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The original A1 showed that even superminis can be luxurious. Now there’s another one, with its sights set on the Mini

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Despite the Audi A1Audi's strategic choices mean it isn’t a car maker we instinctively associate with modern compact hatchbacks – superminis, as they are so often dubbed. Perhaps it ought to be, though, because if it hadn’t been for the original Audi 50 of 1974, there might never have been a Volkswagen Polo at all (the first-gen Polo was just a badge-engineered Audi).

What Ingolstadt learned from the short-lived 50 was that it would take bigger, more imposing, more advanced and more luxurious cars to forge Audi’s modern reputation – cars like the original Quattro, the famous 100 saloons of the 1980s and the A8 of the following decade. It wouldn’t be until 1999, then, that the firm would return to the idea of a compact hatchback by making the innovative-yet-expensive Audi A2; and not until later still, in 2010, that the brand with the four rings would launch a supermini with a fighting chance of profitability.

Three lateral slits between bonnet and grille are intended as a visual nod to Audi’s iconic Sport Quattro. We’d say, much as they look out of place on a Q8 SUV, so do they here.

That 2010 launch was the original Audi A1: a car that collected on its grandfather’s debt by borrowing the contemporary VW Polo’s model platform and did what it could, somewhat late in the day, to get a slice of the premium supermini market being plundered by rival BMW’s Mini brand, and by the likes of what is now DS Automobiles.

Having made an unspectacular but worthwhile contribution to the volume ambitions of its creator, the first-generation A1 was replaced last year by the second-generation car – which has only just been made available to us with one of the more tempting engine options that might make it an interesting road test subject.

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Built as it is on the VW Group’s latest supermini platform, however, and not in Germany but at Seat’s headquarters in Martorell, Spain, this new A1 isn’t quite the straightforward like-for-like model replacement that its exterior styling might lead you to expect it to be.

Audi A1 design & styling

We can write the obituary of the three-door hatchback when they become an unviable part of the model mix even on a four-metre supermini as they have here. In light of the fact that less than one in five examples of the last A1 were sold as three-doors, Audi has elected to offer five-door Sportback versions only this time around. They will all be slightly longer five-doors than their predecessors, too, the A1 having grown by just over 50mm in overall length but otherwise maintaining its dimensions across the generations.

Adopting the same MQB-A0 model platform that the current VW Polo, Seat Ibiza and Skoda Scala all use, the A1’s wheelbase is a match for that of the Seat but for neither of the other relatives. Construction is conventional by class standards, with steel body panels fixed onto a steel monocoque chassis, and engines mounting transversely in the front and driving the front axle.

Diesel engines are the other items that the new A1 is moving beyond. Audi UK launched the A1 last year exclusively with 114bhp, 1.0-litre ‘30 TFSI’ turbo petrol power, and has added both less powerful and more powerful powertrain choices subsequently – but none are diesels.

The range-topping option as things stand is a 2.0-litre ‘40 TFSI’ option with 197bhp, which is the only A1 in the range available with adaptive dampers. The rest run with passive suspension, which is both lowered and stiffened if you choose an S Line-trim car such as our midrange, 148bhp, 1.5-litre ‘35 TFSI’ test car. All examples, meanwhile, feature torsion beam rear suspension just like every other car on the MQB-A0 platform; none offers four-wheel drive. The VW Group’s 1498cc ‘evo’ four-pot turbo engine brings cylinder shutdown technology to the A1 range, producing up to 184lb ft of torque, and is rated for WLTP combined fuel economy of anything up to 45.6mpg, depending on specification. The particular specification of our test car, meanwhile – S Line Style Edition – included 18in alloy wheels and plenty of optional kit.

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Audi’s styling for the second-generation A1, meanwhile, gets considerably more aggressive with that aforementioned jump to S Line trim. At a lower level, the car goes without the sill and ‘implied’ lateral air intake garnishing that our test subject had, and might have had a less contrived overall appearance as a result. As it is, the road test jury was in broad agreement that the car tries too hard to pack visual aggression into its styling.

The Audi A1 line-up at a glance

Audi offers the A1 in a choice of six trim levels: SE, Sport, S Line, S Line Competition, S Line Contrast Edition and S Line Style Edition. While S Line Contrast and Style Editions introduce differing cosmetic tweaks only, cars in the S Line Competition specification also come with the range-topping 197bhp petrol engine. A top-spec Vorsprung model is due to join the A1 range at a later date, but Audi has yet to confirm when.

Price £25,690 Power 148bhp Torque 184lb ft 0-60mph 7.9sec 30-70mph in fourth 11.5sec Fuel economy 38.0mpg CO2 emissions 120g/km 70-0mph 45.7m

INTERIOR

Audi A1 S Line 2019 road test review - cabin

While Audi has made an effort to differentiate the A1’s cabin from that of its Volkswagen Polo and Seat Ibiza cousins by employing a slightly more tasteful palette of trim materials and switchgear, that relationship hasn’t been entirely masked. Sure, it might exude more in the way of immediate opulence on first acquaintance, but closer inspection reveals the A1 is still home to its fair share of coarse, sometimes flimsy feeling plastics, and that its VW Group DNA is readily identifiable.

Of course, platform-sharing means an element of sameness is inevitable, and our top-specification S Line Style Edition model does make a more convincing play of its upmarket aspirations than the lower-rung trim levels do. So you get some copper-coloured inlays, as well as configurable LED ambient lighting and leather-upholstered sports seats all thrown in right out of the box.

The ambient LED lighting has 30 different colour settings. Helps inject a dash more personality into the A1’s admittedly rather serious cabin.

All variants of the A1 – barring the forthcoming Vorsprung model – come with an 8.8in colour touchscreen that incorporates basic infotainment features such as Bluetooth, DAB radio, voice control and USB connectivity as standard.

Our test car, however, was fitted with the £1650 Technology Pack. In addition to upgrading the touchscreen to a 10.1in unit and introducing satellite navigation, this option pack also replaces the standard 10.25in digital cockpit with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, and introduces a wireless phone charging pad and an embedded sim card for 4G internet access. It’s integrated cleanly into the surrounding dash structure and, framed by attractive gloss black plastic, lends the smallest hints of Audi big-car technological sophistication.

Graphically speaking, both the infotainment screen and the Virtual Cockpit are very impressive indeed, operating smoothly and without much in the way of lag. In terms of ergonomics, the touchscreen is simple to interact with when stationary, but the loss of the rotary controller used to operate earlier versions of Audi’s infotainment software means on-the-move adjustments are a bit trickier.

But while the interior of the A1 generally looks smart, some of our testers thought it wasn’t different enough from its VW Group siblings to justify its elevated price. That the car is over £5000 more expensive than an equivalent Seat Ibiza with the same engine isn’t easy to overlook.

However, of even greater concern is the competition from Mini. Not only does the British-built car’s upmarket interior look one of a kind, its list price is considerably cheaper too (although you do have to spend another four figures on option packs to bring the equipment levels into line). In top-tier Cooper Sport and Cooper Exclusive trims, a five-door Mini Hatch is nearly £5000 less expensive.

And while you’d be able to squeeze two adults into the Audi’s second row in relative comfort, according to our tape measure its typical rear leg room figure of 640mm is some 50mm less than that of the Polo we road tested early last year. The A1’s 335-litre boot is also 20 litres smaller than the Polo’s, according to our measurements, though it does, at least, outdo the five-door Mini’s 278-litre effort by a fair margin.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi A1 S Line 2019 road test review - engine

For something that takes stylistic cues from the Lamborghini  Huracán Performante (bronze alloy wheels) and the great Audi Sport Quattro of 1985 (vents at the base of the bonnet), our A1 35 TFSI’s performance proved unremarkable and, at times, exasperating, which is a shame given that this engine might have proved a sweet match for a supermini.

In dry conditions, the test car struggled to spring off the mark as nimbly or cleanly as we would expect. Admittedly, Audi’s 1.5-litre four pulls in impressively discreet fashion once the small turbocharger has fully woken up at 1500rpm and, beyond an unusually high biting point for the overly light clutch, there’s little cause for complaint for those who live their lives at a slower pace.

Design flourishes mimic the Lamborghini Huracán Performante and Audi Sport Quattro, but our A1 couldn’t get close to acceleration figures set by a Fiesta ST and Up GTI

For the rest of us, and for the person paying for a premium hatchback with at least a little sporting ambition, there’s a frustrating lack of urgency because the economy-minded gearing for the six-speed manual transmission is so long. Power is delivered in linear but languid fashion, and so to go anywhere quickly you need to work the engine hard, shifting gears often and using generous and sustained throttle inputs. Sadly, this engine simply doesn’t have the character to reward the effort required and so, for the most part, the A1 35 TFSI feels somewhat limp.

The flip side is that only one swish of the gearlever is required to get you from stationary to 60mph, which is rare for superminis. Our recorded time of 7.9sec nevertheless feels modest for a car that touts 148bhp but weighs only a claimed 1150kg. The less expensive Ford Fiesta ST tested last year reached 60mph more than a second sooner and, in terms of real-world performance, the Audi falls even further short of the mark. For the fourth-gear haul between 30mph and 70mph, it managed a time of 11.5sec – two seconds slower than even the 114bhp Volkswagen Up GTI.

Those drawn to this medium-rare A1 by the promises made by its pugnacious looks should therefore check their expectations. The range-topping 40 TFSI – available only in S Line Competition trim and with a six-speed automatic gearbox – looks much more sprightly on paper. With the same 197bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine found in the Volkswagen Polo GTI, 0-62mph is dispatched in a claimed 6.5sec, and that’s a figure much more respectable among the current crop of quick hatchbacks.

Where the A1 35 TFSI excels is its touring fuel economy, which at 57mpg means even the modest 40-litre tank stores enough fuel for 500 miles of range.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi A1 S Line 2019 road test review - cornering front

The A1 35 TFSI represents a fairly typical handling effort from Audi, which is to say the chassis feels considerably more alert and composed than the equivalent Volkswagen Polo but lacks the verve and immediacy of a Mini Cooper.

However, it exhibits a better balance and stability than most cars with a wheelbase this short and, in tandem with damping that marshals the car’s mass more tightly than is perhaps necessary, that lays the ground for no-nonsense direction changes, even at high speeds.

As the pace increases, the short wheelbase starts to cause problems over fast, flowing roads. The handling becomes edgy, with some tyres gripping more than others.

To some extent, this quality makes up for the lacklustre powertrain because, once you’ve got Audi’s supermini going at a decent pace, there’s so much grip on offer that sustaining that pace rarely results in sweaty palms or much in the way of any drama at all.

The steering is lacking terribly in feel but its speed is well judged, particularly offcentre, and duly makes a Polo feel inert and a Mini too frenetic. The action is pleasingly accurate, though never in any danger of actually communicating to the driver what might be happening down at road level, which is a shame because, with a bit more honesty and weight in the driving controls, the A1 35 TFSI would be a peppy little driver’s car.

That’s because this chassis responds well to a bit of manhandling. It resists understeer determinedly and reacts to a well-timed lift of the throttle on the way into corners. The rear never feels as mobile as it does with quicker versions of the Peugeot 208 or Renault Clio because Audi doesn’t set its cars up to behave in that fashion, but there are satisfying hints of the right kind of movements and this means the A1 can involve its driver a little more than you might expect.

However, it’s obvious Audi knows its audience, and so while the A1 35 TFSI can lightly entertain its driver and goes without four-wheel drive, ultimately it still majors on stability and trustworthy dynamics. With such long gearing, there’s also next to no chance of surpassing the traction limits of the front tyres.

Quick superminis are usually good fun on the Hill Route at Millbrook, and that’s largely because they leave you with much more space to play with than larger cars. The issue for the A1 35 TFSI is that it isn’t particularly quick, the gearbox’s long ratios pouring cold water over the true potential of the engine – something that became apparent on the Hill Route’s many inclines.

The Audi nevertheless put in an impressive showing, retaining speed and momentum with close body control and remaining progressive and benign at the limits of grip on all but the most challenging corners.

The car doesn’t naturally oversteer, but isn’t averse to being backed into corners in the same manner as much more capable hot hatches. Of course, you get a mere hint of dynamism and it isn’t much to work with, but this chassis still has some life to it, which can’t be said of the steering.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

There’s a price to pay for both the relatively incisive handling and the visual clout our test car musters from sitting closer to the road on its lowered sports suspension and sizeable alloy wheels. That price is a ride conspicuously lacking the level of sophistication this car attempts to convey with its impressive digital displays and exterior design. The airy cabin itself is welcoming enough, with lavish seats in the front and good forward visibility, but the car lacks the compliance to be driven every day and for any errand, both in town and out of it.

It isn’t as though we’re at the limits of what this MQB-A0 platform with rear torsion beam can deliver, either, because on its softer suspension, the VW Polo demonstrates a level of rolling refinement closer to what you’d expect to find in the class above. By comparison, at motorway speeds, the A1 35 TFSI is too keen to chew on the road surface, and with this car’s over-sized alloy wheels, it’s also louder at cruising speeds than even than the Nissan Micra N-Sport we tested recently. The Audi can at times deliver an impressive level of ‘togetherness’ and maturity at a cruise, but the glass-smooth road surfaces required are few and far between in Britain.

If you can live with the ride quality, the Audi’s interior is particularly soothing at night, when the lighting features come into their own. The A1 also conveys an aura of toughness rarely found in this segment.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi A1 S Line 2019 road test review - hero front

The Audi A1 starts at £17,735, with prices rising as high as £27,230. Start checking a few options boxes, however, and it’s possible to push that figure up past the £30,000 mark. And no matter how you look at it, that’s a lot for a supermini – even one with as much visual presence as our S Line Style Edition test car.

Prices for this S Line Style Edition start at £25,690, though you’ll have to move quickly to secure a car for that price, with Audi currently phasing out the manual version of this trim line and electing only to sell the pricier automatic. In addition to the raft of aesthetic tweaks introduced to the exterior – think bronze 18in alloys, black trim detailing and darker LED headlights – this figure also nets you standard equipment such as sports suspension, sports seats and full leather upholstery. That said, if you fancy dual-zone climate control or sat-nav, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

CAP expects the A1 to outperform the Mini and the Fiesta Vignale by a fair margin in terms of their residual value.

Still, at least you won’t spend too much time (or money) on the petrol station forecourt, given the potential for topping 500 miles of range.

VERDICT

Audi A1 S Line 2019 road test review - static front

When the original A1 joined the supermini gaggle in 2010, it set new benchmarks for perceived quality, powertrain refinement and all-round desirability. The second-gen car tries to build on those attributes, taking design cues from more rarefied Audi models and pairing them with an interior that delivers the initial wow factor expected of a city car that costs more than many a full-sized family hatchback.

Those who find a Mini 3-door too whimsical and a Volkswagen Polo too staid will therefore be drawn to this week’s road test subject, where they’ll find a powertrain of impressive efficiency and refinement, and a responsive chassis with deep reserves of composure, if not much in the way of involvement.

Luxury supermini lacks the polish to justify its high price

What they won’t discover is the degree of ride comfort we’d expect of the segment’s luxury player, at least if the car is fitted with optional Sports suspension. Such busyness underwheel undermines the A1’s credentials as both an easy-going city car and as a car in which to cover longer distances.

Some questionable interior plastics and overly long gearing that neuters the smooth-spinning TFSI engine are further frustrations that prevent this junior Audi from taking class honours.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.