The latest Audi S1 has big shoes to fill, with a lineage that harks back to the frightening days of the infamous Group B World Rally Championship.
The original Audi Sport Quattro S1 road car was the result of a Quattro program developed for homologation for Group B rallying in 1984.
Sold in limited numbers, it featured an advanced, all-alloy 2.1-litre (20-valve) engine that produced 225kW of power, while the competition cars were tuned to deliver around 331kW.
Given that the newest version is based on Audi’s petite A1, which is priced at a relatively reasonable $26,500, many might think you’d have to be stark raving mad to shell out almost 50 grand ($49,900) for the S1, at least on face value.
But the Audi S1 is a very special kind of A1. For starters, it swaps the 136kW/250Nm 1.4-litre TSFI engine used in the Sport variant for a turbocharged 2.0-litre firecracker of an engine, which punches out 170kW and a stomping 370Nm of torque.
Audi engineers have also worked a miracle or two on the S1’s suspension system.
The standard A1 range uses a torsion beam rear axle – more compact and more room for luggage. But in the S1, that system has been ditched in favour of a more sophisticated four-link system – not a simple job by any means, but definitely worth the effort.
It also gets Audi’s famous quattro, or permanent all-wheel drive, for extra traction and safety and an Audi trademark for all their high-performance ‘S’ models. It’s good in the dry, but brilliant in the wet.
Its closest rival, the $56,900 Mini Countryman John Cooper Works ALL4 only manages 160kW/280Nm from its 1.6-litre turbo powerplant, while Citroen’s contender, the DS3 Racing (sold only in Europe), which also uses a 1.6-litre turbo, develops 147kW and 275Nm of torque.
Even the $48,490, 169kW/350Nm VolkswagenGolf GTI Performance has to surrender to the S1’s class-leading output.
Better still, the Audi is almost 100 kilos lighter than the Golf, so there’s a significant advantage in the handling and agility departments, especially when you’re having a proper go.
The specs say it’ll hit 100km/h 5.9 seconds, but I’m telling you straight, it feels a lot quicker than that out of the gate.
However, it’s in the mid-range where this thing really delivers its knockout punch. Feed in the power or just give it a boot full and it definitely doesn’t hang about.
The engine delivers peak torque from just 1600-3000rpm, and while that’s not a particularly wide torque band, it keeps making power all the way to 6000rpm, so it never feels like its running out of steam.
Moreover, the power delivery is super smooth and super linear (despite the forced induction), so away from the track it morphs into a wonderfully civilised daily drive. Throttle response is also instant and any hint of turbo lag is minimal on track.
I like the engine note, too. Even at idle, there’s no mistaking the S1 for any other A1 sibling. It’s noticeably bassy and high tempo and only gets better as the tacho needle rises.
Unlike the Golf GTI and Golf R, which are available in both manual and dual-clutch, the S1 is exclusively available with an old-school six-speed manual. It’s beautifully precise with a light shift action and a brilliant fit in this proper pocket rocket.
It’s also got brilliant poise. On the closed roads used for this test, we were flat stick through several corners with all the confidence in the world and rock solid stability. That’s down to the engineering in this car, as well as the super glue levels of traction from the quattro system.
Under normal driving conditions, it sends 100 per cent of torque to the front wheels, but it can also split it 50:50 between front and rear axles.
If you push beyond the maximum grip level, the S1 simply lets go with a gentle power-slide, but it’s all very civilised.
In the wet, it’s simply mind-blowing. There’s no need to back off the pace, not even by 10 per cent. Grip levels are extraordinary, you can turn in even earlier and there’s no performance penalty.
You’ve also got three drive modes to choose from; Efficient, Auto and Dynamic – our choice for today’s track work, which provides the stiffest damper setting for harder cornering.
That leads me to the steering. It’s an electromechanical power steering system that’s responsive and direct on turn in, though for me, it still lacks the wheel-by-wheel feedback I’m looking for.
The brakes are bulletproof. There’s big stopper power on offer and little brake-fade to speak of, despite countless laps on our six-kilometre test facility.
Inside, the S1 is pretty much like every other premium Audi – that is to say, beautifully finished with premium plastics and plenty of metallic accents. As nice as it is, I’d suggest it’s not quite special enough for a car wearing the S1 badge, though it’s hardly a deal breaker.
This particular example has the optional racing style seats that are colour-coded to match the exterior paint and upholstered in soft Nappa leather.
They’re not overly bolstered, so they’re comfortable for daily commuter work, but still more than capable of holding you firm under these hard charging test conditions.
At just under $50k, the S1 may seem like a lot of money, but with this level of engineering, performance and quality, I simply can’t call it overpriced, especially when you consider the exclusivity and feel-good factors on offer.