Analysis on steroids
25 March 2017 23:40 (South Africa)
Business

Audi A1: Small car with big aspirations

  • Deon Schoeman
    Deon Schoeman
  • Business
A1 Front Tracking main

It’s being called the Next Big Audi by the marketing gurus, and for the German luxury brand, the arrival of the A1 is certainly a big event. But that doesn’t make the Polo-sized three-door hatchback a big car. Instead, its relying on the cute factor, its premium positioning – and the increasing trend favouring smaller cars – for sales success. Fortunately, that’s not all the A1 has to offer. By DEON SCHOEMAN.

South Africans may not realise it, but Audi is no stranger to the premium small car market. Some years back, it launched an ungainly, eclectic hatchback badged the A2. It featured an aluminium space frame, just like the flagship A8, and was meant to offer small car buyers a sophisticated, premium package – at a price.

And it was that price tag, together with a shape that didn’t age particularly gracefully, that eventually spelled the death knell for the A2. It also meant a that the next small car from the Ingolstadt brand was always going to be more conventional, less complex and cheaper to build.

The A2 may have been ahead of its time, because it pre-empted the market’s appetite for small, advanced and eco-friendlier cars by at least a decade. But with hindsight, the cost of its eventual failure could be considered as school fees for Audi’s second small car attempt. And this time, the new small Audi does appear to be destined for success.

For starters, let’s confirm that the A1 feels every inch an Audi – and nothing like the Volkswagen Polo it shares some underpinnings with. But that’s not really a surprise, after all an A3 doesn’t feel like a Golf either.

Driving the A1 is to be presented with that typically solid, engaging dynamic experience that’s dictated by the Four Rings’ hatchback DNA. Which means it feels like a scaled-down A3 and not like a Polo clone. And of course, the design is unmistakably Audi.

That the A1 attracts a lot of attention is a good sign. And it certainly turns heads, although the novelty factor also plays a role, for now. Besides, this smallest Audi is not pretty in the conventional sense of the word.

To my mind, the best perspective is from the front, where the big, single-frame grille and LED daytime running lights emphatically confirm the hatchback’s Audi identity. But at the rear, the execution is a little more avant garde – even controversial – thanks to a tailgate with an unusual overbite, and tail light clusters that stand proud from the metalwork.

Somehow, that rear makes the A1 look a little old-fashioned. Add the shorter, almost squashed dimensions, and the result can be awkward and even dumpy from some angles. But it’s also eye-catching, especially when the arced roofline is emphasised by the optional pillars in a contrasting hue.

The graphic, LED-lit shapes that adorn both headlights and tail lights are a further Audi trademark, while our test car’s optional big wheels and fat tyres suggest a sporty ride and decent road manners.

Also optional is an extra-cost S-line package that adds colour coding and a subtle body kit to the A1 equation. It makes the A1 look more aggressive, albeit at a price. Combined, the S-Line kit and those wheels alone add about R30k to the price tag.

The A1 comes in three flavours: 1.2 TFSI, 1.4 TFSI and 1.6 TDI turbodiesel – but we expect the 1.4 TFSI to be the most popular choice. The 1.4-litre turbo engine has 90kW and 200Nm on tap, and feels zesty across the rev range. Buyers get to choose between a six-speed manual gearbox, or – as here - a seven-speed S-tronic dual clutch gearbox.

The TFSI engine is one of the new-generation, small-displacement turbocharged units employed across the Volkswagen/Audi family. It offers the dual benefits of good low-down shove and extended output, thanks to its turbocharger, but retains decent fuel consumption because of  its high-efficiency design and small capacity.

The dual-clutch S-tronic gearbox helps matters along even further in efficiency terms, although the shift action felt unusually hesitant in this application, compared to its usually snappy changes in other Audis. Our personal preference would be the standard (and cheaper) six-speed manual box.

Just like the styling, there’s good news and bad news inside the A1’s cabin. The good news is the high standard of execution as far as quality, comfort and ergonomics are concerned. The bad news is all at the back with the arc-shaped C-pillar severely compromises headroom. And the boot isn’t that generous either.

So the A1 may have seating for four, but for all intents and purposes, the lack of headroom means those rears are suited to the vertically challenged and children only. And families will find they have too much paraphernalia to fit into that small, 270-litre boot.

Without rear occupants, the split rear backseat can be folded down to boost cargo space to a much more usable 920 litres.

I suppose it’s a case of target market and application: The A1 is perfect for singles, young couples or empty nesters. And the interior offers a nicely laid-out space that’s stylishly executed and comes equipped with all the most important features. The ergonomics are sound and there’s a convincing aura of quality.

The pop-up screen and Audi’s basic MultiMedia Interface are standard, allowing intuitive access to various vehicle systems and features. But you pay R25 000 or so extra for the Satnav and Bluetooth phone kit. The screen folds away when not required.

But The A1’s most compelling talents only become apparent on the move. The 90kW doesn’t sound like much, but in the small A1, it’s plenty of poke – especially since turbocharging means there’s no altitude-related power loss to speak of.

With the paddle-shift S-tronic gearbox, the 0-to-100 sprint time takes only 8,9 sec to complete, and top speed is 203km/h.  That’s pretty brisk, if not hot hatch fast.

Interestingly, the little Audi does well at the fuel pumps. We recorded 7.1 litres/100km after a fair amount of hard driving, but those with a more lenient right foot should easily manage 6.0 l/100km in mixed driving – and even less on the open road.

However, the A1 doesn’t only rely on straight-line speed and efficiency for its dynamic appeal. Its  handling is exceptional. Sure, the electric power steering feels a little numb. But the chassis responds with razor-sharp precision, and grip levels are high without resorting to understeer at the limit.

The Audi feels smoother and more adept than its closest class rival, the Mini Cooper, even if it’s not quite as immediate or responsive. Ride quality is good, with a cohesion and tautness that allows ample chassis feedback, without feeling crashy or unrefined.

Given that the A1 is simultaneously upmarket and athletic, it’s a perfect set-up, compared to the more frenzied, more boisterous approach of the younger, preppier Mini.

So, will the A1 become Audi’s next big success story? And will it succeed where the A2 couldn’t? Well, that depends.

Admittedly, there are a few good reasons not to buy the A1: The limited rear headroom, the small boot, and the price tag – especially once you’ve added some extras.

But on the positive side, the turbocharged engine has plenty of urge, the interior is beautifully executed and comprehensively kitted out, and the road manners are both thrilling and benign. In fact, in  pure dynamic terms, the A1’s combination of balance, poise and outright grip is top-class.

That augurs well for the more powerful models due in the next few months, among them a 135kW front-wheel drive version, and a 160kW S1 with quattro all-wheel drive. A five-door with a longer wheelbase and improved rear headroom is about a year away too.

Our guess is that Audi won’t struggle to find buyers for its A1. Right now, it might be a trendy purchase. But Audi’s smallest has enough substance to become a long-term success. DM

 


 

VITAL STATISTICS
Audi A1 1.4 TFSI Ambition S-tronic

Engine
In-line four-cylinder, 1 390cc, turbocharged

Gearbox
Seven-speed S-tronic

Power
90kW @ 5 000rpm

Torque
200Nm @ 1 500rpm

0-100 km/h
8,9 sec

Top speed
203km/h

Fuel consumption
5,6 litres/100km (combined cycle)

CO2 emissions
122g/km

Retail price
R270 500 (before options)

  • Deon Schoeman
    Deon Schoeman
  • Business

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