Audi’s second-generation A1 has a broader appeal but lacks a final degree of polish...
Having served as the stepping stone into Audi ownership for close to 10 years, the original A1 has now bowed out. It’s made way for a striking successor that will tap into the previously niche, young well-to-do urbanite bracket; with its more generous packaging, it’s making a case to appear on the radar of buyers previously in the market for the base-spec versions of the A3 and BMW 1 Series. The new car is certainly an attention grabber but does the overall package have what it takes to draw in a wider audience?
Sales of the previous A1 showed a distinct preference for the five-door model, so Audi has consequently done away with the three-door variant. It’s a wise choice that makes good use of the MQB platform, accommodating a wheelbase that’s 94 mm up in a package that’s only 75 mm longer than the previous car. This becomes immediately apparent when sitting in the new A1, as there’s appreciably more interior space and a respectable 671 mm of rear legroom, although the boot remains modest at 184 litres.
A less welcome development is a slight but noticeable dip in the standard of certain materials in the cabin. Where the cabins of Audis and most VW products are usually a haven of dense plastics, tight shutlines and plentiful panel padding, on the A1, features such as door cards finished in scratchy, brittle plastics and lower-rent materials have crept in. While the facia is pleasingly executed (especially with those Python Yellow trim inserts) and the driving position ergonomically sound, those so-so trim materials slightly dent the cabin’s otherwise premium feel.
Funky though it was, the previous A1 didn’t exactly look the most assertive on the road. This is not a damning indictment but rather a trait that potentially limited its field of potential buyers. However, the new car’s styling has received a dose of testosterone courtesy of a more squared C-pillar; that profile which makes the rear look less pinched; and a vent-studded nose that’s a nod to the fire-breathing Ur-Quattro rally homologation specials of the 1980s. Finished in the particularly eye-catching Python Yellow and optional S line addenda – such as 18-inch alloys and darkened trim garnishes – it draws plenty of attention and looks suitably sporty.
This more aggressive styling and performance-leaning execution of the car’s underpinnings lends weight to reports that Audi presently has no plans to produce a second-generation S1. The firm’s head of global communications, Peter Oberndorfer, stated the previous car’s high development costs and niche audience would count against such a model, while pointing out the 40 TFSI model’s 147 kW and 320 N.m (sufficient for a claimed 6,5-second 0-100 km/h dash and 235 km/h top speed) should provide enough entertainment for most committed drivers.
To that end, it’s fair to say Oberndorfer has a point. While the 35 TFSI tested here doesn’t top the output charts in the A1 range, the 1,5-litre four-cylinder turbopetrol delivers its 110 kW and a brawny-for-its-size 250 N.m with both sophistication and verve. With all that torque announcing itself in a broad 1 500-3 500 r/min swathe, it feels wonderfully tractable and doesn’t become overly gruff when pushed.
Drive is sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that’s a bit of a mixed bag. On the go, it’s a treat; both up- and downshifts are crisp and smooth, while ratio selection under varied throttle input is fairly spot on. This ‘box does, however, occasionally exhibit a strange hesitance to hook up from pull-away, a trait often associated with older dual-clutch transmissions. Nudging the gearstick into the more alert sport setting goes a long way to alleviating this quirk but it’s something to be mindful of when moving out of junctions and the like. Our performance testing yielded a respectable 9,21-second sprint to 100 km/h and the excellent braking system brought things to a halt in an impressive 2,82 seconds.
Thanks to its Volkswagen Group MQB platform underpinnings, the A1’s impressive composure and fluid body control largely mirror that of the eminently capable Polo. The suspension is more tightly wound than the Polo’s and the ride can err on the firm side, but given our test unit’s optional 18-inch rims and 40-profile tyres, it’s still a well-resolved setup. That taut suspension does an admirable job of keeping body roll in check and combines with a steering rack that’s well weighted and geared responsively to make the A1 a surprisingly nimble and involving car to pilot. The A1 similarly impressed when pushed into motorway duties, feeling solid and stable even in crosswinds.
As is often the case with premium German products, some circumspection is required when ticking the option boxes. The 35 TFSI is quite well equipped with features such as LED headlamps and a tastefully executed, 8,8-inch touchscreen infotainment system among the standard items. To simplify the process of option selection, Audi has grouped desirable extras into various packages. While it does make things less complicated, its execution is slightly haphazard. For instance, cruise control (an item you’d expect as standard fitment) is incongruously shipped with the dual-zone climate control system and luggage compartment storage as part of the R10 300 Comfort Package. By contrast, the Technology Package – grouping the Virtual Cockpit TFT instrument cluster along with an upgraded six-speaker audio system and extended smartphone compatibility – is a carefully considered combination and at just R9 900, represents good value.
In its second iteration, the A1 has honed many of its predecessor’s virtues and is even more appealingly styled and a good deal more entertaining to drive. The overall experience also makes the A1 feel sufficiently special to distance itself from the mechanically similar Polo. As such, it remains a force to be reckoned with in the small luxury-car sphere but niggles such as some downgraded interior finishes at the price and an occasionally temperamental transmission are small scuffs on the A1’s otherwise impressive sheen.
Make considered options choices and you’ve got a premium car with visual charisma many in its class will struggle to match. The likes of Mini’s five-door hatch and even the closely related Polo will have their work cut out.
ROAD TEST SCORE
See Full Audi A1 Sportback price and specs here