AUDI A1 SPORT BACK

Play time is over. Audi’s turned its smallest hatch into a bigger, less cute Mini rival. But has it kept hold of the original’s perky brilliance?

THE FIRST AUDI A1 had a cutesy, compact look, like a tightly laced Converse boot worn by a toddler. Its successor grows by 56mm to 4029mm, which doesn’t sound like much but that stretches it 47mm beyond the already large-looking five-door Mini. When you bear in mind the five-door Sportback we’re testing is the only body style available this time around, it’s clear the second-gen A1 is a more mainstream kind of hatchback shape – more grown up, but less playful-looking too.

Climb inside and the mature feel continues, though few will complain – it’s less cramped up front, with 43mm extra shoulder room, 28mm more elbow room and a smidge more headroom, despite being slightly narrower and lower.

You can transport four adults comfortably, so family duties are definitely on, and the boot grows from 270 to 335 litres. The Mini boot is a significant 57 litres titchier. The new A1’s heavier than its predecessor, but only by around 45kg.

It’s a sharp-looking cabin, with horizontal lines like the Silverstone Wing and a good serving of high-tech infotainment. The 8.8-inch central touchscreen is standard across the range, and works well, so too the 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, though you pay extra to get Audi’s full Virtual Cockpit. It’s an iPad in a loft apartment to the Mini’s Etch a Sketch in a soft-play area.

But this visual flair seems to have come at the expense of some Audi fundamentals – cheap plastics creep right the way to the top of the door casings, and the curt clack when you tap them jars with the doughy squish of the rest of the dash. You can, however, add more distraction tactics with the optional Technology Pack (£1650 for MMI Navigation Plus, Virtual Cockpit, wireless phone charging and Audi Connect) and the Comfort and Sound Pack (£995 for Bang & Olufsen 11-speaker stereo, parking sensors/camera, and heated front seats).

The A1 shares its MQB platform with its Polo and Ibiza in-house siblings, which means MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion-beam rear, but there are no diesels and some of its siblings’ low-power engines are swerved. That leaves a choice of 25, 30, 35 and 40 TFSI engines. The cheapest A1 just ducks under £18k – £1.5k up on like-for-like first-gen models, and a chunky £1900 or so higher than a comparable Polo.

The 40 TFSI is a posh Polo GTI with the same 2.0-litre 197bhp turbo four, but it’s thoroughly underwhelming – nowhere near as quick as you’d hope, with a monotone delivery that makes Kimi Räikkönen look sparky and some harshness when revved hard.

Also disappointingly, Audi has failed to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls facing a relatively powerful front-drive machine, even if rivals have largely banished them. So you get scrabbly wheelspin and torque steer in lower gears, and the sports suspension (which UK buyers can opt not to have) can do compliance but grumbles too frequently over pockmarks and fractures. Even the S-tronic transmission, fitted as standard, feels anodyne, with none of the risqué little slaps you get with a VW Golf R. It’s like a blow to the head has dislodged something important in the A1’s nervous system.

And there’s no use holding out for the hot S1 – this generation of A1 isn’t getting one, even though the last S1 was profitable. Audi is more focused on electrification and autonomy than switching a torsion-beam rear for a multi-link set-up that works with quattro. Boo to that.

The 35 TFSI is better than the 40. It gets the 1.5-litre turbo four that VW calls Evo, which can deactivate two cylinders to save fuel. Naturally it feels slower with 148bhp, and it too is afflicted with a flat, charmless delivery, but our test car (17-inch rims, fixed-rate suspension) rode more sweetly and suffered none of the steering corruption and wheel scrabble. The short, slick flicks of the six-speed manual also added extra personality. Still not thrilling, but better.

That leaves the three-cylinder engine in two tunes. We haven’t yet driven the entry-level 25 TFSI (the one costing a whisker under £18k and producing 94bhp), but we have tested the 30 TFSI with a manual transmission, which ups the ante to £18,540 and 114bhp.

No, it’s fast, but the 148lb ft of torque actually feels quite generous, and there’s a boosty sig-nature to the delivery and that busy three-pot character. It all lends the A1 a peppy sort of en-ergy, whether it’s bustling about town, squirting cross-country or cruising on the motorway. That it returns 58.9mpg and 108g/km CO2 on the new WLTP emissions test standard is another bonus. (A logjam in that test regime means we don’t have figures for other models yet.)

Losing a cylinder also reduces weight over the nose by around 45kg compared with the 1.5 35 TFSI, or fully 145kg compared with the range-topping 40 TFSI, which comes only with the heavier S-tronic dual-clutch gearbox. This narrows the power deficit from a headline 83bhp to 55bhp when you adjust for weight.

The weight reduction also makes the 30 TFSI a more nimble-feeling machine: it rides and steers nicely, changes direction eagerly and has all the performance you actually need in a car like this. It’s no firecracker, but the A1 feels much happier in its skin with a three-pot under its bonnet.
That it’s almost the cheapest A1 you can buy is handy, because SE spec (standard on all models except the 40 TFSI, which gets spangly S-line Competition trim) looks weedy on its 15-inch alloys, so you’ll want to upgrade to a higher spec. SE does include some decent features, including a multi-function steering wheel, LED front and rear lights, DAB radio, voice control, electric heated mirrors, and Audi Pre-Sense with pedestrian/cyclist recognition to make traffic less deadly. But you’ll probably want Sport (£1450 for 16-inch alloy wheels, cloth sports seats, cruise control and rear parking sensors) or S-line, which costs £3100 for 17-inch alloys, sports suspension, bodykit and half cloth/half leatherette trim. Go full bore and you end up with the S-line Style and S-line Contrast pack-ages (prices of which have not been announced), which are basically the A1 wearing shades in a nightclub – tints, darker light surrounds, con-trast roof, that kind of thing.
Don’t think of the A1 as a copycat Mini. It’s now more like a shrunken Evoque, and very appealing on that basis. Keep the engine and the trim relatively modest and you get a package that works well at a decent price.

AUDI A1 SPORT BACK 30 TFSI

> Price £18,540 > Engine 999cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 114bhp @ 5000rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive > Performance 9.5sec 0-62mph, 126mph, 58.9mpg, 108g/km CO2 > Weight 1105kg > On sale January 2019

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