By Adam Davis
Building links to illustrious motorsport history is a sure-fire way to set pulses racing. So when that history involves Group B Audi S1 Quattro rally cars spitting stones at spectators, it’s hard to argue with Audi for choosing such imagery to introduce its latest Audi Sport product, the S1 Sportback. It does set the bar rather high, however… Of course, there is a link in name and in the use of all-wheel drive, but that’s about where it ends.
Out of the original S1’s shadow, the S1 Sportback quattro has the on-paper credentials to create a hot-hatch cult of its own. For starters, the sole transmission option is a six-speed manual and its 1340kg kerb weight is shoved along by a 170kW version of VAG’s 2.0 TFSI motor. More impressive still is the hatch’s 370Nm torque figure, on-tap from 1600-3000rpm. All in, the S1 quattro is capable of hitting 100km/h in 5.9 seconds, with a 250km/h limited top speed.
Priced at $49,900, it (just) undercuts the emotionally-significant $50,000 price barrier, which sounds good value until you notice the curious blend of soft-touch and brittle plastics in the interior and note that, with a couple of options, the S1 creeps above the more powerful, larger Volkswagen Golf R on price. On a value-per-kilowatt basis, it therefore makes little sense, but its funky styling and bright colour palette (with optional contrast roof) are destined to bring the S1 into the eyes of a younger wave of performance enthusiasts.
Audi has specified the tactile, flat-bottomed leather steering wheel as standard equipment for S1, though it feels odd doing without the shift paddles that usually accompany it in other Audis. Further adding to the racy vibe are the curvaceous S sport front seats, trimmed in optional Nappa leather in the test car, which is finished in Vegas Yellow with a Black roof and ‘quattro’ logo on the rear doors.
The initial excitement of seeing a ‘stick’ in the centre console soon evaporates, the shift-feel being spongey and decidedly medium-travel, with ill-defined gates leading to a vagueness that shouldn’t be evident in a performance manual. Over the bumpy, crest-heavy roads south of Hobart, the S1’s combination of punchy turbo power, all-wheel drive traction and diminutive size allows you to thread apices while remaining comfortably within your lane. It’s an objective mile-muncher, but I am left a little perplexed by its handling repertoire. Despite standard adaptive damping forming part of the ‘Efficiency, Auto, Dynamic’ modes of Audi’s drive select, the S1 never breathes with the road; instead it floats, bucking on bumps and unable to settle before the next camber takes hold. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the optional 18-inch, 225/35 R18 Bridgestone Potenzas on the test car, though we’d have to try one on 17s with 215/40s to confirm.
At one point, driving at moderate pace, the S1 steps wide of my steering input and into a four-wheel drift, as if the road was suddenly splashed with oil. Indeed, it is the steering on bumpy roads that saps confidence; you are never quite sure if the S1 will scribe your intended line.
Transferring to the Baskerville race circuit, the combination of a different S1 and change of surface, focus and conditions seems to wake up the S1. There’s still a dearth of initial steering feel, but a more aggressive turn-in alleviates that – you just have to trust it. Once into the corner, the sophisticated Haldex system (which can theoretically send power 100 per cent to front or rear, though it’s usually around 60/40 front/rear) works well to limit understeer and maximise traction with the 225/35 Bridgestone Potenzas (fitted to optional 18-inch alloys; 17s are standard), making the S1 a rocket out of Baskerville’s tight uphill corners. Braking, via 310mm vented front discs and 272mm solid rears, also impresses, the pedal increasing in length over six laps but remaining consistently powerful.
It’s fun and fast on-track, however, the mixed on-road response plays on my mind. It has the looks, size and speed, but there are better and cheaper hot hatches around.
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