Model Tested: 2011 Audi A1; 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6-litre, four cylinder, petrol and turbo-diesel, five and six-speed manual transmissions
You wouldn’t think it, looking at Audi’s current output, but just 30 years ago it was a quirky, unpopular brand building strange and unconventional cars that appealed to pipe smoking, bearded weirdos and nobody else. A bit like Saab. That changed forever with the seminal quattro – a sexy coupé that mixed aggressive styling, cutting-edge four-wheel drive traction. It changed more than Audi – it changed the face of motoring as we know it.
Since then Audi has continued its march towards nothing short of world domination with a frankly brilliant range of prestige cars that have mixed inherent safety with gorgeous looks and brilliant engineering. The company has hardly missed a beat in years. From the BMW 3 Series bashing Audi A4 to the genre-defining Audi R8 supercar, it’s taken on all comers but until now there’s always been one model missing from its line-up: a supermini. And you can forget about the oddball, all aluminium A2 from the 1990s – that was just too expensive, too damned ugly to be counted as anything other than a curiosity.
When it comes to small cars, Audi’s absence in the marketplace has allowed its rivals to steal a march on it. BMW has its truly excellent MINI, Fiat its 500 and Ford’s Fiesta is a truly brilliant package. But that’s about to change with the Audi A1. This car intends to go round MINI’s gaff and knock it out before removing its underwear and wiping its rival’s bloodied nose with it. So, with all the tough talk, can the A1 actually pull it off? Audi is expecting to shift 150,000 of these every year, so it had better be extraordinary.
Being based on the same platform shared by the new Volkswagen Polo and other Volkswagen stablemates the Skoda Fabia and Seat Ibiza, you might think it has nothing new to offer but look closer and you’ll find the A1’s USP: class. Audi reckons no other small car has such a premium feel to it. But is that enough?
From the outside it looks like an A4 that’s been shrunk in the wash, which is no bad thing. It’s a sombre suit compared to the MINI, which is an almost flawless blend of retro cool and funky future style but, unlike current cars like Citro?n’s DS3, its styling won’t look outdated in two years’ time. LED running lamps and that gaping radiator grille mark it out as an Audi and you can specify contrasting coloured roof arches. The front is quite striking, those roof arches do jazz things up a bit but the rear looks bland and non-descript, which is a pity.
Climb inside the A1 and things definitely get better. Audi designs the best interiors in the business and there’s an immediate sense of quality and craftsmanship when you open the door of an A1 and park your derriere. Plastics are soft to the touch, switches and gauges are top notch and everything is laid out with intelligence and precision. There’s a class-leading sat-nav with bird’s eye view available and the seats are pretty comfortable.
So far so good, but where it needs to deliver its knockout blow to its rivals is in the driving experience, for the MINI, especially in Cooper S form, is an absolute riot to drive.
Initially available only as a three-door hatch (a five-door will follow in 18 months’ time and there’ll be a cabriolet, too) with a choice of three engines – two petrol (a 1.2-litre and a 1.4) and a 1.6-litre turbodiesel, the A1 range isn’t about to tempt you away from that hot hatch you have your eye on but it’s early days. The 1.2 and 1.6-litre engines are mated to a five-speed manual gearbox while the 1.4 has a frankly unnecessary dual-clutch automated manual available as an option with a six-speed manual as standard equipment. Three trim levels are available too: SE, Sport and the ever popular S Line.
Launch venue? The complex maze of city streets in Berlin. The hype machine has been in overdrive for months now, with Audi basically making out that the A1 will reinvent the small car niche and obviously it will be more suited to the urban jungle than the open road. So time to take the wheel and see if the marketing spin is justified. Has Audi given the world a blinding little car or is it genuinely as bland and uninteresting as I expect it will be?
The A1 drives like a bigger car, with a heavy feel to its steering. And with the smaller of the petrol engines under its bonnet you need to keep the revs up to get anything like brisk performance from it but the diesel is another matter. With plenty of grunt throughout the rev range, it feels indecently quick (quicker than it actually is) and while it isn’t exactly silky smooth, it’s still pretty refined. You can expect low running costs and green credibility as well – in fact if you opt for this 1.6 diesel you can feel a warm sense of smug, self-satisfaction with 99g/km CO2 emissions.
There’s nothing here, apart from the big car feel and the perception of excellent build quality, that would really tempt you away from a MINI. That car really is a peach to drive and it, too, has a premium feel to it. It’s also, even with the smaller engines, more fun to drive than the little Audi. But that’s only half the story – what Audi has managed to become in these last three decades is a proper, prestige brand and, for some, that’s all that matters.
For many prospective owners, the fact that the A1 isn’t possessed of a chassis that shines won’t be a deal breaker. It’s safe, predictable and a bit boring, so what will those prospective 150,000-a-year customers enjoy? While they won’t be picking up the A1’s keys to go have the drive of their life, they’ll no doubt get off on the feel of the thing; that it’s built to the same standards as any other current Audi and then there’s the fact that, well, it’s an Audi, isn’t it? A Polo would be more fun, a MINI more stylish but neither has what many see as the A1’s USP: those four rings on its badge.
It’s hardly extraordinary but then this is just the beginning. Within two years there will be a huge range of A1 derivatives to choose from and, when the turbocharged S1 surely emerges, MINI’s Cooper S may well have to go into hiding. Certainly, if the extra power from that car’s engine brings hitherto undiscovered depths of enjoyment from the A1 then it will be a stonking little motor. For now the A1 won’t set your pulses racing but, it’s fair to say that, for Audi, it’s a case of ‘mission accomplished’ – there’s no other small car quite like it.