Audi S1 Sportback Review

Audi all-wheel-drive roots blends with a hot-hatch staple recipe to create a brilliantly unique package.

The introduction of the Audi S1 Sportback brings the number of VW Group hot-hatches available between $40,000 and $60,000 to a dominant five.

Available locally this July with five doors only (a three-door is available overseas), the Audi S1 Sportback is expected to retail at $49,990. That plants it between the more affordable Volkswagen Golf GTI and GTI Performance Pack models below it and the dearer Golf R and Audi S3 Sportback above it.

Unlike those VW Group siblings, however, the Audi S1 Sportback is a size smaller, measuring only 3.9 metres long. It seats only four and has a 210-litre boot, where the Golf and S3 seat five and offer a 380L rear compartment.

Although it is a lot of money for such a little car, the S1 Sportback pushes the classic hot-hatch concept of shoehorning a big engine into a smaller body even further.

The engine the S1 Sportback has is not only bigger and more powerful than those in the comparably sized Ford Fiesta ST and Renault Clio RS, but the S1 Sportback is barely 50 kilograms heavier than those models. Only the forthcoming Mini JCW may match it.

The Audi S1 Sportback’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is the same unit powering the Golf GTI, yet here it produces more power and torque – 170kW (at 6000rpm) and 370Nm (between 1600-3000rpm), versus 162kW and 350Nm.

It couldn’t be a more winning combination for traditional hot-hatch enthusiasts unless it was available only with a manual gearbox … which it is. Audi says it decided against an automatic transmission because there’s less demand for autos in the smaller segment the S1 Sportback plays in (at least in Europe, although that’s definitely not the case in Australia) and adding a dual-clutch would make the car 20kg heavier.

At 1315kg, the little Audi is actually 2kg heavier than the bigger Volkswagen, but there are good reasons for that because the S1 Sportback comes standard with all-wheel drive. That traction advantage helps the six-speeder get from standstill to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds – 0.6sec faster than a Golf GTI but 0.9sec slower than an S3.

Audi says that quattro drive is a must with ‘S’ badged cars, but the S1 Sportback required a major rework of the front-wheel-drive A1 platform to make it happen.

The Haldex all-wheel drive system is largely borrowed from the S3, which isn’t compatible with the torsion bar rear suspension designed for the Polo/A1 platform. A multi-link rear suspension design was never designed for that platform, so engineers had to remodel the whole rear of the A1 to turn it into S1. That meant changing the rear subframe and picking parts of the S3 rear suspension and fitting it to the narrower A1. It all sounds like a big effort, and engineers insist it was but that it was worth it.

As with the S3, the Haldex all-wheel-drive system ordinarily sends 60 per cent of drive to the front wheels, but it can quickly shift to an even front-to-rear split.

The S1/S3 system doesn’t, however, have a function that the upcoming Audi TT has that allows the driver to select more torque to the rear axle, as you can in a Subaru WRX STi or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.

A big question facing the S1 Sportback, then, is whether the heavier all-wheel-drive system actually adds anything to the experience over a front-drive system with a proper limited slip differential. It took a 90-degree turn out of a snowy airport carpark in Sweden to get an answer, but first let’s get settled in…

If the S1 Sportback looks like a parts-bin special on-paper, with its re-engineered rear suspension and lack of an automatic for a not-quite-convincing reason, then it’s reinforced by the way it actually looks.

A lineup of S1 Sportback models in Skittles colours, with silver door mirror caps and a chrome grille not quite matching the black wheels and (optional) quattro sticker pack, appears a confusing mix between premium and retro. The same goes for the cabin, with the typical A1 soft-touch dash surfaces, quality knurled-silver climate controls and neat high-resolution pop-up colour screen not quite melding with (optional) bright plastic on the back of the bucket seats and lining the centre console (in either red, yellow or black).

Astonishingly, though, it all feels a bit special, like a hipster café in an old motor workshop dressed up with modern finishes. Slot the alloy-topped gearlever (classy) into first gear, and the long and slightly rubbery shift action (old school) may surprise. A car this little might be expected to have a nuggety short throw, but it hints that a bigger bark lies within; the shift action is instantly recognisable as like that in a WRX STi, yet it’s more direct and pleasant.

For that first left-hander out of the carpark, a sneaky stab of the throttle results in a slight slew of controllable oversteer. The road conditions are slippery, which highlights that the S1 Sportback really is putting power to its rear wheels. There won’t be a chance for proper dry-road dynamics analysis here in minus-seven degree weather, though.

The S1 Sportback gets adjustable suspension as standard, with eco, auto and dynamic modes that also alter steering weighting, throttle and engine response, and exhaust noise.

Over undulating sections of road, the Audi has excellent body control in dynamic but is smoother overall in auto. Likewise, the dynamic mode offers reassuring steering weight on centre but is a bit dull and too-heavy when winding on lock, leaving auto again as the better balance for what is otherwise a really quick-to-respond tiller.

The noise coming out of the quad tailpipes doesn’t seem to alter too much between modes, but the engine itself provides a brilliant soundtrack. There’s a warble just off idle that sounds deeper than in the Golf GTI or S3. From 1200rpm the S1 starts to pull, by 2500rpm it’s hauling hard, and it maintains enthusiasm right to the 6800rpm cut-out. Snatching gears via that long-throw shifter, teamed with the deep noise, makes you feel as though you’re driving something more muscled than a colourful hatchback.

A winding handling course on the frozen surface of a lake proves perfect for testing the stability control calibration, which comes in three stages – on, sport and off. It’s brilliantly subtle in sport, but when turned off it allows the Audi to become balletic; stab the brake before entry to a corner and the nose will point while the rear steps out, then get on the throttle and it slides magnificently. Ice driving is a riot, in addition to being a dynamics masterclass.

Australian specification will closely follow Europe, with standard equipment including 17-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights and LED tail-lights, leather bucket seats, climate control air-conditioning and satellite navigation. Optional kit extends to 18s, Bose audio, and the quattro styling packages for both exterior (black front grille, rear tailgate insert and rear-door badgework) and interior (hard plastic coloured seatbacks and transmission tunnel inserts).

Disappointingly, Audi Connect won’t be available locally, the system of which features its own mobile sim card for internet connectivity options such as 3D Google maps, Google search, Wikipedia search and other advanced functions. Audi says the S1, as with all A1 and A3 models, isn’t yet calibrated for our market.

It’s one of the few disappointments of the Audi S1 Sportback. It’s a car that could become a future cult classic - a masterful blend of Audi premium knowhow and characterful retro appeal in an ultra-fast and capable hot-hatch.