Car reviews - Audi - A1 - 1.4 TFSI 3-dr hatch
Cabin quality, quick steering, great handling, efficient engines, sweet manual gearbox, diminutive proportions, overall design, quality execution, seamless idle-stop function
Room for improvement
Hard and busy ride on 17-inch alloys, expensive options, rear headroom limited in back seat
13 May 2011
THE four-ringed brand has come full circle with its latest offering.
The A1 is a return to Audi’s rebirth in the wake of Volkswagen’s acquisition of the marque in the mid 1960s.
How so? The Audi 50 of 1974 – a model designed to lure young people to a brand that lay pretty much dormant for decades – not only achieved its goal but also spawned a VW version known as the Polo.
While both models proved successful, the Audi was discontinued in 1978 as the marque moved upmarket against Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
This brief history lesson is especially ironic for Audi since a car marque is not considered to be a true luxury brand without something posh and petite. Green is in. Anyway, the money-spinning Mini has had its way too long.
Sharing the PQ25 platform, some folk cannot be blamed for assuming that the A1 is merely a rebodied Polo peddling Audi design, obsessive quality, quick steering, firm suspension and exquisite toys to justify a significantly higher price.
Yet the truth is that – as with the old 50 – Audi clearly drove the latest Polo’s refinement and tech advancement compared to previous versions.
Now, to ask if the A1 is worth the extra money over its award-winning cousin is missing the point, Audi may argue, since the Mini, Citroen DS3, Alfa Mito, Fiat 500 and Renault Clio RS 200 Cup are broadly in the same boat (though only the baby BMW is a bespoke engineering effort – for now – compared with the others that all share bits and pieces with cheaper cars).
But while in other parts of the globe there is clear space between Audi and VW, in Oz the latter’s premium positioning puts it uncomfortably close to Audi’s – making the $13,000 price differential seem more difficult to justify.
Or does it?
The A1 we are testing here is the entry-level $29,990 Attraction six-speed manual.
Stuffed into this small car is (manual) air-con, power windows, remote central locking, electric mirrors, cruise control, auto-on/off wipers and headlights, AM/FM/CD audio with an SD card reader, 15-inch alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, six airbags and pre-tensioner seat belts for all four occupants.
“That’s nigh-on $19,850 Polo 77TSI Comfortline fair,” you may exclaim.
Indeed. But that’s a 77kW 1.2-litre turbo in the five-door ‘dub versus the three-door A1’s 90kW 1.4-litre turbo number. Plus the latter includes a seamless Auto Stop idle-stop function that – for most passengers – was only noticed after it was pointed out. Along with a gear ‘change’ arrow, it no doubt aids the remarkable fuel economy figures on offer …
However, Audi charges for all the other large-car options the A1 buyer is presented with, such as auto-dipping headlights, high-intensity discharge headlights, LED tail lights, alarm, keyless entry and start, folding side mirrors, climate control air-con, heated front seats, leather upholstery, paddle shifts for the automatic, GPS, and a panoramic sunroof. About 800 exterior configurations are possible.
Ours featured slamming 215/40/R17 alloys, along with a few other goodies that bumped the on-road price up towards $40K.
Yet even with the standard 15-inch wheels and monochromatic bodywork (that TT-esque roof arch appliqué costs extra) the design looks a million dollars, boasting delicate proportions and some tasty detailing.
Unlike the Mini and Fiat, Audi had no obvious visual heritage to draw upon, but the obscure NSU Prinz/1000 TT small car of almost 50 years ago did provide some inspiration. Ultimately, though, this is a modern car, with its arching roofline, shallow glasshouse, broad shoulders, short overhangs, wrap-around hatch, daytime driving lights and ‘Single Frame’ grille. It comes together beautifully.
Note this is not an aluminium vehicle, although the A1 consists of about 50 per cent high-strength and 11 per cent ultra-high strength steels respectively. Not surprisingly the whole structure feels stiff.
Compared to the competition, the A1 really earns its stripes inside, with a sensory uplift that is in keeping with brand values.
For example, unlike the Polo, every bit of visible plastic feels pricey, while the rubberised upper dash trim, steering wheel and all the knobs and buttons are tactile treats. Here the Audi leaves the clownish Mini cabin for dead.
Visually, the effect is cool minimalism (are you listening, Mini designers?), with the claimed aircraft wing horizontal dash design appearance adding to the A1’s appeal.
The integration of the lower centre console looks the part too, as do the door speakers and pockets, circular air vents and classy headlining, but one design detail oversight jars – the analogue speedometer’s undersized font. It clashes with the tachometer, big time.
Otherwise the instruments do as designed the driving position can accommodate 200cm-plus people, and there is a general feeling of space for such as squat car. The cabin also feels remarkably airtight and detached from the outside world.
As with many VW/Audi front seats, the A1’s initially feel firm and shapeless but do mould into your shape for longer-term comfort. And just as importantly, both chairs have a simple, slide-and-return function for when people are clambering into the rear row.
Access, then, is pleasantly easy, but will your stay in the rear seat be? Your 178cm tester’s head is fouled by that arching roofline which, combined with the too-upright backrest, renders the headrests useless. As this is effectively a two-seater proposition anyway, why didn’t Audi push the cushions further inboard to avoid the inevitable cricked neck action?
Knee room is not uber tight and the cabin is so short the front air vent flow reaches the rear without delay, but the small side windows, thick pillars and low roof conspire to make some feel claustrophobic.
Audi provides a pair of deep storage pockets and a small tray at the end of the centre console, but no overhead grab handles, seat map pockets, cupholders and centre armrest suggest that – from the rear seat perspective at least – Scrooge is in charge of the A1 purse strings.
Adding the basics cost more, like a multi-function steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity (really!), detailed trip computer display and multi-attachment floor hooks in the (not too meagre) 270-litre cargo compartment. Folding the split rear seats boosts that to 920 litres, by the way – enough for a full-sized bicycle sans front wheel.
And now for some details both delightful and daft in nature.
The rear split backrests each have a child-seat restraint behind them so as to not eat into the boot area but the rear-seat cushions are not split so having a low floor on one side and somebody sat on the other is impossible. At least the hatch aperture is gaping for easy loading.
Audi has the taillight unit incorporated within that clamshell lid but a small rectangular secondary cluster is there too for, say, if you are changing over to the (space-saving) spare tyre by the side of the road and need your hazard flashers or taillights on for better visibility. The open hatch’s auxiliary taillights give the A1 a Fiat 500 look, BTW.
And the high waistline hampers rear vision. No surprises there.
In summary then, the A1 feels just as premium as any of its larger brethren. But how about from behind the wheel?
From start-up, VW’s familiar 90 TSI 1.4-litre four-cylinder TFSI turbo petrol engine grumbles into life before quickly settling down to a smooth idle.
With perfectly positioned six-speed manual gearshift in palm, the Audi drives as if coated in silicon. The lever slots effortlessly into place and the clutch slips in and out sweetly, for creamy yet quick motion. Even with just 200Nm hauling 1100kg, this feels fleeter than the official 8.9s 0-100km/h-sprint time suggests.
Perhaps more impressively, there is a big-car quietness and refinement about how the drivetrain operates, with mechanical noises muffled away. On smooth roads at least the A1 is probably the quietest baby around.
Even stomping on the accelerator ups the pace with fluid refinement, but the power that is piled on does so with deceptive speed. Watch out. The rorty TFSI unit loves to rev (the red line kicks off at 6000rpm but almost seven is easy), and does so willingly, while a deep well of torque is available for the driver to draw upon, meaning that the A1 is spritely as well as stealthy.
Miserly too. We averaged around 7.7 litres per 100km over our mainly inner-urban route, bolstering our affection for the diminutive runabout.
Now, normally at this juncture we would mention how inert or devoid of feel the latest Audi’s steering is, but the A1’s quicker-than-Polo’s 14.8:1 ratio is clearly aimed at keeping up with the ultra zippy Mini (and DS3 DSport FYI).
Again, we reckon Ingolstadt’s engineers have reached a happy balance between lightness, response and feedback with the A1’s handling and roadholding abilities.
We cannot recall the last time a non-sport car Audi would tip into a turn with this level of competence and enthusiasm. The front-drive A1 feels fast on its feet even when carving up a corner, flowing through with linearity and control.
There is a confident poise to this car’s dynamics, encouraging the keen driver to seek a few tight twists and turns. And the brakes are fabulously responsive.
But before you slam your laptop shut and hightail it to your local Audi seller fella, we have reached an all-too familiar point in our A1 story. Yep, the ride – it is far too hard when the going becomes not so smooth (let alone rough).
The moment you hit an uneven surface the banging and bouncing begins, spoiling the serenity with relentless and depressing regularity. On the optional (and hot) 17-inch alloys fitted, suppleness is completely obliterated. Not good enough for a city car, Audi!
Similarly, a hastily driven A1’s chosen line on a fast uphill climb is momentarily broken the moment a bump is hit, although grip levels remain impressively high.
Besides frayed nerves and an increasingly achy back, an unexpected side effect of the overly firm ride is a propensity for rattles. We located a persistent one somewhere within the A-pillar.
And that’s a shame because the A1 can burrow right underneath your skin and leave a positive impression.
Yes, the Audi is pricey and poncy, and is still pipped by the more characterful Mini for driving pleasure, but it is less brash and more cultured if you go for that sort of thing. And the cabin is first class.
But the A1’s illusion of rich tactility is severely undermined by the harsh ride on low-profile rubber. Try before you buy – preferably on roads that you would travel on most regularly – and keep in mind that the standard weedy 15-inch wheels are not visible on the inside.
And you know what? The Polo lurking underneath means that almost 40 years of experience in practical light-car engineering and packaging also applies to the A1.
As we said, it has come full circle for Audi.
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