Spurred-on by images of Ur-Quattro stickered show cars and loose talk of a potential new rival for the Mini Cooper, PH travelled to Berlin last week with high hopes for the new Audi A1.
We concentrated on the 120hp 1.4 TFSI petrol, which equipped with the VW group's DSG 'S Tronic' gearbox will set you back £16,130 before you start ticking any option boxes. All that puts it in squarely in the same showroom category as the Mini Cooper, but it didn't take many minutes behind the wheel to determine that this new city-sized machine isn't in the same ballpark as the Mini dynamically. It didn't take many more minutes chatting with the German technical team to understand why.
This car is designed to be the lowest-priced stepping-stone into the Audi brand, so why tease new customers with an extrovert dynamic package only to withdraw the privileges when they move up the range? Instead, from the project outset the A1 team was tasked not with the goal of creating a sparky little performer with go-kart like handling, but on concentrating the existing Audi brand attributes into the smallest possible package. Which to be fair, they've done with remarkable success, because if the A1 is good at any one thing, it's being a 'proper' Audi.
The effect starts with the exterior design, which with its wide Audi grille and trademark DLRs, makes an unusually big impression in the rear view mirror for such a little machine. The driving experience is 'bigger' than the exterior dimensions suggest too, with typically Audi-esque steering that's direct and pleasantly weighted, although relatively free of anything approaching feel.
The engine pulls willingly for its size, though we remain unconvinced of the need for DSG in this category (a good driver can match the DSG sprint times with a regular six-speed manual, the project manager admitted, and the 'Spanish' option is typically much more engaging.) The car handles decently enough too, with reasonable roll control on the slightly stiffer (standard for UK cars) suspension that's optional elsewhere in Europe, and a distinct lack of scrabbly understeer when pressing on thanks to the 'torque-vectoring' effect of an automatically-braked inside front wheel. In spite of a firm-ish ride we'd take Audi's claim that the experience is 'sporty' with a pinch of salt, but it's certainly not 'porridgey' either.
Set against that, the A1 offers a grown-up quality that the Mini definitely can't deliver. The A1's elegantly drawn and classily finished interior offers all the design integrity that you expect from the Audi brand, and an experience that really belongs in a class or two above. The designers have managed to incorporate some (ahem) 'youthful' touches like coloured binnacles for the dash vents and centre console that can be switched at the dealer if you get bored by your choices, but even a lurid-sounding pistachio green trim option that we saw looked cool and refreshing. There's none of the 'Playschool' approach to design on offer here.
You won't pay for this 'cut above' approach if you keep things basic with the A1, but Audi is probably right to imagine that many bright young things will be tempted by an options list that includes the full MMI satnav/infotainment system from the new Audi A8 which adds something like £2.5k to your bill. All together now: "Ouch!"
But still, if you're unmoved by the occasionally twee gimmickry of 'retro-themed' rivals like Mini, Alfa Mito or Fiat 500, and the faux avante-gardism of the Citroen DS3 leaves you cold, it could be relatively easy to summon up sufficient enthusiasm for this different approach from Audi. Just maybe not here on PH until the 180hp 'S' version arrives...