At last, we drive new premium baby on British roads... and give our verdict
It may be small, but the A1 packs in all the same desirability as larger Audi models. And while the numb steering means it’s not as involving to drive as the MINI, it has plenty of other things in its favour. The 1.4 TFSI, seen here in 120bhp tune and hooked up to the twin-clutch S tronic box, is fast and astonishingly frugal, while the modern rather than retro looks and high-quality cabin are streets ahead of the MINI’s. All this means that people who want a premium small car now have a genuine alternative to the ubiquitous British machine.
Style, quality and desirability – that’s what buyers expect from an Audi. And now, the German brand has distilled its values into a much smaller package with the hotly anticipated A1. But how will the pocket-sized premium hatch cope on UK roads?
Unlike its MINI main rival, which is designed and built by BMW, this new small car does not create an Audi sub-brand. Instead, it’s simply another model in the firm’s already expansive range which enables people to enjoy the same ownership experience as with an A4, A6 or even an A8 limousine.
Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Audi A1
Car group tests
Used car tests
For instance, you can specify the A1 with a wide range of options you’d normally expect to find only on larger cars. The virtually endless upgrades even include Audi’s new Multi Media Interface 3G with sat-nav hard drive and 20GB of music storage, which until now has been offered solely on the A8.
What’s more, as with the MINI, buyers can personalise their car’s looks with mild exterior and interior styling options. Little wonder that while the A1 starts at just over £13,000, some early orders have worked out at £25,000.
So, is such a small car really worth this much? Well, the A1 stands head and shoulders above the competition in one respect: quality. On the outside it oozes modern chic, and the cabin has an upmarket feel like no other car of this size. The solid metallic switches plus soft-touch dash – topped off by a standard-fit pop-up central LCD display – are all a pleasure to use.
Life is good for those in the back, too. Although the sloping roof means tall adults will struggle for headroom, legroom is more impressive. The boot is a reasonable 265 litres – around 15 litres less than in a VW Polo – and practicality is boosted by rear seats which fold down to give a flat load bay. Overall, the A1 seems very grown-up inside; it even makes the MINI appear childish. And this big-car feel continues on the move.
The first thing that grabs you is just how incredibly quiet it is, even at motorway speeds. On twisty roads it fills you with total confidence, carrying over the reassuring grip and unshakable body control seen in larger Audis. Sadly, it also shares other models’ minimal steering feedback, and as a result is ultimately not as much fun to drive as a MINI.
Another downside is the hard ride. While it never feels unsettled, you do get a nasty jolt whenever you hit a speed hump or a pothole. This means the A1 doesn’t feel quite as comfortable as the Polo, with which it shares its underpinnings. But our car was riding on optional 17-inch alloys and, as the Sport model, had firmer suspension settings, too.
It also boasted the cracking 1.4-litre TSI petrol turbo. The economical and punchy unit works well with Audi’s S tronic seven-speed dual-clutch paddleshift box, even when you leave it in auto mode. While the engine likes to rev, there’s decent mid-range torque because it’s turbocharged.
Unfortunately, the transmission isn’t as involving as the standard six-speed manual, plus it adds £1,450 to the price. But the fact it reduces CO2 emissions slightly, and brings the annual road tax bill down by £60 to £30, is some consolation.
Whichever gearbox you choose, though, the A1 is a very impressive package. Not only is it the most upmarket-feeling small car, but the fact sales will be limited to 18,000 a year means it should be more exclusive than the MINI, too.
Rival: MINI Cooper
started the premium small car sector and is still the benchmark. Unique style, cheeky sense of fun and sparkling driving dynamics have attracted a cult following.