REVIEW DATE: 08 Nov 2010
Audi's beautifully-finished A1 is best sampled with the 185PS 1.4-litre TFSI engine under its bonnet. Andy Enright reports
It's taken a long time for the public to appreciate that small cars don't exclusively need to be cheap and nasty and few companies are better placed to capitalise upon this burgeoning market than Audi. Its A1 offers big car build quality in a manageably sized package and with the punchy but economical 185PS 1.4 TFSI petrol engine under the bonnet, it's a formidable package.
Audi likes to underscore its record of innovation but the company owes a big debt of gratitude to its rivals from Bavaria, BMW, who showed with the MINI range that consumers were prepared to pay a sizeable premium for an upmarket city car. Audi will doubtless point to their aluminium A2 which appeared a couple of years before the MINI, but this was a model that never attained genuine traction with the buying public. Audi took another bite with the A1 in 2010 and this has cemented a reputation as the most polished small car on sale. But not, you might think from a drive in the basic 1.2 and 1.4-litre petrol and 1.6-litre diesel variants that most customers buy, one of the more exciting.
If that's your perspective, then the German brand's sales people will point you towards the variant we're looking at here. It's badged '1.4 TFSI', like the more modestly powered 122bhp A1 variant, but the '185PS' designation at the end makes all the difference. Although a 1390cc cubic capacity might at first appear distinctly underwhelming for a performance model of this kind, the addition of a supercharger and a turbocharger are enough to create that 185PS power rating that endows this A1 with some serious shove. Audi is banking on the fact that customers will be willing to pay a premium for a small car that's cut from anything but ordinary cloth.
Admit it. You want to know how fast it goes. The Top Trump statistics are a 0-62mph sprint of 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 141mph and no small car makes going this quick this easy. That's because drive is deployed to the front wheels via a remarkable S-tronic 7-speed robotised manual gearbox. What's more, there's meaningful go across a broad rev range thanks to a supercharger that serves up instant low-down torque and a turbocharger that takes up the baton after 2400rpm and gives the midrange some excitement. Because it isn't asked to boost at low pressures, Audi could fit a meaty turbo to the A1 1.4TFSI, hence the headline power figure. It's not the most exciting sounding powerplant, but you'll forgive it that for its sheer verve. It was good enough to walk the 2009 Engine of The Year award at any rate.
"What's refreshing about this car is that it doesn't resort to gimmickry, instead being a very mature and intelligent package.."
For a car that possesses such a remarkable transmission, there's not a lot that's particularly novel about the A1's underpinnings, the chassis being shared with the latest generation Volkswagen Polo. That means tried and tested strut suspension up front and a compact torsion beam arrangement at the back. Ride quality is firm (firmer than some will want in fact), thanks to the standard S line suspension and there's not the effervescence of a MINI but available cornering grip is augmented by a clever stability control system as well as an electronic limited slip differential.
If you talk Audi design language fluently, there won't be too many surprises inside the A1. The cabin is quiet and maturely finished with no speedometers the size of dinner plates or garish graphics. Audi contend that if you're downsizing from a bigger car, you expect big car sophistication and the A1 serves that up in spades. Everything is soft touch, silicon damped and consistent in feel and design.
The exterior offers little clue as to the potency of this car, Audi again deciding against an extrovert alloy wheel and spoiler combination. Rumours that this car was going to be the S1 but then was deliberately toned down seem credible. The contrasting roof arch remains the A1's most distinctive feature. Just don't ruin an A1 owner's day by mistaking it for a Citroen C3 Pluriel. The A1 body can only afford so much interior space in a package 3954mm long, but the 267-litre boot extends to a respectable 920 litres if you drop the back seats.
Assessing the value proposition of this car isn't straightforward. On one hand, you could note that after a modest trawl through the options list, your A1 could easily amount to £25,000 worth of city scoot. Many people will see this as a massive indulgence, but wouldn't blink at spending that on a bigger car. Given that the A1 builds in big car pace and features in a package that just works better in the city, it's hard to escape the conclusion that if you need a car that's easy to jink in and out of traffic, simplicity to park but doesn't want for luxury, the A1 seems eminently appealing, even at that price.
Standard equipment includes 17-inch alloy wheels, part leather-upholstered sports seats. That's in addition to the Sport equipment level which includes remote central locking, air conditioning, electric front windows and mirrors, Bluetooth mobile phone preparation, a Driver's Information System and a six-speaker single CD audio system with auxiliary iPod connection linked to a 6.5-inch retractable display. Safety-wise, expect two front airbags, side airbags and curtain head bags, whilst Isofix child seat fixings, seatbelt tensioners and integral headrests round out the safety provision. Options include a panoramic sunroof, two navigation systems and a thumping 465-watt Bose surround sound stereo with no fewer than 14 speakers.
The combination of this award-winning engine and the in-demand Audi A1 body has generated considerable interest which should serve to prop up initial residual values very nicely. Needless to say, a fashionable car doesn't stay fashionable for ever, but solid build quality and smart engineering will ensure that the A1 1.4 TFSI 185PS will always be a model with a ready used market. Just look at the prices that tidy used Audi A2s still command. This was a model that was similarly accused of being too expensive but, if anything, the A2 has retained value better than industry observers ever predicted.
The TFSI engine is very economical, returning a combined fuel figure of 48.2mpg, although that figure tumbles quite quickly if you work the turbocharger with any great regularity. Drive in a relaxed fashion and you might even match Audi's quoted carbon dioxide emissions figure of just 139g/km - excellent for a petrol-engined car with this much performance potential.
There's a lot to admire about the Audi A1 1.4TFSI 185PS. Any car that is this well finished, which features a 185PS engine capable of punting it to 60mph in just 6.9 seconds, yet which will attain a perfectly refined 48.7mpg fuel economy figure, is by any stretch an impressive achievement. That talent doesn't come cheap though, and many will not understand how Audi can charge this much for this little car.
The answer comes in downsizing for the city. Typical A1 1.4 TFSI 185PS buyers could probably afford an A4 or an A6 but find the smaller car better suited to their requirements and don't want to forgo luxury features. What's refreshing about this car is that it doesn't resort to gimmickry, instead being a very mature and intelligent package. The demand for smart, compact cars is swelling quicker than many manufacturers can contend with. Audi look to be in prime position to capitalise.
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