I suspect that even Audi has been surprised by the success of its A1. Essentially a supermini with a family hatchback price tag, this upmarket tiddler rode the wave of success generated by BMW’s reimagined Mini, delivering premium appeal and personalisation aplenty to cash-rich buyers looking to downsize. Even the inexorable (inexplicable?) rise of the SUV has failed to significantly dent sales of these tinsel-laden tots, so there’s no wonder Audi has ploughed resources into an all-new version of the A1.
Like its predecessor, the latest car owes a lot to the Volkswagen Polo (and various SEATs and Skodas), being based on the same platform. It also uses many of the same engines, quite a few shared suspension components and pretty much carries over that car’s electrical architecture in its entirety. However, the Polo is a pretty underwhelming car that struggles even in GTI trim. Hopefully Audi has managed to extract more from it, continuing where the old S1 left off.
Aside from the trio of vents above the front grille – they’re inspired by those on the Sport Quattro – the new A1 looks a lot like the old one, just a bit bigger (it’s 56mm longer, but a fraction slimmer and lower) and with a more aggressive stance that is delivered through the use of plenty of sharp creases and bold slashes. It’s inside the car where much of the obvious progress has been made, the cabin feeling like a scaled-down version of one from Audi’s bigger sedans. As you’d expect there’s some malleable plastic trim, plenty of brushed aluminium and a sense of enormous well-being, while the infotainment touchscreen and TFT dials bring the car bang up to date.
The car we really want to drive is a new S1, a model that in its previous form was something of an underrated curio, its mix of dinky dimensions, punchy 170kW turbocharged motor and all-wheel drive delivering something unique and compelling in its class – if you could stomach the Golf GTI-rivalling price. But Audi top brass claims there are no plans to replace the S1, so the most powerful new A1 – for now at least – is front-wheel drive only, has the same 147kW EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre you’ll find in the Polo GTI, and is badged 40 TFSI. (No, I don’t know either. It apparently has something to do with engine power bandings, ‘40’ denoting models with between 125kW and 150kW.)
It’s a sprightly performer, reaching 100km/h from a standstill in just 6.5 seconds and nearly cracking 240km/h – the sort of pace that’ll rattle a Fiesta ST and every other supermini. Yet it doesn’t feel as dramatic as that, even with the strangely augmented growl from the engine and the mild torque-steer on even lightly crowned roads. Yes, there’s a muscular 320Nm, but it’s delivered in a plateau-like line from 1500rpm, which robs the car of a dramatic, explosive delivery – a sensation that’s exaggerated by the standard six-speed S-tronic transmission (there’s no manual option with this engine), which is capable of seamless full-bore upshifts but can get a little wrong-footed on part-throttle openings and downshifts, when it occasionally gives the impression it has tried to engage two ratios at once. Long, long WLTP-friendly ratios don’t help, either.
So the A1 has got hot hatch pace, but does it entertain like one? Well, no, not really. Make no mistake, it’s capable and agile and the raw ingredients are there to make a fine machine of the S1 that may or may not follow, but in 40 TFSI guise it lacks the sparkle you crave from a junior hot hatch. The chassis is standard supermini fare with independent struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear, while the 40 gets stiffer springs and two-way adaptive dampers as standard. You can also alter the steering, throttle and gearshift, but as is often the case, the sweetest combination is the sportiest engine response with Comfort for everything else.
Whichever settings you choose, the A1 drives too much like any other VW Group product on the same platform: fast and unflappable across the ground but demanding very little of its driver. The steering is quick and accurate, there’s strong bite from the tyres, and the dampers in their firmest setting offer adept control. Even the brakes are good, eschewing Audi’s normally overservoed feel for a firm pedal that offers powerful, progressive stopping power. And yes, it’s nimble, the blend of relatively modest mass and shortish wheelbase allowing it to change direction with impressive alacrity, the car rotating nicely about its centre and giving the feeling that the front and back axles are working in harmony. It’s just that the driver has so little involvement in what the car is doing. There’s also precious little feedback through the electrically assisted steering, while you can feel the torque-vectoring working the front brakes to keep the nose locked on line as you push on through slower corners.
The new A1 is refined, comfortable and effortlessly easy to live with. But if you’re craving an uplifting hot hatch driving experience you should look elsewhere. Or demand that Audi builds a new S1. James Disdale
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbo
Power 147kW @ 6000rpm
Torque 320Nm @ 1500-4400rpm
Weight 1260kg (117kW/tonne)
Top speed 237km/h
Basic Price c$42,000