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Car reviews - Audi - A1 - Sportback

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, sharp pricing, rear leg/foot space, contrasting roof colours, both 1.4 engines, S tronic auto, cabin quality, steering, standard 6.5-inch screen
Room for improvement
Rear headroom, 1.2 engine limited to a five-speed manual, paddle shifters not standard on Sport, road noise, firm ride, noisy diesel, pricey options

28 Jun 2012

AUDI has entered uncharted territory with its new A1 Sportback five-door.

While the existing thee-door version has clear-cut rivals in the form of the Mini Cooper and Alfa Romeo MiTo at the premium end of the light-car market, neither of these are sold Down Under as a five-door like the Audi.

Then there is the price. At $26,500 (plus on-roads) you have to go back almost three-decades to find a cheaper new Audi, in the form of the 80-based 5+5 sedan.

Audi’s decision to introduce a new entry-level 1.2-litre A1 variant can be construed as a sign of the times, with all of the big premium European companies introducing more affordable versions of their product lines in recent years.

Our past experience with this same turbocharged 1.2-litre engine in less-prestigious Volkswagens and Skodas has shown us that displacement isn’t everything, with the 77kW/175Nm version found in models including the Polo, Golf, Fabia, Roomster and Yeti offering deceptive punch.

Bizarrely, however, Audi has only been able to source a less powerful 63kW/160Nm version. It still feels punchy enough at low speeds and in traffic (thanks to its 1065kg dry weight) but one must question the wisdom of saddling a premium marque with lesser mechanicals.

Furthermore, while the standard five-speed manual gearbox is light and easy to use, highway speeds demand a sixth ratio, or at least a taller fifth to keep the harshness at bay. The lack of an automatic option is also an oversight in a market like ours, where self-shifters dominate sales.

The sharp new starting price will raise eyebrows, no doubt, but we expect the new variant will be better at grabbing headlines than attracting signatures on the dotted line.

It’s not that the base engine is a bad one because it isn’t, but the lack of an automatic will be a deal-breaker for many target buyers, and the fact that Audi can’t fit the sparkling 77kW unit from its cheaper cousins is a real shame.

Thankfully, the rest of the range shapes up as equally sharp value, considering Audi is charging no premium for the extra set of doors and the jump in practicality that comes along with it. Australians traditionally favour five-doors, and Audi says the Sportback is the A1 they wanted all along.

Room in the back is adequate rather than outstanding. The cabin is wide enough for three small adults (at least for shorter commutes) and leg/foot space is acceptable, but headroom is still limited for anyone above average height, despite an 11mm-higher roofline.

We don’t normally place emphasis on styling, since it is so subjective, but a style-focussed car like the A1 practically demands it. To our eyes, the Sportback is better proportioned than the three-door, which itself is a bit of a looker.

We especially like the optional contrasting roof colours – a nod to arch-foe Mini if ever there was one – although $720 seems a bit steep for the privilege. Indeed, the cost of options in general is a bit frightening, including $3600 for satellite-navigation and $1850 for Xenon headlights with LEDs.

Step back from the options list, though, and you’ll find a standard interior that is typically Audi – beautifully-finished and sublimely-logical. It’s not as exciting as sitting in a Mini, but it’s suitably upmarket and far easier to live with.

Standard fare on even the cheapest variant includes alloy wheels, cruise control, automatic wipers and headlights, sports seats, a large retractable dash-top screen and Bluetooth phone and audio, which is certainly acceptable at this price point.

We love smaller details like the A8-influenced round steering wheel, circular air vents, well-bolstered front seats and tactile air-conditioning dials, too.

Behind the wheel, the Sportback feels as lively and nimble as the three-door, with quick steering, a tight turning circle and lively engine performance.

A brief drive around the twisty Baskerville race circuit near Hobart may seem an incongruous place to test a style-oriented city car, but it proved a fine place to demonstrate the capabilities of the 1.4-litre petrol (in both single-turbo and ‘twin-charged’ forms) and the slick S tronic transmission.

From $29,900, the 90kW/200Nm 1.4 TFSI (six-speed manual, $2350 extra for the dual-clutch S tronic) gives plenty of punch for the price. The little turbo-petrol engine feels just as lively and robust in its torque delivery as it does in the Volkswagen Golf.

The S tronic transmission is a great match on a track, but is still prone to bouts of fussiness from take-off. We would also like to see standard paddle shifters – a car with a premium badge sometimes needs a novelty to stand apart, and we suspect these would be a good fit.

The Sport version uses the same basic turbocharged/supercharged 1.4-litre engine as the Polo GTI and Fabia RS, matched solely to the S tronic (again, paddle shifters are a $200 option – come on Audi!).

As with those cars, it’s a fabulously rorty little unit with a great exhaust note, a revvy nature and instantaneous engine response, thanks to the supercharger operating at low revs and the turbo taking the baton further up.

The 66kW/230Nm turbo-diesel engine has better claimed fuel consumption than a Toyota Prius C, which is outstanding, but it lacks the zippiness of the 1.4 petrol and is harsher than even the 1.2. In our opinion, this sort of engine is somewhat contrary to the character of the Sportback

All A1s get a system that brakes the inside front wheel, and our experience on the track found it to be quite effective. You can catch it out if you try hard enough, with a pair of tight left-handers prompting understeer (particularly in the punchier Sport), but the handling remains laudable for a front-drive hatchback.

Ride quality across the board errs towards harsh, especially on the Sport’s 17-inch alloy wheels, and this coupled with the excessive road noise could cause the Sportback to become tiresome on long jaunts or across rough road surfaces.

Even with its flaws, though, the Sportback is a worthy addition to the Audi range and is certain to give a substantial boost to (already respectable) sales of the company’s cheapest model.

While we applaud the low starting price of the 1.2, we suspect Audi will have little trouble talking prospective buyers up into the bigger-engined options, and we would certainly not discourage a buyer from saying yes to such a suggestion.

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