Audi S1 review
Audi's S1 hot hatch attempts to justify a chunky pricetag with all-wheel-drive, 228bhp and the usual high-class Audi feel
The S1 hot hatch is the smallest S model that Audi produces, aiming to deliver all the accessible performance of some of the larger S models in a four-wheel-drive supermini.
It’s the only four-wheel-drive car in this class and it’s also the quickest from 0-62mph, boasting a time of 5.8 seconds. But compare it with top hot hatchbacks like the Ford Fiesta ST and Renaultsport Clio and it looks seriously expensive.
Paying the price gets you a car with serious performance and a really high-quality cabin. A Fiesta ST is more fun to drive but it just doesn’t feel as grown up as the Audi does.
As you’d expect, the Audi S1 has the usual understated fast Audi look. The customary aluminium-effect mirrors, extended side sills 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.
The classy interior of the Audi S1 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.
Even so, compared to newer Audi models like the A3, it feels a bit dated. And despite its hefty price tag of almost 30k, the S1 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 Audi S1 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.
There’s no ignoring the engine, either – in fact, the 2.0-litre TFSI is the star of the show. With 228bhp, it sprints from 0-60mph in just 5.7 seconds, and blasting off with the security of all-wheel drive is a real hoot.
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, and 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.
However, aside 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. While the steering is direct, it lacks the precision and feedback of a Fiesta ST.
The stability control is a little intrusive as well, 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 Fiesta ST.
The standard Audi A1 is up there with the safest cars in its class, as it features plenty of standard safety equipment and achieved a five-star Euro NCAP score. It comes with six airbags, Isofix and sealant puncture foam. Plus, it should be reliable – the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, which 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 95th in our Driver Power 2014 satisfaction survey. Owners highlighted its poor ride, practicality and comfort, and it only scraped into the top 50 for reliability. Still, the quality of the A1’s cabin is impressive and the S1’s drivetrain felt 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 separates the rear seats.
Fitting a four-wheel-drive system to the A1 has cut boot space as well, by about 30 per cent, down to 210 litres. There’s still enough room to fit a few weekend bags, though, and if you want you can fold down the rear seats to free up 860 litres of space.
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 and the 162g/km CO2 emissions ensures it’ll be in a relatively low tax band. What’s more, the fuel economy actually looks pretty achievable – during our time with the S1 we managed around 30mpg, and that was 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.