Audi claim its new A1 is the next big thing. They reckon it will set new benchmarks in the small car segment, especially at the premium end. We spent some time in an A1 1.4 TFSI Ambition earlier this week and put Audi’s claims to the test.
Let’s start with the looks. Overall we rate the A1 pretty well in this area. There’s definite four-ringed styling cues, but the littlest Audi sold in Australia has enough individuality to carve its own niche. Okay, the wasabi green interior highlights of our test car may not be to everyone’s taste, but the A1 is about fun; to be honest, the bright colour tended to mellow the longer we spent in the car. The flashes of colour added to the cabin provide a welcome change and the ability to tailor choices to one’s taste is also refreshing to see.
Comparisons with MINI are impossible to avoid with the A1 and while the MINI might have the edge on exterior cheekiness—just—the A1 has a better built interior. Perhaps the A1’s slightly more conventional dash layout will win over those buyers who can’t get past the MINI’s dominant centrally mounted speedo, as well. So long as you’re not sitting in the back seat, the cabin of the A1 really is a great place to be. Audi has certainly achieved its aim of bringing a premium feel into a compact hatch.
Out on the road the A1 pretty much does everything it should. It’s not infallible, however, and we did experience some minor faults. The ride is a little bit harsh at times, but not uncomfortably so. It’s worth noting the test car was fitted with optional 17″ alloys and the standard 16″ rims, with a taller sidewall on the matching tyres, might provide a more compliant ride. Most cars struggle with internal cabin noise over coarse bitumen; as good as the A1 is, it is no different here. Rearward vision from the wing mirrors is acceptable, but it’s not great, and you may find yourself checking your blind spot more often than usual.
The seating position in the A1 is comfortable and most people should be able to find the right fit with ample space provided. A height and reach adjustable steering wheel also helps this cause. The seats might not look the most supportive, but they actually did a pretty good job during our test drive.
Part of the reason the A1 has such good fuel consumption—5.3l/100km on the combined cycle—is the use of stop-start technology. When stationary, at traffic lights for example, the engine will switch itself off. A light touch on the accelerator pedal will start the engine again. A lot of manufacturers are using similar systems now and while at first it seems a little odd, and even a little bit crude, it works well overall. The system can be switched off, too, which might be advisable in the height of summer to ensure optimum performance from the air conditioning.
The car we sampled was fitted with a 7-speed S tronic which does an admirable job in regular commuting. Left in full auto D mode there are times, though, where you’ll be waiting for the car to catch up, as it takes its time to kickdown to the required gear to match the progress asked from the accelerator pedal. This is something that could be overcome with the optional steering wheel mounted shift paddles which offer on-demand manual shifting.
There is a Sports mode for the S tronic and while it will be more willing to drop down a gear or two, in general terms, it will likely be too aggressive for most around town. S mode will hold the current gear a bit too long for most daily use as well. Having said that, S mode proved almost faultless when we headed out to our preferred mountain test route. When pushing harder the transmission, with just one or two exceptions, was in sync with our every move.
It was out on the twisty stuff that the A1 played its trump card, too. We expected the A1 to be nimble and effervescent around town, which it was. It will make a great city car for those who just need to easily get from A to B. However, we were very pleasantly surprised by how willing, and importantly, how able the A1 proved to be for those who may prefer a more spirited drive from time to time. In fact, we had so much fun in the A1 that we felt compelled to go further along our test route than first planned.
With just 90kW on offer from the generally fuel efficient turbocharged 1.4 litre engine, the A1 was able to make best use of every kilowatt at its disposal. It’s true, the wish for more power was often present; just don’t underestimate what the A1 can do with what it has.
The handling of the A1 at the limit was also better than we had expected. Initial turn in provided from the steering is very good. No, it’s not MINI-sharp, but it’s not far off. If we were marking the A1 hard then we’d note the steering can be a little vague mid-corner. Overall, though, the A1 goes where you point it and with no fuss. General chassis balance and basic grip levels are also impressive. Our test route was damp for the most part and the A1 really wasn’t troubled by that at all. The ESP and electronic limited slip diff did a good job when it needed to and didn’t intrude when it was doing its stuff.
The A1 can get a bit tail happy if you carry too much entry speed into corners and find yourself braking or turning in harder than you first thought. It’s no major drama, though, and fairly typical behaviour for front-wheel drive cars with a short wheelbase.
Most Audis we have tested tend to have brakes that are over-assisted, meaning you’re likely to apply too much pressure until you get more familiar with the car. Not the A1, though. If anything it’s gone a bit too far the other way. We found a need to press a bit more firmly to gain the required braking effort. We wouldn’t say this was a negative aspect, more of an interesting observation given the contrast to usual Audi behaviour.
Generally speaking our time in the A1 was better than we had been expecting and the quality feel inside the car really is first class. In that regard, Audi should be complimented on nailing its brief. There is a catch, of course, and that catch is price. On paper the low–mid 30s driveaway pricing doesn’t seem too bad. If you don’t go silly with the options it is easy to justify choosing the premium quality offered by the A1 over its cheaper, some would say donwmarket, rivals.
However, start ticking a few options and you’ll soon find yourself heading well into the $40K price range, and even in to the 50s if you want all the fruit. Does the A1 make sense at that price point? Only the individual can answer that, of course, and MINI has shown there is a market willing to pay premium money for a premium hatch. Audi will be hoping there’s more buyers out there willing to try the next big thing.
Thanks to Audi Centre Canberra for their assistance.