AUDI'S A GAMEAudi has put its big car knowhow into a smaller one. Steve Walker meets the A1.
Forget what you thought you knew about superminis. It turns out that they're no longer the practical small cars you choose to cope with the mundane journeys that litter your everyday life. The supermini is a fresh, urban style statement, cooler than cars twice and three times its price. It's all the car that young, carefree professionals will ever need; at least until they get old and worried about stuff. The supermini is being re-branded and we have cars like the Audi A1 to thank for it.
Ten Second ReviewFashionable small cars are a boom industry at the moment with numerous manufacturers deciding that MINI has had things its own way for too long. Audi's attempt to muscle in is the A1 and its Volkswagen Polo mechanicals coupled with classy Audi design give it a fighting chance.
BackgroundRising motoring costs, environmental awareness and traffic levels started making smaller cars more attractive to more people. BMW's MINI showed that lots of buyers would indeed pay extra for a stylish supermini with the right branding and marketing mix. Suddenly, premium small cars make sense in a way that seemed a long way distant back in 2000 when Audi launched its unorthodox A2 following a lukewarm response to the original Mercedes A-Class.
The A1 is the car Audi has built to capitalise on the burgeoning market for aspirational small cars. It goes head to head with the MINI, Alfa Romeo's MiTo, Citroen's DS3 and plusher versions of supermini stalwarts like the Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Corsa. Of course, Audi had a major head start: it simply borrowed the platform and engines from its VW Group partners. Think of the A1 as a Volkswagen Polo with extra Audi flavour.
Driving ExperienceThere are no surprises in the Audi A1 engine bay but no shortage of advanced technology either. We've seen all of the engines before elsewhere in the Audi and VW group line-ups. The TSI petrol engines use turbocharging to compensate for their modest capacities, the 1.2 TSI achieving 86PS with 160Nm or torque and the 1.4 TSI chipping in with 122PS and 200Nm. There's also a 185PS version of this 1.4 that uses both supercharger and turbocharger allied with a clever 7-speed DSG semi-automatic gearbox. The diesel option is a 1.6-litre common-rail injection TDI unit with 105PS and 250Nm. It will get the A1 through 60mph in 10.5 seconds while the 122PS 1.4-litre petrol engine takes 9.1s to do the same.
Sportiness has been top of the agenda in setting-up the A1. The car is front-wheel-drive but only around 60% of its total weight rests over the front axle. This makes for an unusually well balanced weight distribution for a car in the supermini class. Like the Polo, there's MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsen beam at the rear, while short overhangs front and rear should aid manoeuvrability. ESP stability control is standard but so is an electronic differential system to help deploy the power to the best effect.
Manual gearboxes are fitted as standard (six speeds for the 1.4 and five for the others) but the S Tronic twin clutch automatic gearbox which has gained critical acclaim elsewhere in the Audi range is available as an option with the 1.4-litre engine.
Design and BuildA conventional supermini shape is adopted by the A1, which isn't a great surprise given its mechanical similarity to the largely conventional VW Polo. It also means that the A1 gains an edge over rivals from the trendier end of the supermini sector with a 267-litre boot that expands to 920 litres with the rear seat backs folded.
The exterior of the car is crawling with recognisable Audi design cues and although you couldn't call the looks adventurous, the A1 has got the combination of neat proportions and engaging detailing that Audi does so well. The one feature that obviously breaks from the Audi master plan is the roof arch which can be specified in a different colour to the rest of the bodywork. Also noteworthy are the beautifully sculpted headlight clusters with LED running lights shaped into streaks of while light that curl around the main bulbs. Audi's trapezoidal grill dominates the nose and there's more LED lighting at the rear.
The stated ambition with the A1 is to set a new standard for interior quality in the supermini class and if anyone can do that, Audi can. In contrast with the lively but sometimes poorly executed retro design of its MINI rival, the A1 takes a sporty but sober approach with bags of attention to detail. Dark, soft touch plastics with bright chrome detailing form the standard theme, the highlight being the large circular air vents designed to resemble jet engines. Those wanting a more vibrant look can get one from the options list.
Market and ModelThe success the MINI has had with its vast options list did not go unnoticed at Audi. The A1 also offers a variety of tempting extras through which buyers can 'customise' their cars to a level way beyond their list prices. There are standard, Sport and S Line trim levels and from there it's possible to really go to town with leather trim, LED interior lighting, heated seats and numerous vivid trim combinations.
The A1 is available as a three-door and five-door car and cabriolet model is in the pipeline, as is an S1 hot hatch version. Pricing isn't at the eye-watering level that you might expect, with customers able to pick up an A1 for around £13,000, assuming they can resist the lure of that options list.