The Audi A1 is a car built for one purpose: to offer a lower entry price into a desirable brand. Audi has long been known for materials quality and the right image, and with common mechanicals they’re normally as easy to look after and fix as a Volkswagen or Skoda. The A1 has been a handy way to let people buy into a brand they might then stick with. But, now, our sister title Auto Express reports that the comparatively humble A1 is locked into a guillotine, anxiously glancing upwards at steely inevitability.
The problem is electrification. You might have noticed how gosh-darn expensive hybrids and BEVs all are, and that the ‘more affordable’ ones tend to feel like they’ve been made out of vaguely recycled Christmas cracker toys. When you’re dealing with a vehicle that – four rings or not – has been built down to a price, profit margins just won’t allow for batteries. Audi is never going to sell A1s for a loss, and consumers aren’t happily going to pay £25,000-£30,000 for an electric small Audi with a size- and cost-limited range of about 150 miles. Hmmm. What a conundrum.
Audi has waited until others stuck their necks out first. Honda has the stylish and desirable ‘E’ city car, but it’s not selling in vast numbers. Fiat has tried to go for a premium image with its electric 500, capable of a theoretical 199 miles per charge and now starting at less than £20,000, but that’s still a comically tiny amount of car for the money. It’s a niche product that’s perfect for a very small number of people and a bit sub-optimal for everyone else. Audi doesn’t want to fall into this trap. It wants to sell lots of cars with as much profit margin as it can. It’s a business, after all; a very lucrative one.
The idea of having a ‘first Audi’ is one designed to help dealers make a good impression; to get chummy with a customer who never thought they could afford a new Audi and who, in the future, might want to upgrade to an A3, maybe even a Q5. Without having built that relationship on the back of the A1 first, that customer might have gone somewhere else with their money. But, apart from the chance to get younger and (comparatively) less affluent customers through the door, is the A1 actually much of a loss? Not really.
If you drive an Audi you want it to feel refined, comfortable, well screwed together and for it to make you feel lucky. Like you’re doing alright in life. Get into any of its large cars and every box is ticked with a Sharpie. They’re really lovely things to drive daily or be driven in. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for the A5, A4 and A3. But I remember once driving a new A1 on the same day as a new A6, and my lasting impression from the day was that the smaller car wasn’t fit to wear the same badge. The A1 was noisy, cheap inside and uncomfortable. There were – and are – a handful of other, cheaper superminis that are easily better. Few even of the hot varieties that were spun off it ever really lit the blue touch paper.
Today all this leaves me wondering whether the loss of the A1 might actually do Audi a favour. Higher entry prices for the overall range might makes the brand that bit more exclusive again with the Q2 as its start line. The Q2 is, by all accounts, a much nicer thing than the A1. We’re also told that SUV body styles are more aspirational and desirable to the average buyer. It’s entirely possible that by ditching the A1 Audi might generate more demand for its remaining products – all of which have higher profit margins and/or can be electrified more easily. Lower sales volumes but higher profits per sale? I don’t think the shiny room in Ingolstadt full of expensive suits and their inhabitants will hear too many complaints.
There’s an emerging counter-argument, though. You should by now have seen the Renault 5-inspired concept EV we reported on last month. Early reports suggest the entry price will be around £18,000. While that’s still a bit much compared to a boggo petrol-powered Clio, you can spend that much on a high-spec Ecoboost Fiesta, which typically gets about 40mpg if you’re not thrashing it too hard. If electric power and (for now) cheaper running costs are more important to you than having more toys than Amazon, the future ‘5’ starts to make a convincing financial case. Maybe. There’s definitely still work to be done on that front.
It’s looking increasingly like the A1 isn’t going to fit in an all-electric Audi range. But if and when the guillotine is triggered, admirers can take solace in the fact that it did its job in the time that it was still relevant. There are plenty more fish in this particular sea.