Love and war brewed around the Audi A1 Sportback this month, as it continued to prove itself a brilliant little hatchback but also came under attack from two rivals passing through the office garage.
Shifting the odometer from 275km to 2053km in a single month reflected both the excitement of the getting-to-know-you phase of ownership, and how the Audi A1 moved through each different scenario like a winning reality show contestant (only with real talent).
First, a trip to visit friends in Canberra. On the freeway the baby Audi proved to be torquey and comfortable beyond its size, although it drums up a bit of road roar on coarse-chip surfaces. This is not an ideal multi-passenger touring car, with a tall rear passenger having his head firmly pressed against the roof, or cowered forward to avoid it. Firm damping particularly at the rear meant quite a bit of thudding over freeway expansion joints. Despite travelling three-up with luggage, and getting stuck in traffic on the way out of town, the 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder delivered 6.3 litres per 100km economy and 651km from 41.4 litres. The trip computer proved perfectly accurate, and on the way home the A1 returned 5.5L/100km.
Still, considering its size and price, it at least felt like a little car trying hard to be premium.
Weeks of commuting in the A1 has revealed its biggest strength beyond any doubt. This is one of the sweetest cars to drive around town, the ride striking an ideal balance between comfort and control, the turbo engine a peach, the manual shift delightful, the size and agility perfect, the interior design faultless.
The optional premium Audi audio system is top notch, with a baby subwoofer that can be cranked right up and still not shiver the dashboard, and speakers that deliver clarity. In my sub-30km/h crawl from Sydney’s inner west through the city and across the Harbour Bridge to CarAdvice HQ (where the A1 has been averaging between 8.2-9.6L/100km), I find solstice in turning great albums up on full, so cars with good audio systems are a must.
Audi may charge extra for sat-nav, but its version is not like that in other light cars. Our long-term Clio, for example, generally has good on-screen ergonomics, but its nav graphics looks aftermarket and can be unintuitive. The A1’s looks integrated and is flawless in its operation.
As with the Renault, however, which has glitchy Bluetooth audio connectivity, the Audi’s connectivity philosophy needs work. It demands using an Audi-specific iPhone 5 cable, which is fine, but incredibly doesn’t permit you to have your phone plugged in and access its music if you have that same phone linked via Bluetooth. Well, it does, but it warns you that it may not work (see photo), then cuts in and out. So I’ve been searching for alternatives, such as leaving my iPod plugged into the car and using my iPhone via Bluetooth, only that doesn’t work because my iPod needs another Audi-specific cable.
So now I’m planning to buy two 64Gb SD cards and fill them with tunes to put in each of its readers. To Audi’s credit, this is a rare feature in the class, allowing me to grin and accept what I believe to be its single major flaw. For now, I'll happily file through my CD collection each morning.
A third test this month for the A1 comes in twisty bends.
I love that this A1 looks like a luxury spec with its 10-spoke alloy wheels and sexy xenon headlights, yet it has 200Nm of torque with a petite 1125kg kerb weight, quality Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres and – as I didn’t know, but soon discovered – a Sport stability control setting. They combine to deliver real driving enjyoment, if not quite driving thrills.
The Audi does not like really tight corners, as it just understeers and doesn’t feel playful. That’s surprising because, around town, front-end agility is its greatest asset, and you can derive genuine fun from turning into city streets. The steering moves from a vague on-centre patch to feel beautifully tactile and chunky-weighted beyond about a quarter of lock, which is just lovely.
Push beyond the high grip levels at the front, though, and the equally high grip levels at the rear means you need speed and sweepers to play. Find them, smear the front end, and the rear will move around. It’s here the A1 finds its dynamic sweet spot, but this is no Ford Fiesta ST hot-hatch.
When right up the A1 it also reveals that its 1.4-litre turbo’s superb mid-range doesn’t segue into an exciting top-end. It feels a bit breathless up towards its 6300rpm cut-out, and with 90kW delivered at 5000rpm, it’s easy to see why. The engine is very tractable from just 1000rpm around town – allowing me to sip at my coffee and laze about in third in traffic – but outright acceleration is not to the same level as the 1.6-litre turbo Fiesta.
For those reasons, I’d plonk for a Fiesta ST, but equally I’d miss all the things the Audi does better – nicer cabin, better ride, better stereo, quieter – and when I consider how painful commuting is every day, the decision blurs again.
Speaking of competitors, this month the CarAdvice office had a new Mini Cooper three-cylinder auto in, and a Kia Proceed GT. The former is a natural A1 competitor that has been reduced in price to $26,650, while the latter larger warm hatch costs an identical $29,990 to the Audi. The Mini and Kia claim 7.8- and 7.7-second 0-100km/h times, where the A1 claims 9.0sec (though it feels faster than that).
I fell a bit in love with the new Mini, though it has a shunty auto that seemingly tries to mimic the A1’s lurchy, optional S-tronic, so I will have to try the manual. It also doesn’t ride as well as the Audi, or sound as good, it only has three dooors, and questionable Hankook tyres hurt its handling. Yet for all that, its classy new cabin impresses, it feels trad-Mini darty around town, and it is cheaper.
The Proceed GT looks lovely, and I’ve heard it handles really well, but around town its 1.6-litre turbo is laggy, it feels heavy and its interior is nowhere near as good as the Audi’s.
Tellingly, as I flirted with other sub-$30,000 contenders, other CarAdvice members filtered through the A1, armed with strict instructions to treat it like it was their baby.
Editor-in-chief Jez texted me, calling it a “lovely thing”, founder Alborz did the same, saying “it’s very zippy, I love the drivetrain”. As Tim mentioned in the latest Clio long-term report, videographer Christian enthused about the torque increase and better gearing compared with the Clio. Even our CEO Andrew, who owns a Q5, raved about how it feels genuinely like an Audi in its quality, only smaller. Our other founder Anthony keeps hounding me for a go.
As I said in my first long-term update, the Audi A1 is not a superb car, but it is a super-sweet one. It’s a darling to live with, and I’m growing more attached by the day.
Audi A1 Sportback Attraction
Date acquired: March 2014
Odometer reading: 2053km
Travel this month: 1778km
Consumption this month: 7.8L/100km
Audi A1 Sportback Review: Long-term report one