For a brand that made its name building fire- breathing rally cars and 4WD saloons, Audi has taken a big departure from the norm with the A1. The outrageous success of the MINI has persuaded top brass to downsize their smallest offering. Will buyers follow suit?
In a sector dominated by the retro appeal of the baby Brit, the newcomer cuts an understated figure. While the DS3 is sporty and fresh, the A1 just looks like a smaller version of bigger Audis. This was no doubt the intention, but as style and fun are such key ingredients in this class, our drab blue test car is very conservative.
Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Audi A1
The saving grace is that Audi has taken a leaf out of MINI and Citroen’s books, by giving buyers the chance to personalise their cars with a range of accessories. Most important of these is the optional contrasting roofline, which adds some drama to the otherwise plain exterior. Imagine the same vehicle with bright red bodywork, silver roof rails and bigger alloys, and it’s a very different proposition.
So the styling outside is a missed opportunity, and it’s the same with the interior. Existing Audi owners won’t be surprised by the A1’s cabin. It provides the usual mix of clear instruments and superb switchgear, all put together with real care. But it lacks the neat detailing evident in the MINI and DS3.
So while the rotary heater controls are shared with the R8 supercar, you get none of that model’s personality. Still, the pop-up display in the centre of the dash works well in conjunction with the MMI interface on the stereo, and mid-range Sport trim features a classy multifunction three-spoke leather steering wheel and Bluetooth as part of a long kit tally. It also includes gloss black surrounds for the circular air vents, although coloured trims are available, too.
While it can’t match the MINI for character, the Audi has the edge on rear legroom. But the sloping tailgate cuts into headroom, and taller passengers will find their heads rubbing against the roof – so there’s very little between the A1 and MINI for overall space.
The Audi’s driver’s seat also refuses to stay forwards when you climb in and out of the back, which makes getting out of the rear a real pain. The DS3 has both of its rivals licked for practicality. It provides more rear leg and headroom, and is the only car here that’s capable of seating five people.
The Audi scores for its spacious boot, though. Its 270-litre load bay is nearly a match for the Citroen’s, and is comfortably more than the tiny 160-litre MINI. It also comes with a false floor, which provides a totally flat area when the back seats are folded – a unique feature in this test.
You don’t buy a premium model for space, however, as standard superminis are cheaper and bigger. Customers want individuality and fun – but that’s not something they’ll find behind the wheel of the Audi.
Instead, the A1 plays to the firm’s traditional strengths. The most enjoyable element has to be its engine. For the time being, the 120bhp turbocharged 1.4-litre TFSI is the most potent unit in the line-up, and its smooth-revving nature and strong performance make the normally aspirated MINI feel off the pace. It’s not fast enough to eclipse the more powerful DS3, but performance is lively – at the track, it covered 0-60mph in nine seconds flat.
The Audi really scores on comfort. While the MINI is hard-riding and the Citroen more focused, the newcomer delivers the most fuss-free progress. Sport trim brings stiffer suspension than lesser SE models, but it absorbs the worst bumps and ruts, and isolates the cabin from really poor road surfaces effectively.
Taller gearing also ensures that the A1’s engine isn’t as busy and intrusive as the MINI’s at motorway speeds, and the extra 40Nm of torque makes it much easier to live with day-to-day. What you don’t get with the A1 is the alertness of its competitors. The weighty steering is numb and the car doesn’t respond to inputs with the ferocity of the MINI or liveliness of the DS3. And its front tyres give up the fight for grip sooner than rivals’ if you carry too much speed into a corner.
The Audi is hugely capable – it’s the quietest and most comfortable choice – but you won’t be tempted to take it for a drive for the sake of it. Instead, its appeal lies on the balance sheet, as it’s the cheapest and cleanest car here. It is also expected to hold on to its value better than its competitors. Whether such sensible concerns can help the A1 to win this test remains to be seen...
Chart position: 2WHY: Audi is a late arrival to the premium supermini party. The A1 isn’t as distinctive as its opponents, but has a high-quality interior and punchy turbo engine on its side.