Signing on the dotted line for an Audi A1 Sportback is the cheapest way to get yourself behind the wheel of a new car branded with the famous four-ring badge.
With a starting price of $26,500 before on-road costs, the A1 makes the prestige German brand a feasible option for an entirely new and highly lucrative group of buyers to which it was once little more than aspirational.
Significantly, the Audi A1 is considerably cheaper than anything from the manufacturer’s traditional premium rivals BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, making it an obvious starting point for badge snobs on a budget.
The A1 forces you to make some sacrifices, however, either by making do without some basic features or paying extra to option them in.
We tested the high-grade Audi A1 Ambition S tronic, which has a list price of $35,800, although the addition of metallic paint ($990), 10-spoke alloy wheels ($400) and the $2000 Technik package – which includes xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, rear parking sensors and climate control – saw the price of our car rise to $39,190 before on-roads.
Frighteningly, you’ll part with close to $50,000 for the same car if you add to that the MMI navigation plus system ($3600), leather upholstery ($2300), panoramic sunroof ($2090) and tinted windows ($750) – features you may expect to be standard in a car wearing a luxury badge.
It’s difficult to justify throwing that sort of coin at a tricked-up city car, and will become even harder in 2013 when the larger and impressively specced Mercedes-Benz A-Class launches from $35,600.
If you can look beyond the price barrier, however, there’s a lot to like about Ingolstadt’s littlest runabout.
Under the bonnet of the Audi A1 Ambition sits a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 90kW and 200Nm. Aided by the standard inclusion of stop-start technology, both the six-speed manual and seven-speed ‘S tronic’ dual-clutch automatic variants consume 5.3 litres of premium unleaded fuel per 100km on the combined cycle, and accelerate from 0-100km/h in 8.9 seconds.
The engine has a slightly gruff, grumbly quality at low revs – thank the direct-injection ‘knock’ – but smooths out as you accelerate. It does its best vocal work above 4000rpm, and the sweet exhaust acknowledges gear changes with a crisp baritone bark.
The transmission is jerky at low vehicle speeds, however, causing the A1 to lurch when parking and crawling through traffic. The step from first gear to second also lacks the smoothness and refinement of the shifts between the rest of the ratios, which by contrast are completed swiftly and seamlessly. A tacho needle that reacts enthusiastically to upshifts by winding back rapidly signposts the quick-shifting, and the sharp cut in revs adds drama to spurts of acceleration.
After an initial lack of haste, the engine hits its stride from 1500rpm and pulls willingly towards the redline. A broad peak torque band that extends to 4000rpm makes life easy for the transmission. The seven-speed unit typically searches for higher gears to enhance efficiency but confidently files down the ratios when called upon to deliver more poke.
The Audi A1 has a firm, bordering on harsh, ride (the Ambition gets a stiffer sports suspension tune) that sometimes thumps over Sydney’s imperfect roads. In handling terms, it’s surefooted and composed, and sits relatively flat when pushed through bends.
There’s a refreshingly weighty feel to the tiller that gives the sense you’re steering something more substantial than an 1125kg hatchback. The wheel transmits a commendable level of feedback for an electric system without loudly pronouncing every bump. It’s one of Audi’s best steering systems, and delivers encouraging consistency as you turn into and out of corners.
The wheel itself, wrapped in smooth, high-grade leather, feels great in your hands, and matches the quality of the rest of the cabin’s surfaces. While the dash layout is conservative, the collection of soft-touch plastics, piano black inserts and brushed metal highlights create a premium environment unmatched in the city-car class – although not quite reason enough to warrant the considerable surcharge over the Volkswagen Polo.
The driver’s seat is comfortable and supportive, offering plenty of height and lumbar adjustment, although the lack of a footrest detracts from cruising comfort. A broad C-pillar inhibits rear visibility, although not as much as the tiny rear-view and side mirrors, the latter of which are disorienting unless positioned perfectly.
Head and legroom are tight in the back for those just shy of 6ft, while the middle seat – compromised by a raised tunnel in the floor and a matching spine along the ceiling – is usable only for short trips.
The 270-litre boot lacks the versatility of the Volkswagen Polo’s false floor system but swallows almost as much gear, and expands to 920 litres with the split-fold rear seats pushed forwards.
The A1 Attraction comes standard with 15-inch alloy wheels (and a space-saver spare), manual air conditioning, multi-function leather steering wheel, cruise control, and an eight-speaker audio system with a retractable 6.5-inch central display, SD card reader, auxiliary input and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
For an extra $3550, the Ambition adds larger 16-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, sports suspension, front sports seats, a front centre armrest and high-gloss black air vent surrounds.
Six airbags (dual front, side and curtains), stability control and a high-strength steel superstructure contribute to the A1’s five-star ANCAP rating, making it one of the safest city cars on the market.
We also think the A1 is one of the best-looking light cars around, with its combination of tight lines, rounded panels and sharp headlights and tail-lights giving it a sporty and sinister, yet equally elegant and sophisticated, appearance.
The Audi A1 Sportback impresses with its enthusiastic engine and premium interior, although is let down by the dual-clutch transmission’s lack of low-speed refinement and some ergonomic issues. The biggest hurdle remains the pricing however, which, while low for an Audi, is difficult to justify against the persuasive Polo. Picking the $26,500 base model and staying away from the options list is the best way to experience Audi cachet without paying an unwarrantable premium for its four-ring badge.
Audi A1 Sportback manufacturer’s list prices:
- Attraction 1.2-litre petrol manual – $26,500
- Attraction 1.4-litre petrol manual – $29,900
- Attraction 1.6-litre diesel manual – $29,900
- Attraction 1.4-litre petrol dual-clutch – $32,250
- Attraction 1.6-litre diesel dual-clutch – $32,250
- Ambition 1.4-litre petrol manual – $33,450
- Ambition 1.4-litre petrol dual-clutch – $35,800
- Sport 1.4-litre petrol dual-clutch – $42,500