A planned pursuit to find the Ultimate Little Car convinced the Audi Australia PR team to build me an Audi A1 Sportback from the factory to my ideal specification. It's not often this happens, but it is often that a press car is optioned so highly that it doesn't show the model's full colours, and a fleet of fully-loaded automatic A1s meant a little lateral thinking (and begging) was required.
Here I'll also get to play the role of customer, speccing then collecting the A1 brand new with a full dealership hand-over, then 'owning' the car for six months, in which time I'm certain I'll either have found a brilliant premium-light hatchback or fallen on my sword to never personally spec a car again.
First, to the reasons for choosing the Audi A1 Sportback.
In the motoring world there are superb cars, and there are sweet cars, and the A1 Sportback definitely falls into the latter category. Far from damning the smallest Audi with faint praise, though, I'd argue that a sweet car is often a more attractive ownership proposition than one rated as superb.
The $29,900 Audi A1 Sportback Attraction with a 1.4-litre turbo engine and six-speed manual transmission hardly has had the motoring media waxing lyrical. The Toyota 86 that is priced identically to our A1 Sportback, and the Ford Fiesta ST that costs a few thousand dollars less, have had many more superlatives used to describe them – including from yours truly. Both the 86 and Fiesta ST hit highs that the A1 Sportback cannot match, and it’s generally accepted that they stride so far in dynamic areas that their shortfalls are accepted – a lack of torque for the Toyota, hard ride for the Ford, and a tacky interior with both of them.
These are things that would start to grate in the sort of driving I do. Living in Sydney’s inner west, the roads are poorly surfaced and the laneways so tight I need a car that rides well and is tiny. With a sub-30km/h commuting speed a slick manual, lots of low-down torque and a nice interior with a good stereo are a must. Being a driving enthusiast, though, I also want a car that can be a bit of fun when the time is right.
Until now the car that has come closest to fitting that bill is the Honda CR-Z, a long-termer I fell in love with a few years ago. Let’s face it, if it was cheaper, had another 50kW and was rear-drive to match the 86 everyone would be in raptures over it, yet the CR-Z is still a dynamic delight in a front-drive lift-off oversteer way like my 1989 Peugeot 205 GTi at home. It also rides better, has a sweeter gearshift and has more low-down torque than the Toyota, and to me is therefore preferable.
In adding a lovely interior to similar virtues as the CR-Z, perhaps the Audi A1 Sportback Attraction manual could be the ultimate all-rounder and another lovable long-termer.
In the case of the A1 Sportback, the sports suspension standard on the $33,450 Ambition middle grade affects ride quality, as does optioning larger wheels. The entry $29,990 Attraction gets standard suspension and 15-inch alloy wheels – although they look a bit daggy, so I’ve gone for the modest one-size-up 16-inch option packaged with sexy xenon headlights for $1600.
Being a bit of an audiophile, I toyed with the Bose audio system option, but instead realised that an Audi-branded premium audio option is packaged in with satellite navigation for $1990. The only other options are gloss-black air vent sleeves ($220) and a centre armrest ($250 – with flock lined innards).
Despite most A1 buyers choosing the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, I recalled the baby Audi having among the best manual shifts around where the auto is lurchy and indecisive in this application. If you’re thinking about an A1, please consider shifting yourself!
The total $33,960 is a bit steep for a baby hatchback that measures just 3.95 metres long, but it’s a bit like how people pay more for smaller, intuitive tablets than larger, bland laptops. Anyway, for me the size in concert with Audi interior quality is an ideal combination, and at the time of writing Audi was doing driveaway pricing on the A1 Sportback, so it’s worth bargaining hard.
The A1 three-door was considered, but it only seats four and now has been dropped from the local line-up. Why no Volkswagen Polo, the A1’s cousin? Well, if the Polo BlueGT came here with the A1’s 1.4-litre turbo, maybe, but the 77TSI 1.2-litre doesn’t have the punch and connectivity of the Audi, and the Polo GTI that does have pace rides too hard. Both, meanwhile, have a less classy interior, so in several clear disciplines the A1 Sportback justifies its worth.
When I collected ‘my’ new car, I was greeted at Audi Centre Sydney by sales executive Kamal Ghassah who handed over a lovely gift of a picnic blanket and thermos; the little things that distinguish premium car ownership. The A1 was presented inside the showroom, and Kamal helpfully went through all aspects of the car.
Even a seasoned journo can learn a few things with this process, as I found out. The navigation system not only has realtime traffic updates, but the ability to find restaurants nearby and call the place to arrange a booking, for example. Yes, Audi charges extra for nav that is standard in our outgoing Renault Clio long-termer, but all navs are not the same, and the Renault’s aftermarket TomTom unit pales alongside the A1’s for graphics, features and usability.
The voice control system is also dead easy to use – a rare system that actually shows the voice commands on the centre screen before you use it – and there’s an iPhone 5 connector inside the glovebox.
A quick handshake and a couple of photos later, and it was time to start adding to the 140km on our black A1’s odometer.
Less than a kilometre down the road I began enthusing about the superb manual shift quality, and the little leather gearknob is a tactile delight. The 1.4-litre turbo pulls so well from the lights, though I’ll be following strict running-in procedure by not taking the A1 over 3000rpm for the first 1000km. Its size makes the A1 immediately feel nimble and agile. The ride is a jackpot, too, and the steering is surprisingly meaty, making the A1 feel like a bit of a macho man as it slipped by Oxford Street in Surry Hills on the way back to the CarAdvice office – it, and my, natural milieu it has to be said.
It is early days yet, but already the CarAdvice crew has been stealing the keys to the Audi A1 Sportback and have returned surprised and delighted. I feel the same way, partially validating my theory about sweet cars being the best cars to own.
But I’m keen to hear your thoughts – yes, enthusiasts may go an 86 or Fiesta ST, but the A1 Sportback is hugely underrated and such a good little thing it’s easy to see why you’d choose the Audi.
What do you think?
Audi A1 Sportback Attraction
Date acquired: March 2014
Odometer reading: 275km
Travel this month: 135km
Consumption this month: N/A