RONDA, Spain – “It’s just an expensive (Volkswagen) Polo.” That derisive statement is often uttered by critics of the Audi A1 and now the second-generation of the Ingolstadt-based premium marque’s littlest hatchback is out, the grumblings are bound to start afresh. Unsurprisingly, the newcomer is also based on its VW Group stablemate and contemporary: the impressively premium sixth-generation Polo. But, whereas these cousins used to have divergent packaging and target markets, the Volkswagen has moved upmarket, making it more difficult to draw distinctions between the two.
Before we get too mired in the A1-versus-Polo debate, herewith some powertrain details of the new A1 range. The line-up begins with a pair of 1,0-litre turbo triples, badged as the 25T FSI and 30T FSI (of which the former will only be introduced at a later stage), followed by a turbocharged 1,5-litre four-cylinder, which replaces the 1,4-litre unit and will bear the 35 T FSI moniker. At the summit sits the subject of this write-up, the 40T FSI, which is powered by the widely revered (even adored) turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder EA888 engine, which replaces the previous generation’s 1,8-litre unit and propels the current Polo GTI, plus a number of performance-oriented VW Group products. In South Africa, all new A1s will be equipped with six-speed dual-clutch (automatic) transmissions.
As is the case with Polo 6, the A1 is based on the well-known MQB platform, which underpins a raft of Volkswagen, Audi (and other VAG brands’) compact products. That means it too benefits from innovative packaging, commendable space utilisation and inherent refinement. Not only does the 40T FSI share the Polo GTI’s motor and transmission, it has identical peak outputs (147 kW and 320 N.m of torque). However, the Audi’s claimed performance figures are somewhat different to that of the GTI: it has a faster 0-100 km/h time (6,5 seconds) and a slower top speed (235 km/h).
So what does the A1 offer over and above the Polo? As far as design is concerned, it’s more striking than its counterpart. A distinctive single-frame grille is complemented by gaping side air inlets and a row of three air intakes just below the bonnet – the latter cue an homage to the 1984 Ur-quattro!
At the rear, the A1’s appearance is not too dissimilar to that of its predecessor, but incorporates more avant-garde cues, such as chiselled-look taillamps and a contoured bumper with a cheeky diffuser for extra attitude. On the 40T FSI, a sporty dual exhaust ends jut out on the left side.
Audi’s more angular design approach is evident in the newcomer’s sloping C-pillars and widened rear flanks. The most striking exterior execution belongs to the Edition One model, which sports striking gloss white alloy wheels that complement the bright Turbo Blue paintwork. This colour combination adds a lot of attitude to the A1; its purposeful looks befit a compact hot hatch.
The cabin exudes sophistication (much more so than in the previous range, which felt grand in some aspects, but in others less so). It makes a particularly strong first impression by virtue of a 10,1-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which is smartly matched with the Audi Virtual Cockpit digital instrument cluster. The catch is, unfortunately, that both displays are optional extras and the standard spec will result in an analogue gauge cluster and an 8,8-inch infotainment screen.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the 40T FSI’s steering wheel, but the colour-coded cloth seats are pleasantly tactile and don’t detract from the premium feeling. I do imagine, however, that most buyers will opt for leather trim. All of the insets are formed from soft-touch plastic, which can be colour-coded depending on which interior line you select. This customisable interior isn’t as striking as what you would find in the Q2, for example, but it still adds a youthful flavour to the range.
The infotainment screen and climate control console are angled decidedly towards the driver. The former has been transplanted from the A8 grand saloon and offers an intuitive user experience thanks to a slick, responsive interface. The Google Earth map integration to the satellite navigation can be uneasy on the eyes at first but once adjusted it comes in handy for identifying landmarks.
The overall comfort of the seats of the previous-generation A1 was disappointing, especially at the back. The hard cushioning didn’t make the cabin feel very welcoming and detracted from the car’s premium persona. There is some improvement with the new range, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say the accommodation is class-leading. The driver and passenger seats have a bit more cushioning, but larger persons may still find them cramped, while the rear bench still feels a tad too hard. The lack of contouring may cause discomfort on longer trips, but the increased legroom is welcome.
So, in terms of appearance, packaging and build quality, the A1 does feel as if it’s been designed for a more exclusive costumer than the Polo – that’s apparent right at the outset. You have to look long and hard to notice the similarities between this and the Polo. This, however, is the 40T FSI, which is closely related to the Polo GTI, a car we proclaimed as class-leading in our road test.
A direct comparison between the two cars is inevitable, but the odds appear to be stacked heavily against the A1 flagship. The standard equipment list of the 40T FSI is unlikely to be more generous than that of the Polo GTI and whereas the A1 will be imported (from Spain, incidentally), the Polo is produced locally and costs less than the model it succeeded. In order to justify the expected price premium between the two, the range-topping A1 will therefore have to feel quite special to drive.
I did find the 40T FSI engaging and entertaining to drive; it felt in its element on the winding country roads of Ronda thanks to its short wheelbase (of 2 560 mm) and sports suspension with switchable dampers, which allow the chassis to stiffen up through the utilisation of gas-filled shock absorbers.
The engine, which is well calibrated with the dual-clutch ‘box, blends well with the chassis and the weighty steering system complements the A1’s cheeky personality. The car remains planted through tight corners and rockets out of them with zeal. On long straights, however, it runs out of puff…
The current flagship A1 doesn’t bear an Audi Sport badge and perhaps that’s just as well. Although the 40T FSI is a lot of fun to drive – and quick in its own right – it will not be fitted with a quattro all-wheel drive system, as was the case with the previous range’s S1 model. Audi’s official statement is that it believes the 40T FSI provides sufficient performance to be considered a flagship model, but it’s a trifle disappointing, because the package feels as if it could handle loftier outputs with ease.
Suffice to say the 40T FSI will be the fastest A1 you can buy when the range arrives on local soil in the latter half of 2019. Although it offers an entertaining enough driving experience, it’s unlikely to bother the Polo GTI, which has already developed a strong reputation despite its relatively recent arrival on the market. Having said that, the sweet spot in Audi’s supermini range, which will again be backed by a five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan, is likely to be at the lower end of the line-up.