After recently driving the new Mini Cooper S and being much less impressed with it than the rest of the Car Throttle team (CT editor Alex’s video review is coming soon), I was determined to find a better alternative. Sure, if you’re willing to compromise a little on premium quality and badge snobbery there are cars like the excellent Ford Fiesta ST, but what if that’s not an option? Audi’s A1 in 182bhp (185ps) 1.4-litre TFSI form seems to fit the bill nicely. With a 0-62mph time of 6.9 seconds it’s about as fast as the Mini, and also comes from a swanky brand.
Before the arrival of the stonking four-wheel drive S1, this front-wheel drive motor was the A1 range-topper. With much of the world’s motoring press busy singing the praises of the S1, it’s become something of a forgotten car in the range. But does it deserve more recognition?
A three-door A1 with the 182bhp 1.4-litre engine will set you back £21,420 (£22,040 for the five-door Sportback we tested) and comes with the superb S-Tronic dual-clutch auto gearbox as standard (sorry, no manual). That’s £1270 more than a Mini Cooper S with the auto ‘box option ticked. Certainly in terms of quality, it’s worth the extra. In many posher car maker’s ranges, the quality drops noticeably the further down the pecking order you go. Not so here; the A1 is beautifully put together, and has a well thought-out interior with everything in exactly the right place.
“It’s one of the best-sounding four-pots the VW Group makes at the moment”
The engine, meanwhile, is a magnificent little thing. It’s the ‘Twincharger’ version of the 1.4-litre TFSI, which appears across the VW Group range in related cars like the Seat Ibiza Cupra and the VW Polo GTI - both of which have a touch less power at 178bhp - and it’s jolly clever. The supercharger gives a healthy boost to low-end torque, after which the turbocharger takes over.
The result is 182bhp and 184lb ft or torque, and no discernible lag. It’s incredibly punchy, particularly after 4000rpm, and sounds fantastic given its small size. It emits a throaty roar which increases in volume if you put the A1 in sport mode, and is one of the best-sounding four-pots the VW Group makes at the moment. It’s also economical; after driving very carefully on a motorway run we were pushing a 50mpg average. Not bad.
There’s no need to panic about the lack of a manual option, as the S-Tronic DCT system is superb and the lovely little ‘pop’ on each shift isn’t half bad, either.
So far, so good, but the 185 has one fatal flaw, which you notice the first time you reach a corner. Good steering hasn’t always been Audi’s strong suit and in the A1, it’s particularly uninspiring. You feel disconnected from the front wheels, which leads to a disappointing driving experience. The firmer suspension added by the S Line package - the only trim level this car is available in - doesn’t add much composure either.
The range-topping A1 is also an expensive car, particularly given the miserly equipment levels. Things like proper climate control (manual air-con only as standard), sat-nav and any colour that’s not black or white all cost extra.
Spec just those three and you’ll have added almost £2000 to the already high asking price.
Dial back the aggression a little, and the Audi makes for a swift way to cover ground, but you can’t shake that nagging feeling that it’d be so much better if the steering was sorted out. It’s a car which leaves you feeling a little hard done-by each time you drive it, with driving dynamics that fail to do the superb engine justice. It’s no rival to the much sharper Mini Cooper S - even if it does have a better engine - so it’s no surprise that it’s a car that makes up around just two per cent of A1 sales, compared to over 40 per cent for the 120bhp version of the 1.4.
The 185 version of the A1 was actually due to receive the S1 badge, but Audi ended up saving that honour for the more powerful, four-wheel drive car released this year. If you’re a keen driver, you’re much better off stumping up the extra cash for the S1. Those less interested in ultimate driving dynamics are well-advised to pass on the 185 in favour of the less-expensive, lower-powered 1.4. They come with the same brilliant quality and coveted badge kudos, but without the more expensive engine option that’s at odds with disappointing steering in the 185 version.