The smallest member in Audi’s range gets a facelift and a new 1.0L engine - but is such a small motor really sufficient for the Audi driving experience?
Photos by Jonathan Lim
As the saying goes, big things come in small packages. If that is the case, then the new Audi A1 Sportback should be a mighty proposition indeed, for it is one of the smallest cars around, both in heart and stature.
The A1 first made its debut in 2010, and was Audi’s response to the runaway success of the new MINI, which had created a market hungry for premium, chic and sprightly little urban runabouts – action that Audi wanted in on. Naturally, being a product of the mighty Volkswagen automotive empire, the A1’s creation was preceded by a raid on the company’s parts bin; so to put it bluntly, the car is essentially a re-hashed Polo in a pretty frock.
When the A1 first lauched, Audi went in pretty much guns-a-blazing in trying to match the MINI and capture the youthful side of the market: a sporty 3-door variant, contrasting paint finishes, huge wheels and a variety of decal packs were all available as customisation options. Now though (perhaps as a reflection of current market trends), the A1 has grown up somewhat, with a more modest engine option, single-tone paint finishes and 5-door variant only. Certainly in this flat shade of Nano Grey with modest 16-inch rims, it does look a much more unassuming vehicle than the very first A1 we drove (http://www.burnpavement.com/article.php?id=535).
What certainly isn’t demure about this car though, is its motor. Where the A1 previously came with a 1.4-litre TSI engine producing either 122 or a potent 185bhp, the facelifted model now utilizes a teeny 1.0-litre turbocharged triple, with 95bhp and 160Nm of torque. That may not sound like much (and the 10.9 seconds 0-100km/h certainly isn’t spectacular), but believe me when I tell you that those numbers are highly deceiving. That little triple under the A1’s clamshall bonnet is one of the most effervescent engines I’ve experienced in recent memory.
Alright, fine, so it is let down somewhat by the laggy throttle response; prod the throttle and there’s a second of hesistation where the car seems to ask, ”You sure you want full power? You didn’t sneeze or twitch a muscle? Well ok then…”, before giving you the beans. But get past that moment and the A1 enthusiastically scampers away with decently torquey shove and an appropriately fizzy 3-pot engine note. In fact, during my time with the car I found myself flooring it nearly everywhere I went – not only because of how eagerly it pulled from nearly everywhere in the rev range, but mostly because of how damn infectious it sounded.
That eagerness plays out not just in a straight line, but through the corners too. Thanks to the low 1.1-tonne kerbweight and four-square stance, the A1 is endowed with the kind of agility that little puppies wish they had. Merging with traffic or switching lanes? The A1 is small enough to squeeze into any gap! Coming up to a brace of twisty corners? Just flick the downshift paddles of the DSG gearbox and chuck it in: You’d be surprised how hard it will grip despite the comfort-oriented rubber that’s fitted.
And unlike some other cars’ seats which leave you hanging onto the steering wheel to prevent yourself ping-ponging all over the interior when the driving gets, ahem, exuberant, the sports seats in the A1 keep you firmly in position. That’s partly due to their design, which is extremely well-bolstered and supportive, and partly also due to their material: good old-fashioned fabric.
Don’t take the lack of leather upholstery to mean the A1’s interior is a dour place to be in though. It may be the cheapest model in the range but build quality is as good as you’d find in any of the marque’s luxury sedans. The materials and switchgear used will be instantly familiar to any current Audi drivers (the knurled dials and knobs are a constant source of tactile joy) and the MMI infotainment system simple to operate. In fact, thanks to the turbine-style aircon vents and Garnet Red trimmings all over the cabin, the A1’s interior is a whole lot livelier than typically expected of an Audi.
If there’s one quibble to be made about the A1’s interior though, it has to do with space. Alright, so the fact that it isn’t exactly cavernous inside should be expected from a car of this size, but one does wonder if it were possible to meld the A1’s style with a bit more space efficiency. Realistically, you’d only be able to comfortably fit two adults or three kids in the back before they start barging shoulders, and the seatback is awkwardly upright, but legroom is just about sufficient for two six-footers to sit in tandem.
The A1 may have reached middle age in terms of a model’s life cycle, but the new engine option has certainly done enough to make the A1 feel sufficiently different than before. Its effervescent nature makes it feel more eager than the outgoing model, and with (claimed) economy figures of 22.7km/L and 102g/km, it’s even cleaner and more economical to boot.
Is it as fun to chuck around and play with as a MINI? In absolute terms, probably not. But unless you compare them back to back, you’d be extremely hard-pressed to tell the difference.
It also may not be as distinctive to look at (particularly in this rather dull Nano Grey), but it does exude a sense of class that its bloated, gimmicky Anglo-German rival could never hope to match.