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The 2015 Audi S1 Sportback is a serious performance hatch for the serious performance enthusiast - at least according to the German brand.
It’s aimed at potential Audi owners who desire the cache of an S model but may not be able to make the leap to the more expensive S (and RS) models currently available. It’s also aimed at buyers new to the Audi brand, who may be attracted to the marque and are looking to move into their first realistic performance variant.
With that remit in mind, the new S1 is the most affordable S variant ever.
The price? $49,900. Think about that figure - just 100 bucks short of fifty grand. In 2014, that amount isn’t an astronomical amount to spend on a European performance car, but it still seems like a lot for an Audi A1 - even if it is an A1 on a fairly hefty course of steroids.
That sticker means the S1 is more expensive than a Volkswagen Golf GTI ($41,490 for the manual) but cheaper than a Golf R ($51,990 for the manual), by way of comparison. Both a size up, both better equipped. But spend 10 minutes behind the wheel of the S1 on the open road, and you start to come to the opinion it might be worth every cent.
At the S1's local launch in Tasmania, we had the chance to sample it on road and track - and it impressed on both accounts.
Under the bonnet is a VW Group 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder engine that has been slightly detuned from its $10K-more-expensive brother, the S3, though it still outputs an impressive 170kW of power and 370Nm of torque and shows almost no lag at all. Any speed, any gear, the engine is tractable and powerful. Even attempting a few roll-on overtakes in sixth gear from 70km/h on our highway drive, the S1 didn’t get bogged down.
The gearbox is an exceptionally smooth and slick shifting six-speeder that is equally happy to be used to punt around town or work up to redline on a racetrack. Clutch feel is solid enough for a performance car, but not so heavy as to be a chore around town. Likewise the throw between gears is short enough to be rapid when you’re on the move and not so short as to be silly.
You’ll get from 0-100km/h in a claimed 5.9-seconds and use 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres (according to the official combined-cycle consumption lab test), while a top speed of 250km/h ensures the S1 Sportback is the fastest car in its class.
The Audi Drive Select system means you can switch from Efficiency to Auto or Dynamic modes depending on what kind of engine and gearbox response you desire, and the electronically-enhanced exhaust note comes into play in Dynamic mode to spice things up a bit. Around town its stop-start system helps to deliver a competitive fuel use figure.
As with the Golf R or the Subaru WRX STI that we tested a few months back, the most potent weapon in the S1’s armoury isn’t its engine or gearbox, though. Sure, they combine to deliver an exciting driving experience with more power than you’ll ever need. The real key, though, is the brilliant quattro all-wheel drive system.
The current raft of front-drive performance cars are impressive no doubt, but when there’s a slick road beneath you, or you really want to wind the wick up, there’s no substitute for a proper AWD system. The quattro system sends 100 per cent of the drive to the front wheels under normal conditions, but can also split it 50:50 as needed.
Light rain was falling as we left Hobart for the first part of our drive on a road loop of some 200km. Around town, the ride isn't as stiff as you might expect; it's certainly not spongy like a Toyota Camry, but given its short wheelbase and taut chassis it could certainly have been rougher - and our car even had optional 18-inch wheels.
There’s a point and shoot feel to every major control in the S1. The steering, gearshift and clutch combine to make you feel like every road is a racetrack – at any speed.
Once we hit country roads, the supremely balanced S1 came into its own. The combination of its inherent mechanical grip, well sorted suspension and decent 60:40 weight balance make throwing the S1 at corners a temptation that is hard to resist. The brakes are likewise brilliant and never lose precision, even after repeated abuse at higher speeds.
You’d need a lot more power in a rear- or front-drive vehicle to catch the S1 on twisty roads, such is its ability to dispose of corners.
The S1 looks the part too. The standard 17-inch wheels are beautifully designed (the 18s, part of an option pack, being even more attractive) while smaller details such as its sharp headlights and LED rear lights ensure it stands out. Some of the extras like the quattro sticker pack could be seen as a bit ‘boy racer’, but they certainly don’t look offensive.
Our racetrack blast at Baskerville was short but sweet - five laps in the S1 left us feeling as though we'd barely scratched the surface of its performance potential, though it did allow us to garner some knowledge about the car that we wouldn't have been able to establish on the open road.
Electronic stability control was left turned on at the behest of our instructors, and yet the S1 wriggled and squirmed as the speed rose, ensuring the driver could always feel what was going on between their backside and the track.
The gearbox continued to impress even with smooth and rapid shifts at redline, slicing between 2nd
on the tight track. There's no need to ‘learn’ the intricacies of the S1's mechanical package - it’s all very intuitive.
The interior – even without the optional quattro sports seats – is beautifully finished and has an overall feeling of premium quality wherever you look. It’s compact but not claustrophobic and the seats keep you in place but aren’t too stiff.
Set the front seats for six-footers and there won’t be much room in the second row. Adults can fit back there, but the front seats need to be set a little further forward. The luggage space is compact but handy enough for city duties (270 litres), but there’s no spare tyre under the floor, just a puncture repair kit.
The standard audio system is impressive enough to warrant ignoring the optional Bose system (though that stereo's clarity and quality from its 14 speakers, subwoofer and high power amplifier is excellent). The simplicity to the controls with which Audi has become synonymous remains, with all major buttons and switches easily accessible and easy to decipher as well.
The lack of a reverse-view camera (even as an option) can't be ignored, especially at this point on the pricing spectrum. Rear sensors are standard, though.
Smart buyers will sidestep the option boxes and order the base S1. While some of the extras are tempting, you don’t need them to enhance what is an impressive driving experience. The lack of an automatic gearbox may alienate certain buyers, but enthusiasts likely won’t care and the self-shifter is a highlight in the S1's case.
A starting price that's a whisker under $50K may seem like a lot of money, but this kind of performance potential used to easily push past six figures. As such, the Audi S1 Sportback quattro is certain to become an enticing proposition for the budget-minded performance hatch buyer.