Audi S1 review
Audi S1 hot hatch has incredible all-wheel drive pace and a classy cabin, but it comes with a chunky price tag, too
Audi’s smallest hot hatch is quick, safe, and definitely has a more upmarket feel than most of its rivals, but it’s not always as much fun to drive.
The brand’s exemplary cabin fit and finish definitely gives the S1 a lift, and the car feels grown-up when you want it to be and is comfortable on the motorway. Find your favourite back road, though, and the chassis is good enough to provide excitement around the bends. The major downside is the S1’s price, especially once you’ve ticked a few option boxes. The Audi brand’s reliability is also in the spotlight, with the A1 family performing poorly in our Driver Power Survey, and the brand’s reliability across the board failing to impress.
Audi's S1 hot hatchback is the baby of the S model line-up, sitting underneath the S3 in Audi's range. Despite its diminutive size it delivers a high level of accessible performance thanks to the company's famous quattro four-wheel drive system and the turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine from the Volkswagen Golf R. On top of that, the model offers the more upmarket feel we’ve come to expect from the Audi brand - even a souped-up supermini like this one.
The S1’s blend of speed, stability and upmarket appeal comes at a price, though, and they start at £25,420 for the three-door S1, rising to £26,155 for the five-door S1 Sportback. It’s a considerable chunk more than even rivals like the MINI John Cooper Works, but the Audi is the only all-wheel drive car in its class, so offers something extra compared to the group of front-wheel drive rivals.
However, you don’t need to spend too long poring over the options list to send the price rocketing towards £30,000, and that pushes the S1 towards a different league of hot hatch that outguns it for performance and practicality, including the Volkswagen Golf GTI, SEAT Leon Cupra and BMW M135i.
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The Audi is still fast and will accelerate from 0-62mph in a blistering 5.8 seconds, which is one full second quicker than rivals like the Ford Fiesta ST and Renaultsport Clio. However, this pairing cost £17,395 and £19,145 respectively and make the Audi look quite pricey.
One area where the Fiesta ST and Clio RS can’t match up to the Audi is quality – the S1’s cabin feels much more expensive, with metal controls for the multimedia and heating systems, as well as half-leather seats, climate control, Bluetooth, a DAB radio and Audi’s MMI infotainment feature coming as standard.
Engines, performance and drive
Thanks to its Volkswagen Polo underpinnings, the Audi A1 is sensible, but not sensational, from behind the wheel. However, the S1 version swaps the torsion beam rear suspension of the standard car for a more sophisticated four-link set-up, while revised front geometry, strengthened mountings and a faster steering ratio highlight the flagship’s bespoke nature and give it an extra edge over the normal A1 on the road.
In spite of its performance, the quattro drivetrain means the little Audi is composed. With a 60:40 split most of the time, the majority of power goes to the front axle, but it will divide up to 50:50 when needed, so the S1 has better traction than its front-drive rivals.
However, apart from a lack of torque steer and better traction, the Audi S1 still handles and feels like a front-drive hatchback. It’s also a bit nose heavy and will nudge wide as you reach the limit, but this does mean safe, predictable handling, while the four-wheel drive system gives plenty of reassuring grip to lean on for typically bad British conditions.
It does have a nice dynamic edge still, and you can push the S1 hard without the chassis falling apart, but while the steering is direct, it lacks the precision and feedback of a Fiesta ST.
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The stability control is a little intrusive, adding to the sensation that the Audi is missing the natural balance of the Ford’s chassis. Switch the Drive Select to Dynamic mode and you get heavier steering, firmer dampers and extra engine noise in the cabin.
But body control on the Audi S1 is good regardless, and there isn’t a significant increase in driver involvement or a noticeable sharpening of the handling. In fact it’s the harder edge to the engine note you’ll notice the most.
On a twisty road, the S1 has confidence-inspiring grip, but it lacks the fun factor of the Fiesta, or to a lesser extent the MINI. On the plus side, adaptive dampers are standard, and the Audi rides much better than the rigid ST.
There’s no ignoring the fact that the 2.0-litre TFSI is the star of the show. It’s mated to a light but sweet six-speed manual gearbox (there’s no auto option), which involves you in the experience further.
With 228bhp (as much power as a Golf GTI Performance Pack in a car one size smaller), it sprints from 0-62mph in just 5.8 seconds, and blasting off with the security of all-wheel drive is a real hoot. It’ll continue charging hard on to a storming top speed of 155mph.
However, it’s the serious in-gear response you’ll enjoy on the road. With 370Nm of torque – that’s just 10Nm less than in the bigger Audi S3 – you’ll find yourself punching from corner to corner far faster than you’d expect for a small hot hatch.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Considering just how quick it is, the Audi S1 doesn’t actually cost too much to run. Its 40.4mpg fuel economy figure wouldn’t look out of place on a normal family hatch, while the 162g/km CO2 emissions means it’ll cost £180 per year to tax, which isn’t bad given the performance.
What’s more, the fuel economy actually looks pretty achievable. During our time with the S1 we managed around 30mpg – and that was using the car’s addictive performance and without a single thought for economical driving.
As with all performance cars, using it hard will increase the wear rates of consumable items like brake pads and tyres, so you’ll need to budget for that – especially if you want to experience the performance at a track.
An insurance rating of group 33 means the Audi S1 isn’t going to be cheap to insure, but that’s par for the course considering the level of performance the hot hatch delivers. It’s not the cheapest supermini around either, which also affects ratings as it costs more to repair or replace. However the Ford Fiesta ST is in insurance group 30, so the difference in premiums shouldn’t be too great.
Audi is a more in-demand brand than some, and the S1 should retain its value well. Our experts reckon the S1 will hold on to just over 50 per cent of its list price over three years and 30,000 miles. However, if you aren't careful the options list cost can soon skyrocket, which will leave you potentially exposed to quite a big cash hit at resale time. The Fiesta ST is predicted to retain around 46 per cent of its new cost over the same period, but it’s cheaper to buy so you’ll lose less cash overall.
Interior, design and technology
As you’d expect, the Audi S1 has the usual understated fast Audi look. The customary aluminium-effect mirrors, extended side sills, boot spoiler and smart 17-inch wheels help it stand out, while quad tailpipes hint at the performance potential.
Standard xenon lights with striking LED running lamps and a latticework grille give the S1 a distinctive face, while a choice of bold colours – including bright yellow, red and green hues – means it’ll certainly attract attention.
Being based on the regular Audi A1, that car’s short chassis – even in five-door guise – means the S1 looks squat and compact, with taut bodywork giving this pocket rocket real visual attitude.
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It’s countered by the Audi’s classy interior, which is in a different league to the Fiesta and even beats the new MINI for upmarket appeal. From the knurled metal finish of the heating and radio controls to the rising sat-nav screen and top-quality dashboard materials, the S1 looks and feels like a car from a class above.
However, the S1 has its roots in Audi’s past, so compared to newer models like the A3, it feels a bit dated in certain areas. And despite its hefty price tag, the S1 actually isn’t nearly as well equipped as the much cheaper Ford.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The Audi S1 doesn’t get sat-nav as standard, although it’s obviously on the options list. The standard audio set-up is a DAB radio with single CD player, also offering Bluetooth music streaming and voice control. You can upgrade the audio to a BOSE surround sound system with 14 speakers and 465 Watts.
The Technology pack brings sat-nav to the pop-up display on the top of the dash, and Audi connect which turns your car into a Wi-Fi hotspot and brings internet connectivity and various apps into the car.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
If you want a really practical, fast Audi, you may have to step up to the S3. The S1 is very much a pocket-rocket, and really suited to an owner who rarely carries more than one passenger and doesn’t fill up a trolley at the supermarket every weekend. Even with five doors in S1 Sportback guise the car offers limited room for passengers in the back, and longer journeys won’t be much fun.
It’s a more practical sporty option than a two-seater such as the Audi TT though, and both versions offer plenty of comfort and space for two up front.
The S1 measures up at 3,973mm long, 1,740mm wide and 1,416mm tall in three-door guise, and while the five-door Sportback version is 2mm longer, 6mm wider and 8mm taller that’s obviously not enough to make a big difference to interior space. For comparison the Mini Cooper S measures 3,982mm long, is 1,727mm wide and 1,425mm tall.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The Audi S1 has a shorter wheelbase than a MINI Cooper S, so it trails on rear legroom. What's more, the sloping roofline and small windows make it feel tight. It's also worth remembering that the Audi S1 is strictly a four-seater – a trinket tray separates the rear seats.
Fitting a four-wheel-drive system to the A1 has cut boot space as well, by about 30 per cent, so luggage room is down to 210 litres. There’s still enough space to fit a few weekend bags, though, and if you want you can fold down the rear seats to free up 860 litres. The five-door Sportback version does a bit better with 270 litres rising to 920 litres with the seats folded.
Reliability and Safety
The standard Audi A1 is up there with the safest cars in its class, as it features plenty of safety equipment as standard and achieved a five-star Euro NCAP score. It comes with six airbags, ESP, Isofix and sealant foam to repair a punctured tyre.
Plus, it should be reliable – the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that powers the Audi S1 is well proven in the S3 and countless other models across the VW Group range, including the Volkswagen Golf GTI and SEAT Leon Cupra.
In spite of Audi’s upmarket image and reputation for quality, the standard A1 finished dead last in our Driver Power 2016 satisfaction survey, with owners highlighting its poor ride, practicality and comfort. The car also only managed 128th out of 130 ranked cars for reliability.
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Audi also only managed to finish 23rd out of 32 brands overall when scored for reliability. Both results are disappointing, and with the A1/S1 using VW Polo underpinnings and the technology in the car has been around for a while you might reasonably have expected a better performance.
Still, the quality of the A1’s cabin is impressive and the S1’s drivetrain feels well engineered, and if you’re considering a MINI Cooper instead of the S1, it’s worth noting that the MINI brand came dead last out of all the brands surveyed for reliability,
The Audi S1 has the same level of cover as all its brand stable-mates, which means a three-year/60,000-mile warranty. So as long as you don’t hold to it for longer than usual, at least as the first owner you’ll know you won’t be forking out on any big surprise repairs,
Servicing costs are the same as for the standard A1, if you use one of Audi’s service plans. For drivers covering over 10,000 miles per year there’s a £289 package covering services for your first 50,000 miles. If you intend to drive less than 10k per year, then there’s a £450 package covering five annual inspections