Like clockwork, the Audi A1 Sportback range has been given a polish in the company of a shiny new five-door Mini rival. And it's not a huge stretch to interpret that its more "masculine" design, says Ingolstadt, and effective price dropping across a more concise three-model range, aim to stimulate the interest of well-heeled urbanites who've found the A1, well, too cutesy and expensive for what it is... Or who've now helped the Mini become the top-selling premium light hatchback.
But are the updates polish enough?
There’s certainly more clarity in the new one-engine-per-variant Audi A1 range, particularly in its top and tail. The headlining 1.8 TFSI S line, despite a workmanlike seven out of 10 in a recent review, taps a hot-hatch vein more confidently than its 1.4-litre forebear. And the new three-cylinder 1.0 TFSI version – at $26,990, the most affordable Audi very little money buys – recently dispatched the Mini 5 Door One in terms of sharpness in value. Both are clear pitches and both boast all-new engines for added ‘freshly baked’ sparkle.
If the middle ground the between 1.0- and 1.8-litre units looks a little hazy, the Audi A1 Sportback 1.4 TFSI S tronic Sport certainly fills the gap with little uncertainty. Yes, that’s right, a ‘double sport’.
At $30,100 (before on-roads in as-tested dual-clutch form), it plays the value card on many levels. Pound for pound, the new car slices $5700 off the old Ambition variant it effectively replaces. Further, the four-cylinder mid-spec A1 Sportback is a mere $1850 above the similarly S tronic-equipped base three-banger. It gets cheaper still: opt for a conventional six-speed manual and the 1.4 TFSI Sport is a sharp $27,750 (before on-road costs).
But there’s a caveat to all of this. Our test car lands at $36,270 (before on-road costs) – a 20 per cent price hike. And only two of the cost options fitted, pearlescent body ($990, called Utopia Blue) and solid roof ($700, dubbed Brilliant Black) paint work, really ought to count as indulgences in a plus-$30k light hatch.
Our test car gets the Style package ($1990), which adds xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights and ups wheel size from 16 to 17 inches. There are many size-larger small cars and SUVs out there below this price point fitted with this stuff as standard. The same goes for the Technik package ($2490) which, while introducing some fine audio ear candy, adds satellite navigation that should otherwise come loaded into a sub-small car costing thirty large.
Some buyers will forego specification for four-ringed badge cache and a smart single-frame grille it hangs from, it’s worth pointing out the omissions in weighing up the sense of premium-ness in the package. There’s no leather trim and no electric adjustment for the seats. There’s no reversing camera and no regular USB ports – you’re forced to use proprietary device cabling. And bar a soft-touch cap on the armrests, the door trims are almost entirely hard plastic.
True to Audi form though, general interior presentation is top notch. Rubberised dash materials, low-lustre and textured plastics, alloy look details, sophisticated design bereft of tacky stylism, a leather-trimmed multifunction wheel with paddle shifters – where your gaze and hands tend to land there’s quality. The sport-style front seats are more shapely and supportive than those in the base A1, though, the slightly shiny cloth trim looks lifted out of a Skoda.
The stripped down dial and button interface for the infotainment system, located in the centre stack, demands more distraction than Audi’s slicker upmarket systems. But the (again optional) sat-nav, audio, foldable dash-top-mounted 6.5-inch screen and associated audio streaming and voice control functionality better a great many systems on the market.
If you want to move four adults in comfort the A1 isn’t the answer – rear accommodation is tight in every direction, though it is serviceable with four-up for short trips. The 270-litre boot converts to a handy rather than cavernous 920 litres with the rear seats folded down.
All A1s have a five-star ANCAP safety rating thanks largely to a compliment of six airbags in front, front side and full-length head level curtain locations.
So far, so acceptable rather than exceptional. But if you want the A1 1.4 TFSI Sport to shine, simply point it at suburbia and pull its string. As an urban runabout, it’s very good indeed.
On the surface, the turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol four looks carryover: a cursory lift in power from 90kW to 92kW; the same 200Nm as the last A1 1.4, if arriving at 1400rpm instead of the old 1500rpm. But it's not the same engine. Audi calls it "significantly redeveloped" though with a markedly smaller bore (was 76.5mm, now 74.5mm) and longer stroke (was 75.6mm, now 80.0mm) it's essentially new (and at 1395cc, five cc larger). And the improvements behind the wheel are more marked than the boring engineering semantics suggest.
Volkswagen Audi Group's 1.4-litre turbo-four and seven-speed dual-clutch powertrain combinations have long suffered drivability issues, namely transmissions hyperactively hunting through gears to keep the peaky little engine in its narrow sweet spot. But this new long-stroke 1.4, tractable from idle and pulling consistently through to redline, seems to have cured long standing ills.
In 'Normal' drive mode, there’s little hesitation off the mark, no sudden torque spike alarmingly lunging the car forward, no sudden thuds as the transmission upshifts after it’s caught snoozing. For its modest capacity, it feels like a larger engine than it is and has more flexible, seat-of-the-pants energy than its 92kW suggests.
Responsive and reasonably smooth shifting during part throttle acceleration, in the balance of normal urban driving the A1 is light on its feet and properly brisk without the need to push buttons and activate various modes. And the dual-clutch transmission adapts faithfully to changes in driving style… to a point. When facing on-ramps, merging lanes or simply punching holes in traffic, the A1 demands a backwards tap of the console shifter to trigger a 'Sport' mode ‘boost’.
Knock it into 'Manual' mode, give it the berries and the 1.4 turbo not only sounds sonorous and revs crisply but the A1 feels a damn sight quicker than its 8.9 second 0-100km/h claim. And yet even given the occasional workout, and driven with a sense of urgency around town, it happily dwells around the 6.0 litres per 100km mark for average consumption (Audi’s combined claim is 4.9L/100km).
That little ‘boost’ trick can easily become either second nature or a chore, but it essentially puts paid to any need to activate the dedicated 'Dynamic' drive mode that, from the driver’s seat anyway, seems to add little more to proceedings other than making the steering excessively heavy. In Normal drive mode, though, the revised electromechanical steering system varies the resistance from pleasingly weighty on the move to pleasantly lightweight during low-speed manoeuvring.
If there’s one situation where the powertrain is caught acting lazy and recalcitrant, it’s during parking and three-point turns. There are glaring pauses shifting between drive and reverse, it has a tendency to roll (self-selecting neutral) and want to creep while modulating the clutches. Not ideal.
The Sport adopts the base A1’s Dynamic suspension tune rather than the, erm, ‘Sport’ tune of the 1.8 S line. As a result, it’s a little more relaxed, more compliant and, on balance, suits the urban runabout role of the 1.4-litre version ideally. But it’s not faultless.
Although the optional 17-inch wheels fitted to our test car might present slightly busier primary ride quality, there’s something in the suspension hardware itself that causes the A1 to thud unsatisfactorily over joins and potholes. This is strange, perhaps, given the damping copes with big compression hits in quite a disciplined and settled manner.
So… the 2015 Audi A1 Sportback 1.4 TFSI Sport is not perfect. But while it won’t set any premium benchmarks and its standard equipment list is patchy, there’s depth aplenty in its blend of pace, frugality, comfort and refinement. As an effective tool for cutting through the urban jungle, while neatly avoiding the usual hot-hatch cliches, it’s right up there. Though, on balance of value, we’d probably opt for the $27,750 manual version, sans options.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Audi A1 Sportback 1.4 TFSI Sport images by Mitchell Oke.