I’m in two minds about the 2020 Audi A1 40 TFSI S tronic, and neither one of them is terribly negative.
It’s a reasonably accomplished compact city car that neatly sidesteps the 'my sister's high school graduation present' stigma, primarily through its smart styling and somewhat mature execution. And it’s also a surprisingly competent surrogate hot hatch, once you dig into its on-road capabilities. Charming and likeable? You bet.
It looks great. To quote one CarAdvice partner in crime, it’s “a knockout from every viewing angle”, and I’m inclined to agree. But this ‘40’ version shouldn’t be the A1 in your crosshairs if your wants are looks and badge cachet alone, because the variant line-up tips in under $33K before on-roads for the cheap and cheerful three-pot ‘30’ version. Whereas our flagship (of three grades) on test wants for $46,450 list, before options that nudge the outlay further up to $49,720.
Given the extras are comprised of paint (‘40’-exclusive Turbo Blue: $490), paint (Mythos Black roof and mirrors: $890) and more paint (Black highlights: $790) plus an alternative wheel style ($1100), they’re easily ignored in assessing the A1 40’s mettle. And it ought to offer mettle aplenty. A cursory glance across the compact/light/micro landscape and you’ll have to try pretty hard to spend more coin on a smaller-than-small-car, erm, car (an Abarth 695 Cabriolet Rivale at almost $49K, for instance).
Yes, the all-new-for-last-year A1 is longer and thus roomier than the first generation, but it’s still a roughly 4m-long tyke with appealing lean proportions that lend themselves so joyously well to carving through the urban confines like a bowie knife. It’s just not 47-grand prudently spent if outright spaciousness and utility are top priorities.
It’s certainly smartly packaged for its size and against most of its segment competitors, which, badge cachet and pricing notwithstanding, include an obvious nemesis in the Polo GTI ($31,990 list). To address Dumbo the interloper, there are more technical and tangible similarities between these two corporate cousins than there are differences. And there’s a no-brainer twin test ripe for the plucking, regardless of potential protest from the four-ringed camp.
Row one is roomy and airy, with its fluff, short dash, low console, generous glasshouse and uncomplicated ambience. Row two is commodious enough for adults in the outboard seating positions, its low seat base, decent head room and reasonable leg room about as good as it gets for a compact: meaning you won’t require a chiropractor after trips longer than a half-hour.
At 335L, the A1 boasts an extra 30L of boot space than a certain Volkswagen hottie, though that’s about the volumetric difference of a temporary spare wheel, which only the latter car fits. It’s decent-enough room, ample for groceries, enough for a small pram (maybe), which is more than can be said for, say, a Corolla hatch or Mazda CX-3, as general reference.
Features-wise, the high-end ‘40’ spec is a bit of a mixed bag. And whether the overall equipment list delivers on expectations of the premium badge and price tag will largely depend on buyer preference, despite the fact the A1 has some glaring omissions when it comes to essentials.
The techy LED headlight and tail-light jewelry, complete with trendy scrolling rear indicators, function as impressively as they look. And the suite of pedestrian- and cyclist-detecting AEB, active lane-keeping (above 65km/h), 360-degree sensors to complement the crystal-clear reversing camera, and cruise control (albeit non-adaptive) are expected features for where Audi positions this little hatch.
Audi loves a bit of digital window dressing, and in terms of format, features and resolution, the A1 40 cabin meets expectations. The Virtual Cockpit instrumentation is a 10.25-inch display – a sort of ‘lite’ version in size and content, with a little more whiz-bang than some marques' designs, if more streamlined than Audi’s proper 12.3-inch design in other model lines.
Ditto the MMI Navigation Plus-grade infotainment system, which loads in crisp-looking sat-nav, DAB+, Apple and Android smartphone mirroring with rather handy wireless connectivity if CarPlay is your bag, inductive phone charging, and both type A and type C USB ports. As demonstrated here, Audi is moving away from console control to touchscreen-only interface – “more premium”, it says – though, thankfully, you still get a volume knob. Strangely, the modest 10.1-inch screen is oriented away from the front passenger and skewed towards the ceiling.
There’s just enough joy in the digital window dressing, the stylish steering wheel, and the gloss black and satin silver accents to mask conspicuous cost-consciousness in other areas. There’s a lot of hard, shiny plastic about, including most of the door trims, while the seats feature basic mechanical adjustment up front, rudimentary ‘Derby’ cloth trim throughout, and row two is bereft of any creature comfort. Rear passengers don’t get so much as air vents.
If there’s a glaring shortcoming to the ‘40’, it’s that too much of the cabin looks and feels a bit basic for a variant that’s around 12-grand pricier than the entry ‘30’ A1.
Hit the road and the depth in the A1 40’s driving qualities seems to better justify its price tag. But I do wonder (in my two minds) whether the seemingly stronger emphasis on hot-hatch competency, than all-round city car polish, is a balance most keenly struck for owners of this sort of premium compact.
Unsurprisingly, the 2.0-litre EA888 turbo four’s 147kW and 320Nm match those of its cousin, the Polo GTI. And with a very similar six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, front drive and near-enough 1335kg kerb weight – the Volkswagen’s 20kg heavier – there are no prizes for guessing that the Audi’s 6.5-second 0–100km/h performance is brisk and satisfying, if oh-so familiar.
That’s no bad thing, at least once you’re up it for the rent. Tap the powertrain into Sport, via a slap of the transmission controller, and response is crisp, acceleration is assertive, and the S tronic transmission remains slick and alert zipping up and down ratios – and all to a satisfyingly rorty soundtrack. While the engine lacks a bit of zing in the top end, it delivers strong lows and mids, with a surly if flat rise through the rev range that’s perhaps more useful than it is exciting.
The powertrain rewards once you dig in, and the same can be said of the handling. The A1 40 TFSI sits flat, points confidently, and steers clearly and evenly with ample feedback. There’s more mechanical grip than you initially expect, and it can be impressively swift point to point, if with that fairly safe and benign balance and manner typical of VAG’s current pint-size fun machines. There’s not much sting or liveliness, but Audi’s quickest compact delivers handsomely on its neat little hot-hatch party trick.
The A1 40’s main game should be urban-runabout goodness, and its city-car bag around town is a little more mixed. The default 'Comfort' ride setting (of two damper modes) is slightly firm if adequately compliant, its compact dimensions and excellent outward visibility make it a joy to cut through traffic, and it’s got the herbs underfoot to chase those opportune gaps on a whim. It's just that the denser and tighter the environment, and the slower the progress, the unhappier it gets, mostly at part throttle and in stop-start driving.
The automatic clutch actuation of the gearbox is quite abrupt. It tends to lunge off the mark quite assertively, and deceleration is notchy and unpredictable rolling to a standstill. And its keenness to keep the engine RPM as low as possible on a light and constant throttle, to minimise fuel consumption, robs the powertrain of on-command response.
Almost all of these foibles disappear with concentrated, accurate throttle application and knocking the powertrain into Sport off the mark, but this gets to be more of a chore the more you drive the Audi.
Is it any worse than the great many other VAG models fitted with small turbo engines and dual-clutch gearboxes, including the Polo GTI? Not really. But that alone doesn’t justify the annoyances. And while a manual transmission has become an option in the Polo in some markets, thus far the A1 remains an S tronic-only proposition.
Our advice is that if you’re accustomed to the whims of the dual-clutch format, you mightn’t have any gripes about the six-speed powertrain on offer here. But if you’re unfamiliar, you really ought to spend some time test-driving one at low speed, including parking and three-point turning, before parting with good money.
Fuel consumption does fluctuate quite a bit depending on driving style. While it will spiral up into double figures during a spirited punt, the A1 did return a quite impressive 7.0L/100km figure during early commutes to the office from home for a package advertising a more ambitious 6.4L/100km combined-cycle claim. That’s quite frugal for the sort of performance this A1 will happily uncork.
The three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, as always, looks light on – the Polo GTI gets five years, incidentally – though the capped-price servicing plans of $1490 (three years) and $1990 (five years), on a 12-month/15,000km-per-service schedule, are quite competitive. You also get three years of complimentary roadside assist and up to five sat-nav updates within three years of the production date.
“The all-new Audi A1 is a bit of a mixed bag. The car presents nicely, is loaded with features, and is well priced at the mid-spec level. However, it's let down by a fussy gearbox and some subpar interior materials.” That’s what we wrote about the ‘35’ version of the A1 back in January wanting for a touch over $35K. And spending a five-figure premium beyond that for what’s a certifiably quicker ‘40’ version doesn’t eliminate our main objections.
Negatives apart, the A1 40 remains a great looking, very appealing, and certifiably mature offering that could well be the finest compact hatchback good money can buy. But it could only lay fair claim to that mantle if it toppled its highly acclaimed, if markedly more affordable, Polo GTI cousin in head-to-head assessment.