticity and charm about its combustive character, and a tiny bit more willingness to rev.
For those reasons and others, the A35 is just beginning to seem like a more serious driver’s car than the Golf R as the light fades and we turn south towards our overnight digs in Buxton, when I swap back into the VW to verify my impressions.
Then again, perhaps it’s not that simple. Now we’re on a great little B-road running between the unforgettably named village of Wigtwizzle and the Ladybower Reservoir: Mortimer Road. This is a tighter, bumpier, fussier stretch than we’ve been on so far, shadowed by trees and punctuated by narrow bridges. The Golf R feels compact and supple on it, in ways that I’m not convinced the A35 could quite replicate. Even here, the VW’s summer tyres aren’t struggling particularly for grip, though you’re more careful than you might be in the A-Class when coming around blind corners for fear of what you might find on the other side.
Some urban mileage around Buxton later on confirms the suspicion that it’s the Golf R that better deals with smaller, sharper lumps and bumps, and that has the better town ride. There’s surprisingly little aggression about the Golf’s low-speed damping, and perfect calibration about its pedal responses and transmission. When you just want it to be unobtrusive and easy to drive – and, at times, that’s exactly what you want from an everyday-use car – the Golf R feels like it might be just about any other Golf. The A35, by contrast, can’t help announcing itself, and bristling with purpose, wherever it goes.
CAT AND FIDDLE PASS
Sleeping on it hasn’t made this exercise any easier to adjudicate. Still, for now at least, the backdrop to my internal dialogue is a handsome one. We’ve escaped much in the way of snow overnight, so the last of our passes – the Cat and Fiddle, which runs west out of Buxton towards Macclesfield – starts the day open and clear, and is ours to enjoy almost exclusively. This would be the best pass of the lot, I reckon, but for the 50mph limit and the average speed cameras. I should have seen that coming.
But the skies don’t stay crisp and clear for long. By mid-morning, the snowy barrage that has dumped on western Britain overnight is with us, and Olgun cuts a dejected, soggy-trainered figure as he grabs the last of our photos stood ankle-deep at the side of the road. It’s as if the climate was congratulating us, at first, on completing our little quartet of passes, but is now reminding us that we’ve only come this far by chance and good timing – and that chipping off home with our prides and panels intact mightn’t be a bad idea.
We still need a winner, though. If we were weighing up the pros and cons of these two as driver’s cars, victory would go to the A35 by a pretty clear margin. Tick off the qualities that most would want in a hot hatchback – a great engine, feelsome steering, a poised and immersive chassis – and the A35 has the Golf R narrowly beaten on most of them. That it is undoubtedly a more desirable thing than the ageing, classless VW will count for a great deal for many, too.
And yet the Golf won’t yield, and won’t shrink away – because it feels like a car that’s playing entirely by its own rules in this test. It’s true that the A35 outshines the Golf R on both performance and handling when you finally get to really drive it – but it’s the versatility and sheer breadth of ability of the Golf, and its even temperament as such slick, refined, adaptable A-to-B transport, that the A35 can’t answer. Around town and in traffic, where the AMG’s ride feels tetchy and the powertrain a bit intrusive, the VW’s is more compliant and moderate. On motorways and A-roads, where the A-Class has an unsympathetically noisy shortage of ride isolation, the Golf feels like a really talented GT car. At the kerb, where the A35 looks very much like an A45 with a carefully calculated 10% compromise on visual aggression, the Golf R seems to know maturity, anonymity and understatement.
The Golf R was made to melt into the everyday, in a way the A35 simply can’t. Ultimately, both could greatly enrich your daily motoring routine – the A-Class to slightly greater effect – but it’d be the Golf you’d want to get back into after you’d had your fun, and then to go on with daily life.
So the Golf retains its own particular performance-niche mantle; something that, as the past 36 hours has reminded us, it was never likely to lose on the mountain passes of the Peak District alone. Time for the photographer to dry out his trainers, methinks. I wonder if the M1’s quite long enough. A