Audi A1 review
Classy Audi A1 supermini packs good looks, a great-quality finish and top-notch refinement into a compact body
Critics have accused the Audi A1 of being little more than a Volkswagen Polo in a posh party frock, but an engaging chassis and classy interior help to lift this small car above that.
It can become very expensive once you start adding optional extras, and the A1 can’t match its arch rival, the MINI, for fun behind the wheel. But the Audi is a lot easier on the eye than the baby Brit, and those classy, understated looks are likely to clinch the deal for many potential buyers.
Plus, the smallest petrol and diesel engines provide almost as much driving engagement overall as the range-topping, high-performance S1 quattro model.
The A1 is Audi's answer to premium small cars like the sporty MINI, classy DS 3 or quirky Fiat 500. However, unlike those cars, it's based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Polo, SEAT Ibiza and Skoda Fabia - which has its good and its bad points. It's posher and comes with more brand image than those cars, but it's impossible to deny that they do broadly the same job - for a lower price.
What helps lift the A1 over its VW group siblings are sharp styling and a genuinely stunning interior. And the high-performance S1 brings some excitement to the range, taking the fight to the likes of the MINI John Cooper Works with its 228bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and quattro four-wheel drive.
The styling is typical Audi, with a big, imposing grille, narrow, piercing headlights and an attractively creased and curved body. While the A1 is perhaps not as striking as a MINI or a DS 3, it’s certainly a very handsome and beautifully understated car.
There’s a choice of three-door and five-door Sportback bodystyles, and the latter is probably the more convincing choice visually – especially if you add contrasting silver roof lines and darker alloy wheels.
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However, there are some more striking colour options available. Fluorescent yellow is offered, for example, if you’re feeling especially brave, while some buyers have chosen a colour scheme for their A1 that replicates the look of classic eighties Audi Quattro and Sport Quattro rally cars. It’s all a matter of taste – and, of course, budget.
While rivals such as the five-door MINI now provide a challenge in terms of cabin space, the Audi A1 remains the most practical choice on the premium small car market, with a decent-sized boot and reasonable space in the back seats. It is a bit limited by its styling, though – there’s no distinctive difference between the three and five-door versions, as there is with a MINI.
Plus, Audi doesn’t currently provide a drop-top option to match the MINI Convertible, which comes with a full soft-top, or the peel-back fabric roof designs offered by the DS 3 Cabrio or Fiat 500C. This seems like an opportunity missed.
Engines, performance and drive
The best of the A1’s engines is definitely the 1.0-litre TFSI petrol unit with 94bhp. It’s not exactly a powerhouse – 0-62mph takes 11.0 seconds – but it sounds good and loves to rev, so it’s fun to drive. And as this A1 weighs only 1,060kg, it doesn’t have to struggle.
The 1.6 TDI diesel engine claims some remarkable fuel economy figures, but it’s at least £1,000 more expensive to buy than the 1.0-litre petrol, so you need to do the sums to ensure you’ll cover the mileage to justify this. Audi also offers a more powerful 1.4 TFSI petrol engine, with 123bhp or 148bhp, but for most buyers, the little 1.0-litre will do the job nicely.
Unless you’ve tried the S1 quattro, that is. It features a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo delivering 228bhp, which is a lot of power in a car the size and weight of this. Add four-wheel-drive traction, and you have a recipe for bags of grip to go with the thrilling performance.
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Performance and drive
As it shares mechanicals with the Volkswagen Polo, the Audi A1 unsurprisingly errs on the side of sensible rather than exciting with its driving experience. Sport and S line models get lowered and stiffened suspension (although buyers can revert to the standard set-up before they take delivery at no extra cost), plus the steering is precise and well weighted, and there’s a decent amount of grip. But the A1 can’t match the engaging MINI or DS 3 for ultimate driving fun.
The ride is quite firm in any form, so if you decide to go for an S line model then it becomes quite uncomfortable. Unless you live somewhere with exceptionally smooth roads, we'd stick to the softer-riding SE versions – or select the standard suspension on range-topping models. Visibility is good in the Audi A1, and it's pretty easy to park, so it ticks the urban runabout boxes well.
Thanks to the low weight of its engine, the 1.0 TFSI petrol model has the best steering in the line-up, and ultimately delivers the best handling of any A1.
Having said that, both 1.4-litre models offer decent economy and a lower price than the diesel cars. The 148bhp TFSI won't upset the MINI Cooper S – it's quite quick, yet lacks involvement. The S1 is faster, but comes at quite a price premium.
All engines are smooth and refined, and most are hooked up to the slick six-speed manual gearbox. However, as of the 2015 facelift, all engines – including the 1.6-litre TDI – are available with the seven-speed dual-clutch S tronic auto.
Just like the petrol engines, the 1.6-litre diesel is quiet and smooth on the move, but it works best with the manual gearbox rather than the seven-speed auto as the manual adds a dose of much-needed fun.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Low weight and frugal engines mean the Audi A1 delivers strong fuel economy. Both the 1.6 diesel and new 1.0-litre petrol engines emit less than 100g/km of CO2, and as a result are exempt from road tax.
That comes with a caveat for the 1.0-litre engine, though. The claimed economy figures are hugely impressive, and if you drive gently, you should be able to get close to them on the road. But as with so many of the new generation of small-capacity petrol turbos, the warbling engine note and free-revving nature can be difficult to resist – and if you get carried away with the fun driving experience, you’ll soon send your overall economy plummeting. If ultimate efficiency is what you care most about, the under-stressed diesel model is the better choice.
Elsewhere in the range, the powerful 1.4 is pretty impressive, too – especially the 148bhp Cylinder-on-Demand version, which claims 58.9mpg and emits 112g/km. Even the super-quick S1 promises 40mpg with a light right foot.
Other running costs, such as maintenance, should be quite low thanks to Audi's comprehensive fixed-price servicing plan. This, combined with strong residual values, means the A1 is a good value long-term buy.
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Buyers can also choose to extend the standard three-year/60,000-mile warranty to five years at a cost of £500.
The 1.6 TDI will be the cheapest version of the A1 to insure – it sits in group 14 – while the 1.0 TFSI will work out only slightly more expensive, in group 15. The 1.4 TFSI models range from a low of group 15 to a high of group 29. The S1 sits in group 33.
There is a bewildering array of optional equipment and colours for the Audi A1, so choosing a specification for your model can be a bit of a depreciation minefield. You are playing in a relatively safe ballpark, though – on average, this car is predicted to retain an impressive 56.9 per cent of its original value after three years.
Interior, design and technology
Even though this is the smallest car in the range, the A1 upholds Audi’s reputation for producing classy interiors. In fact, it’s the style and the quality of the finish inside that lifts this model above the mechanically similar Volkswagen Polo. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Audi has the classier cabin.
Even so, it’s a slightly uncomfortable fact for Audi – and worth thinking about for potential buyers – that the Polo and its Skoda Fabia and SEAT Ibiza sister cars are more closely matched to the A1 in real quality terms than you might think.
Also, approach the options list with caution. Not only are some extras expensive, it’s easy to start specifying some features (like body-coloured air vent surrounds, for example) that can detract from the classy look of the cabin, and make it appear it a little gaudy.
Tech options include Audi Drive Select (which allows you to choose between Dynamic, Comfort and Efficiency driving modes), as well as keyless entry and ignition. There are also sundry driver aids such as parking, rain and light sensors. So although the A1 is a small car, there’s every opportunity to spec it up like a proper Audi.
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Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
By class standards, the Audi A1 has a pretty cutting-edge infotainment system. It can be specified with Audi Connect, which brings a Wi-Fi hotspot and can call up useful information such as the cheapest petrol stations nearby – although the set-up comes at a high price.
Buyers can also upgrade to a thumping Bose surround sound system, which is a considerable step up from the standard audio set-up. One slightly odd thing is that the central display screen in the A1 doesn’t slide electrically away as it does in the larger A3; instead you have to flip it up and down with your fingers. This seems a bit old-tech for such a hi-tech car.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Buyers need to remember that the Audi A1 is a compact premium car – anyone expecting room to stretch out in the rear is likely to be disappointed. Still, it’s not as cramped back there as you might imagine, and has its MINI arch rival beaten for cabin space.
The Audi A1 is just under four metres long, so is a doddle to park in tight town centre parking spaces. And owners should have no concerns about scratching that pretty bodywork in supermarket car parks or multi-storeys, either, as it’s also relatively narrow (at only 1,746mm wide).
Incidentally, there’s no real difference between three-door and five-door versions of the A1 in terms of size. As well as identical height and width measurements, the cars have the same 2,469mm wheelbase; the Sportback is just a fraction taller than the three-door (1,746m vs 1,740mm).
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Up front is where you want to be in an A1 – the rear seats are pretty cramped, and space back there becomes even more tight in cars fitted with the optional sports bucket seats.
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In the front, the standard seats are comfortable and supportive, even on a long journey, and there’s a decent amount of leg and foot room for the driver and front seat passenger. The A1 is far better in that regard than the MINI.
It's worth noting that the three-door only comes with two rear seatbelts as standard, whereas the Sportback is equipped with three rear seatbelts, even though it doesn’t offer any more space.
A boot capacity of 270 litres doesn't exactly sound huge, but it’s not bad considering the class average. Of more interest to potential A1 buyers will be the fact that if you fold the back seats flat, you get a very decent 920 litres of space when you pack the car to the roof.
The S1 has less space, though, as it sacrifices some luggage room to accommodate the quattro four-wheel-drive system’s rear differential. The high-performance flagship offers 210 litres with the rear seats in place, or 860 litres when they’re folded.
Reliability and Safety
The A1 is up there with the safest cars in the premium supermini class, as it comes with a long list of safety equipment as standard and has been awarded a five-star rating in Euro NCAP crash safety tests.
Yet despite Audi's upmarket image and strong reputation for quality, the A1 finished well down the rankings in the Auto Express Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey. The car came 152nd overall, and was rated only 146th in the reliability category – both represent significant drops from its position in 2014.
Owners also criticised the A1’s uncomfortable ride, practicality issues and running costs, although they praised its ease of driving.
The interior feels sturdy and durable, though, and the engines have all been tried and tested in the rest of the VW Group’s range of cars – so we’d be surprised if you encounter any major mechanical difficulties.
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A three-year warranty is supplied with the Audi A1 as standard. This covers unlimited mileage in the first two years, but only up to 60,000 miles in year three. For £235, you can extend the warranty to four years and 75,000 miles, or for £500 you can stretch it to five years and 95,000 miles, and the extended guarantees can be transferred between owners.
Audi offers a choice of servicing schedules to suit how you drive your A1. If you’re mostly in town and doing short journeys, it recommends you bring your car in to your local dealer workshop every 9,000 miles or once a year for an oil change, or every 19,000 miles or two years for an inspection and service.
Drivers racking up higher mileages should have an oil change, inspection and service carried out on their A1 every 19,000 miles or two years.