Audi's move into the premium supermini class has been a big success: the A1 is now a familiar sight on our roads. But can this upmarket and desirable small hatch rival the new Beetle for character?
Compared to its historically inspired rival, the Audi A1 appears a bit bland at first. Still, our Contrast Edition test car stands out a fraction more, thanks to its silver roofline, front spoiler and side skirts. It costs £1,350 more than the Sport model, at £19,515, and also gets 17-inch alloy wheels thrown in.
Climb aboard, and it’s clear the Audi is distinguished from mainstream hatchbacks by more than just its looks. Solid fit and finish, first-rate materials and upmarket switchgear all help the A1 match the classy feel found in more expensive models in the Audi range.
The cockpit is smaller than that in the Beetle, but a wide range of steering wheel and seat adjustment makes it very easy to find the perfect driving position. And while you don’t get the retro charm of the Volkswagen, the Audi isn’t short on attractive details, with air-con controls from the R8 supercar and piano-black shrouds for the air vents.
However, the most important detail for some will be the engine. Until recently, the only A1 diesel you could buy was the slightly agricultural 1.6 TDI, so the arrival of a more powerful and refined engine is good news.
Once on the move, the extra punch of the 2.0-litre TDI is obvious. Matched to the slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, it gives the little Audi supermini very eager acceleration.
At the test track, the less powerful Beetle was quicker from 0-60mph, thanks to the full-throttle upshifts of its DSG box. However, the Audi feels faster and more responsive because of the flexibility of its manual gearbox.
It’s better in corners, too, as it’s smaller, lighter and more agile, with faster steering and tauter body control. So the A1 is lighter on its feet than the VW. Unfortunately, this driver appeal is undermined by a fairly firm ride. Our Contrast Edition features the same stiffer suspension as Sport models, which makes it uncomfortable on all but the very smoothest surfaces. The SE is more forgiving, and its suspension set-up can be specified as a no-cost option – we’d recommend it.
As it’s based on the VW Polo, the smaller A1 doesn’t have the same interior space as the Golf-based Beetle. Rear legroom is tighter and the boot is smaller. Still, there’s enough room for four adults and the 270-litre load bay has a neat false floor for hiding small items.
Plus, the A1 makes a stronger financial case. It’s cheaper to buy than the Beetle and boasts lower emissions, while class-leading residuals mean you’ll get more cash back when you sell.