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 S1 hot hatchback is the relative baby of its S model line-up and delivers stunning and accessible performance thanks to quattro four-wheel drive and a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, as well as all of the class and quality you’d expect from Audi – even in this souped-up supermini.
This attractive blend of speed, stability and upmarket appeal does come at a price, though – prices 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, be careful, because even a few light options can send the price rocketing towards £30,000, pushing 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.
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. In the Ford’s case, it’s even more fun to drive, too.
However, 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.
This means the Audi feels grown-up when you want it to be and comfortable on the motorway, but find your favourite back road and the chassis is good enough to excite you still.
Our choice: Audi S1
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.
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.
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.
Part of that comes from the engine. 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.
Fortunately, 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.
Despite this, 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.
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.
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 A1 finished a lowly 152nd out of 200 cars in our Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey, with owners highlighting its poor ride, practicality and comfort. However, Audi is a relatively reliable brand and finished 13th out of 32, and with the A1/S1 using VW Polo underpinnings, the technology in the car has been around for a while.
Still, the quality of the A1’s cabin is impressive and the S1’s drivetrain feels well engineered.
If you want a practical, fast Audi, you may have to step up to the five-door A1 Sportback, or an S3. 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.
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.
Servicing and insurance costs will be higher than in a standard A1, but you do still get a three-year/60,000-mile warranty just so you know you won’t be forking out on any big surprise repairs.