Two equally strong all-wheel drive vehicles in a duel

As regular readers, you have long known that we are regularly drawn out into the woods for hours of romantic driving. One example of where we prefer to retreat to is shown in the photo series of this comparison – on roads that barely fit through two rows of trees and whose curve exits seem to end straight in the thicket. Our favorite routes are narrow and pathetically asphalted, winding their way in confusion over hilltops, hills and mountains.

Sports cars in compact format: what powerful turbo engines and all-wheel drive make of the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class is revealed at the end.

In between, the view is allowed to widen and the field to open up, as long as the next stand of trees greets you on the horizon. Because where there is forest, there are usually hills. And elevations want to be curved around. And curves are the essence of active driving. That’s what the BMW M135i and Mercedes-AMG A 35 tested here are dedicated to – which is why we set off with them straight to our favorite curves.

Top model and newcomer

What luck, the conditions are excellent: the sun is shining, the asphalt is gripping, and the temperatures are sufficient for the tires not to catch cold. For difficult traction tasks, both test cars are equipped with all-wheel drive as standard. If necessary, the rear axle rushes to the rescue and transfers some of the power. Speaking of power: the two-liter turbo in the AMG presses 400 Nm onto the crankshaft, and the BMW even delivers 450. Both produce 306 hp.

The 1 Series is the top model in the range, while the A-Class is the entry-level variant of three AMG models available. This difference will become important in the course of the assessment, because it says a lot about the character of the two rivals.

BMW M135i xDrive, Exterieur

The BMW test car equipped with Overboost (performance package for 1,500 euros) takes 4.7 seconds to sprint to 100 mph.

Like the M135i, the A 35 has been stiffened compared with the weaker models from the same series – for example at the transition from the A-pillar to the front of the car, a critical area for front-engine racers. It has to withstand strong forces. The sports driver senses torsion at this point as a lack of chassis precision. Even on the most miserable section of our bad road, the A 35 shows nothing of the sort, by the way, although it lacks the struts of the top AMG. Likewise their wide track.

In general, the A 35’s powertrain is closer in design to that of the normal A-Class than to that of the other AMG variants: The A 35 has the twin-scroll supercharged Group two-liter of the A 250 under the hood, while the two A 45s get AMG’s own powerplant. They also have a more complex all-wheel-drive system that can direct torque on the rear axle preferentially to the outer rear wheel on corners. In the A 35, on the other hand, as in the M135i, power is distributed with maximum parity between the front and rear.

So much for the theory. In practice, AMG proves that even with this relatively simple 4×4 constellation it is possible to tune an extremely fun layout – for example with imperceptible ESP interventions on the inside front wheel. Minimal braking impulses are enough to give the chassis a rotational impulse around the longitudinal axis. In other words, as soon as the driver turns in, the attentive A 35 already turns into the corner.

Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic, Exterieur

The AMG A 35 achieves an average speed of 69.3 km/h in the slalom (BMW 67.1 km/h).

On a short leash

That feels competent, as if the all-wheel drive had stored a cornering compendium with reflex recommendations, which it calls up at lightning speed. However, it is not as tail-happy as its A-45 brother, which can even drift. But the decisive factor is that the AMG never pushes the limits as conspicuously front-heavy as the BMW. The BMW keeps its rear axle on such a short leash that it practically never makes an appearance in terms of driving dynamics.

The front wheels have to do most of the work, which can push them beyond their limits on slippery roads. Then the 135i understeers. This is precisely where some brand disciples are likely to turn away disappointed. An M that pushes beyond the ideal line? The predecessor was better at that.

To put things into perspective, it should be noted at this point that the revered former M140i was only a drifting machine in retrospect. In fact, its driven rear wheels could only be animated into a lunge with tricks, because the rear end flattened itself rather miserably on the road.

BMW M135i xDrive, Exterieur

The M Sport brakes are standard on the BMW test car. In the braking distance test, the four wheels stopped at 100 km/h with cold brakes after 35.4 meters (AMG 34.6 m).

No, an exuberant rear axle certainly did not distinguish this model – rather the spirited six-cylinder under the front hood. The 140i only blew passionately from the front, so to speak. If you wanted to feel the hot breath of an M on the back of your neck – i.e. at the rear – you had to go for the much more expensive M2.

AMG, on the other hand, proves that the front-wheel-drive-with-attachment concept is certainly capable of eye-opening driving pleasure. To put it bluntly: The A 35 makes the M135i look pretty pale. The driving dynamics underline this thesis. Whereby the higher speeds in slalom and swerve test reflect the difference only rudimentarily, because they are determined on the top level test area.

The BMW doesn’t really lack performance on this – it rather lacks passion in the open field. It lacks determination in the battle with the bumps. The insistence on maximizing the traction of all four wheels. And the entertainment that you can expect for around 50,000 euros.

Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic, Interieur

The only thing the performance sports seats in the AMG lack is lumbar adjustment.

A lot of AMG, but not much M

From the Mercedes’ perspective, it reads as follows: Its steering informs more talkatively, and its messages get louder as more information is applied. It also reports that the front axle grips more doggedly and the rear axle supports itself more stubbornly. In corners, it communicates with the driver virtually incessantly, making it the AMG’s multiplier par excellence. What the steering doesn’t know simply doesn’t happen.

The braking system grips more decisively, the four-cylinder fires hotter against the limiter and sounds livelier. In addition – and this too is part of the art of tuning a sporty car – the suspension springs more gently, absorbs bumps better and is therefore quieter on bad roads. In short: The A 35 has a lot of AMG in it, but the 135i only a little M.

So that we don’t misunderstand each other: BMW has put together a good car in its own right. It is clearly laid out, offers back-supporting seats, comes to the customer with an enormous range of multimedia equipment on request, is extremely rich in the mid-range, and still requires less fuel than the competition – on average 8.8 instead of 9.1 liters per 100 kilometers in the test.

BMW M135i xDrive, Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic, Exterieur

The BMW’s two-liter in-line four-cylinder is more economical than the A 35 with a test average of 8.8 l/100 km, which comes to 9.1 l/100 km.

Positive and relevant to points

Assuming a very light foot on the gas, the M135i can even be driven with 6.6 l/100 km, if you want to achieve the highest possible range during a vacation trip (Mercedes: 6.9 l/100 km). In addition, the BMW is cheaper to run and better equipped as standard than the AMG – even if this test car has more extras on board.

As you can see, we’ve listed a number of positive attributes that are relevant to points, and we don’t want to diminish their importance; they’re an excellent description of a powerful, practical model. But they do not necessarily make a model intended as a hot hatch a hotly sought-after bestseller.

The plus points of the M135i appeal mainly to the brain, less to the heart. But that’s where the decision for or against a car that costs an astonishingly large chunk of money in view of its small dimensions is made.

Therefore, if we were ultimately asked which of the two compact sports cars we would prefer to take out into the woods for a romantic shepherd’s drive, the answer would be the following: We would like the winner of this comparison test – the AMG A 35.

1. Mercedes-AMG A 35 4Matic
457 points

The more comprehensive safety equipment alone puts the A 35 ahead. It drives more joyfully and transparently. AMG pays dearly for the driving pleasure.

2nd BMW M135i xDrive
448 points

The 135i is too restrained for an M, and only excels with its more powerful, yet more economical engine. A good, but not stimulating enough compact model.

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