Apple to Apple? | Audi A1 Vs Mini Cooper S

BY Azfar Hashim

The A1 is said to be Audi’s answer to BMW’s Mini, but what came out of this comparison was far more telling of these two car’s differences...

Photos: Low Fai Ming

In this cognitive world, people are divided. You either like cats or dogs. Macs or PCs. Blackberry or iPhone (you get the whole idea).

Even cars - either a BMW or an Audi, never both.

So what we have here today are two opposing brands with two different products that serve a similar purpose: premium-packaged, fast 3-door compact hatchbacks for the towners.

Let’s start with the Mini Cooper S. So it’s not exactly the latest news, having been in the market for a decade under BMW’s brilliant parenthood. In it’s latest iteration, the Cooper S has gone through its second facelift, now with far more air inlets within the front bumper for better aerodynamics and engine bay cooling (and to keep it up to date, of course).

The Mini maintains the proverbial neat image — short overhangs, wheels at each corners and that cheeky façade. But so did the A1.

The A1 arrived earlier last year (yes, this is already 2012) to much publicity and fanfare, promising an alternative and a host of personalization options; in essence, it offers exactly what the Mini has. But in a more bulbous body, seemingly like the Jetson’s flying car — also less cheeky, and sleeker than the Cooper S. To its advantage, the A1 looks pleasing to the eye than cutting-edge, which should make it far more appealing to its targeted audience. Particularly those who find the Mini, well, “old”.

As both are clad in go-fast suits, you can see bits of sporty items like the roof-mounted spoiler, detailed bumpers and twin-piped exhaust tip. Here is where Audi shows off its generosity: the A1 (with S-line kit) gets 18-inch alloys wrapped in low-profile 215/35 R-18 Bridgestone rubbers. The Cooper S on the other hand gets for itself a set of 17s wrapped in 205/45 R-17 Continentals. Since we’re at the topic of aesthetics, you will surely notice how both test cars come in rather unique colour shades — funky chocolate with silver roof pillars in the case of the A1, and bright blue with white roof for the Cooper S.

Now let’s get to the interior. If life depicts art, then both cars’ interior depicts 3D artworks; you see every button popping out of the dashboard. Just like those bubble wraps — you just want to press every single one and see what it does. Thankfully though, the controls (for air-con and audio) in both the A1 and Cooper S feel lasting; the A1 having a tad more solid feel but the Cooper S offering more style with that plane-like switches. The steering wheel in the two cars - both similar in size, three-spoke (coincidental?) - also offer multi controls and better still, paddle-shifters useful when the streak of enthusiasm kicks in.

If you love things quirky, then the Cooper S’ centrally located speedometer, which also houses the Mini Visual Boost (think BMW’s iDrive), should be your cup of tea. The downside here is that your passengers can see what speed your going at — not so good if the person beside you lacks the sense of humour. But cool the Cooper S may be, it’s the A1 that has the grander center console all thanks to that pop up MMI screen.

Comparing overall cabin size, they seem to be similar despite the fact that on paper, the A1 has the bigger (no pun intended) advantage; the A1 is longer, wider and taller, and also has 2mm extra wheelbase and good layout, translating to better legroom space for the rear passengers. It also has the bigger and more useful boot. But before all you Audi fans pop the champagne, I’m sorry to report that Mini is still able to gather some extra points: it’s somewhat easier to enter and exit the rear, and the Cooper S provides better head and shoulder room (according to two blokes averaging 75kg and 1.7-metres in height).

So far, they both seem similar in every aspect; but look under the bonnet and this is where their major differences are. In the case of the A1, it gets for itself a 1.4-liter twincharged lump, mated to a dual-clutch 7-Speed S-tronic ‘box — the similar combination seen widely-utilised by VW. The Cooper S on the other hand has a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine paired with a (more conventional) 6-speed auto.

In terms of power output, the Cooper S has all along gotten for itself a respectable 184bhp and 240Nm, and takes merely 7.1 seconds to hit 100km/h; the same time maxing out at 224km/h. But as if saying “I-can-do-it-better”, Audi’s little number pushes out 185bhp and 250Nm, and does the century sprint in 6.9 seconds. Maximum speed is rated at 227km/h. Coincidental? Bah…

Driving down our busy CBD, these two cars demonstrate the sort of capability other bigger cars struggle with. For a start, the force-fed engine allows you to skip between lanes effortlessly; its pint size making it so agile you can simply flick the steering wheel to cut across three lanes (a common practice around the area anyway) without a hitch. But in a traffic light grand prix, the Cooper S feels much punchier, edging ahead of the A1 with more ferocity. The lil’ Audi is fast as well, but (a) is more refined and (b) lacks the sort of tenacity the Cooper S delivers.

Out on the expressway, it’s the A1 that you want to be in. The suspension has been set slightly stiffer than the Golf Sport (just to give you an idea), but in a strange way, it absorbs road undulations with aplomb — useful if your daily commute involves the KPE. The Cooper S is your cup of tea if you’re the sort of driver who loves feeling the road on his gluteus while driving, definitely bumpier than the A1. Depending on your driving priorities, the Cooper S is the sharper tool between this two: drive it hard down a twisty set of road, and you feel as one with the car, with excellent body-control to give you that inch of confidence. For the A1, yes it does give the similar confidence, that sharp steering giving additional confidence to keep up with the Cooper S. Somewhat though, body-roll is apparent and you reach the limits earlier than the other car.

We already knew that the Mini Cooper S is a design icon and perhaps the most talked about and revered small car since, well, the old Mini. But after comparing it to the new Audi A1, we manage to realise one thing: these two cars - despite being seemingly similar in traits and purpose - answer to two different groups. The Cooper S should be more appropriate for those who love driving hard, handbrake turns and lift-off oversteers. The A1 is much more suitable for the sort of driver who enjoys driving fast but doesn’t put handling prowess as a priority; they appreciate some comfort and refinement on top of a sleek exterior. But if a choice has to be made, the Audi A1 takes the cake for its overall packaging, daily usefulness and the fact that it’s the newer one.

That’s the wife’s perspective by the way. If you were to ask me, the Cooper S is still the best choice — it lives up to my demands, driving it puts a smile on my face and knowing that it can handle Sepang simply seals the deal. (Despite it being "old"...)