‘Premium light’ is a term for more than just watered-down beer charged exorbitantly at the footy. The reborn Mini Cooper and original Audi A1 each ask around double that of similarly sized hatchbacks, which start from around $15K, but their makers would argue they are big on flavour and … well, premium-ness.
For buyers living in the big smoke, they should be close to ideal. The larger new Mini still undercuts the older, 2011-era A1 in terms of length – 3.82 metres versus 3.95m – but in this country the Audi is now exclusively available as a five-door ‘Sportback’ whereas a five-door Cooper is only just launching overseas.
The A1 also seats five to the Mini’s four, so practical considerations could already see you decide on a winner. Likewise if you prefer unpretentious bohemian retro-character to loafers-and-sweater fashion, and you know exactly which one of this pair fits in which camp.
Either way, in tight laneways and parking-deprived streets, these two shine as well as any Volkswagen Polo (on which the A1 is based) or Toyota Yaris. (I know this all too well, because I’ve lived with this very Audi for six months in a street where I physically could not squeeze a Porsche Panamera down…)
What the A1 and Mini aim to offer is extra technology, class and refinement, to name just three. Let’s start with the first one…
Priced from $26,450, the Mini Cooper has a drivetrain package that is unrivalled for performance and economy. BMW’s new 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder makes 100kW and 220Nm, or about 10 per cent more power and torque respectively than a Volkswagen Golf that competes for around the same money.
The Mini Cooper weighs around 200kg less than CarAdvice’s top-rated small hatchback, however, tipping the scales at just 1085kg. That teeny kerb weight pays big divdends.
Not only is the 0-100km/h claim verging on hot-hatch territory at 7.9 seconds, but official combined cycle fuel consumption of 4.7 liters per 100 kilometres is honing in on hybrids.
The $29,900 Audi A1 Sportback has a slightly smaller engine (1.4 litres) but an extra cylinder to play with (four), and it also uses a turbocharger to boost its outputs. Power of 90kW and torque of 200Nm are no match for its rival, though, especially considering the five-door model weighs 40kg more at 1125kg.
Performance claims (0-100km/h in 9.0 seconds) and official fuel usage (5.4L/100km) are no match, either.
Certainly in terms of offering premium engine technology, the Audi starts off on the back foot, sharing its iron-block engine with the previous-generation Golf rather than the new model with its lighter aluminium internals. It’s worth noting, however, that a facelifted A1 is coming within a year and should improve on this front.
Having lived with this A1 for six months, though, it pretty much always does 8.0L/100km in real-world combined conditions (as opposed to a laboratory where the official figures come from) so it will be interesting to see on this test how the Mini fares.
For parity’s sake, we’ve chosen six-speed manual transmissions for this test.
Each have an automatic transmission optional – a $2500 six-speed auto in the Mini, $2350 seven-speed dual-clutch in the Audi – that is the more popular choice, but experience tells us that neither are outstanding ‘boxes. The Cooper’s can be lurchy and indecisive between gears, while the A1 suffers badly from low-speed surging and irritable clunking, though it is fine on the move.
By contrast, the Audi manual is an absolute honey, so it will also be interesting to see if the Mini can deliver such shifting pleasure and delight beyond its on-paper advantage.
As the price tags tell, the Mini Cooper has a $3250 advantage compared with the Audi A1 Sportback Attraction, though you could argue that some of that difference can be absorbed by the latter’s extra doors.
Each are similarly equipped, though if you’re thinking premium pricing should equate to giving you all the fruit, then think again; both are classically German when it comes to offering a stack of options.
Standard on the outside are 15-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors and not much else. Inside both there is a leather-wrapped, multi-function steering wheel, regular air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, cruise control and basic audio systems.
So sparse is the Mini that Bluetooth audio streaming is optional, as part of a $3000 Pepper package fitted to our test car that handily brings price parity with the 1.4-litre Audi.
The package adds 16-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, a centre armrest, front foglights, LED interior lighting, and a 6.5-inch colour display; none of which is standard on the A1 except for the latter and BT audio.
The A1 gets a physical key to turn the car on rather than the Mini’s toggle starter button (so you can keep the key in your pocket), but that’s about the only major difference.
There are more packages in the Audi, such as the $1600 Style package (xenon headlights and 16s) and $1990 Technik package (satellite navigation and more powerful sound system) fitted to our A1.
You can also match the optioned Mini’s climate control (though single zone) which is bundled with keyless auto-entry, auto dimming rear-view mirror and LED lighting as part of a $1450 Comfort package.
The options we’d stay away from in the A1 include anything with bigger wheels and sports suspension (standard on the $33,450 A1 Ambition), as while it keeps up appearances, it adversely affects ride comfort.
The new-for-2014 Mini has some cool technology not available in cheaper light hatchbacks (or the A1) such as a digital radio tuner ($300), head-up display that shines the speedometer and other information onto the windscreen ($700), semi-automatic parking function ($700), adaptive dampers ($700) and a pair of active safety systems – radar cruise control, forward collision warning – for a combined $1350.
They are reasonably priced at least, so you can pick and choose what tech you want up to your price range.
Mini interior quality has never been outstanding for the price, leaving the typical-Audi level of finish in the A1 with a commanding lead. That’s no longer the case.
The new Cooper feels bigger than the old one up front, with a wider, more expansive dashboard covered in expensive materials, and buttons and switches that feel more tactile. Even the upper glovebox lid now swings upwards in a smoothly damped fashion, where before it felt toy-set clicky.
That may be inconsequential detail for some, but then some may put the difference in the stitching of something from Target compared with Armani in the same regard. We’d guess that A1 and Mini buyers won’t, though.
With that in mind, the circular air vents in the Audi rotate with immaculately damped precision, and the knob inside each of them that opens or restricts ventilation is made of knurled silver and twists elegantly. The Mini’s circular air vents are still a little bit Tar-jey.
The A1 remains slightly ahead of its rival in other ways. From the flock-lined centre console storage bin (okay, a $200 option) to the consistently matched plastics and liberal use of polished silver and piano black, it’s all class.
Typically, BMW’s iDrive is more intuitive than Audi’s Multi-Media Interface equivalent on higher-end models, but here that isn’t the case.
The Mini’s (optional) centre screen is high in resolution even in this simple 6.5-inch form – the $1400 navigation that brings an 8.8-inch screen wasn’t included – and the iDrive buttons on the lower console is easy to navigate.
But the A1’s MMI has a small, knurled silver central knob on the audio system, flanked by simple shortcut buttons that are easier to see on the dashboard rather than the centre console.
It’s a doddle to use, but don’t go looking for apps connectivity or other premium equivalents – in this regard, the A1 and Mini are both behind a middle-grade Mazda 3.
Up front in the Mini you no longer get the feeling you’re sitting just before very upright A-pillars, as the dashboard is so deep you could be in a Countryman SUV.
Yet the perception of airy space up front isn’t the same for those behind.
Even placing aside the fact the Mini only seats four, legroom is virtually non-existant for the outboard passengers, which is a shame considering this Mini has grown 38mm compared with the old one.
The Audi feels more compact up front thanks to its shallow dashboard, but it is more spacious behind. There’s usable legroom, helped by the fact the bench doesn’t sit close to the floor as it does in the Mini.
Headroom is below average in both.
If you’re 180cm tall or over, be prepared to be wedged against the rooflining; my 178cm frame just misses it in the A1 and just brushes in the Mini.
Maybe the extra length of the Cooper went to the 30 per cent-larger boot, but even then its 211 litres trails that of the 270L A1.
Given how innovative the original front-wheel-drive Mini was, is it too much to expect a bit of packaging smarts with this third-generation New Mini?
It simply stalls the game while looking the same.
The latest Mini does, however, feel far more mature to drive on the road.
Gone is the immediacy of the steering that helped previous models feel darty, replaced by a vacant on-centre patch that at least transitions into mid-weighted, smoothly consistent and direct response, saving its reputation.
It actually feels more like the Audi’s steering, which is generally enjoyable except it can be a bit slow when parking, which seems at odds with its size.
Generation three is also the first New Mini to ride well, at least on the sensible 16-inch tyres fitted to our test car. Where the old model backed its darty steering with go-kart low standards of ride compliance, the new one feels as though you could do an Italian Job on your city streets if you were, say, late running to the airport or an appointment (guilty on both counts).
The Mini’s firm but comfortable damping creates a blend of compliance and control that is outstanding. The Audi A1 rides very well on its optional 16s and standard suspension, but you can feel its bones aren’t quite made of the same stuff as its rival’s.
The A1 skims over small stuff well, and dispatches with bigger nasties at lower speed nicely, but try to pound over speed humps and it will wallop its nose where the wheel-at-each-corner Mini wipes the sweat off its brow.
Tackle, for example, the sweeping left-hander off York Street in Sydney onto the Anzac Bridge in the Audi, and the awfully wrinkled tarmac throws it slightly off line, its torsion bar rear-end turning jittery. The Mini, with its independent rear suspension, stares the same stretch down and says ‘come at me bro’.
You can feel there’s more depth and sophistication to the engineering of the Mini Cooper. Yet when we left the confines of the city to go find some touring roads – where we tipped the Mini should continue to shine – a curious thing happened.
The Cooper rolls less into corners than the A1, and it initially feels more agile. However you don’t need to be trying hard to discover the Korean-made Hankook Ventus Prime 2 tyres deliver a startling lack of grip.
The Mini starts to understeer – despite the body remaining flat – much earlier than its rival, yet thanks to a short wheelbase it can feel snappy, testing the reactions of its driver and the stability control.
Swap into the Audi and it feels as though you’ve been driving in pouring rain in the Cooper, such is the difference. The A1 is shod with superb Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres and they bring out the best in a lesser chassis.
The A1 feels supremely planted and stable, if not as exquisitely balanced or playful as, say, a Ford Fiesta Sport.
The only area where its tyres are perhaps an issue is when they drum up too much road noise on coarse-chip surfaces, more than its rival and that expected of a premium little tike.
Of the two it’s the Mini that encourages more spirited driving.
As with most small-capacity turbocharged engines, its 1.5-litre three-cylinder feels a bit breathless past 6000rpm, as its peak power is made from 4500rpm and only up until that point. But from as little as 1000rpm, it pulls, and by 2000rpm it surges.
With maximum torque on tap from 1250rpm to 4000rpm, it is wickedly quick in its mid-range, with an addictive thrust missing from its rival.
The 1.4-litre turbo Audi – now with 6000-plus kilometres on the clock – has freed up tremendously, and feels much quicker than its performance claims indicate. It makes its power at 5000rpm, and torque between 1500rpm and 4500rpm, so it’s similarly drivable with no holes in its delivery. It just doesn’t feel as keen to rev or ultimately as fast as its rival.
The Cooper can’t, however, match its manual shift: it’s surprisingly notchy and baulks during quick shifts particularly when cold. The A1’s manual is so silky you could change gears with your pinky finger.
Despite the on-paper difference, both models showed in the 8.5-9.0L/100km bracket during our test from the ‘burbs to the country and back (though a fuelling error meant we had to rely on the trip computers).
So, which is the tastiest premium light?
If you look at premium in terms of engineering and the availability of technology a cut above the cheaper mainstream crowd, then the Mini Cooper fulfills the brief. But then it lacks standard Bluetooth audio, its packaging is below average and its tyres hamper its handling – we’d love to try one with better rubber, but can only assess what is available.
The Audi A1 Sportback never quite reaches the performance high of its rival, but equally it never dips below an accomplished line of achievement. With almost all things equalised on the road, its win here is secured by its classier interior that also happens to be much more practical.