Audi isn’t a manufacturer really known for fun. Its cars are all immaculately planned and executed, paragons of interior build quality and as efficient as anything else out there, but when was there last an Audi that really got your blood pumping from behind the wheel? The R8 maybe, but we are taking main stream for the masses here.
So, targeting the funky, world-dominating MINI is a bold move indeed. BMW’s little baby has a decade’s head start over its German rivals when it comes to the chuckable compact hatchback, and it’s done a pretty thorough job securing the niche.
Here’s Audi’s response. And honestly, while it far from ugly, that sweeping arch from A to C pillar puts us in mind of the Citroen C3 Pluriel. Yes Citroen have their game on with design but it is a bit samey. Elsewhere, it’s rather as you would expect; Audi by numbers, with few exterior highlights.
It’s much better inside though. Although the design doesn’t have the impact of MINI’s wackiness, it’s a step ahead in quality and still holds a few little touches that, for Audi, are pretty out there. Check out the coloured plastic inserts, for example. Can’t imagine those in an A4.
Under the bonnet is a 1.4-litre engine with 120bhp, attached to a dual-clutch S tronic transmission. Both are impressive – the engine won’t blow any socks off with its acceleration, but it’s quick to react on the throttle and fizzes away nicely, accompanied by superbly smooth and quick changes from the gearbox, marked by a burp from the exhaust. 100kph comes up in 8.9 seconds in a linear manner.
The A1’s main rival in this game is the MINI. Audi’s done well to make its machine more comfortable and much nicer inside than its counterpart, but BMW’s little icon is renowned for its fun, go-kart like handling. And while the A1 handles well, and is perfectly chuckable, it doesn’t have the sense of joi de vivre, the characterful edge that the MINI can boast in spades. It’s not just a question of marketing – quirky ads and customisation options aside, even the base-level MINI is a great drivers’ car but the A1 feels a bit too… well, a bit too Audi. Too staid, restrained. There’s not enough tactility to its handling and feel; it’s all too well insulated.
Take the MINI out of the equation, and the A1 isn’t bad at all. The steering wheel has good heft to it, if a slightly fuzzy connection to the front wheels, and it’s quick to react to inputs. The car sits solid and stable through corners, back wheels obediently following the fronts around bends with a minimum of fuss, although we’d like the front end to dart in with more vigour than they do. It’s efficient and competent, but never feels like it’s striving for the next set of challenges. It’s fun, but only to the level you might have at an office social event rather than with a load of mates. From a thrill and enjoyment perspective, it suffers from the same issue as countless other Audis – it’s just a bit soulless. It doesn’t make you smile every time you look at it, or make you want to take it out on a Friday morning for a spirited run. It feels like an old, dependable dog rather than an excitable young puppy; a character that’s fine for big saloons, but not what we wanted in a hatchback.
There’s no doubt that Audi has engineered a good car that has plenty going for it, and with prices starting at less than $25,000 you’re not going to find a better quality of machine in this sector (although our test car was so filled with extras that it topped out at $40,000). We expected nothing less, but we hoped for a few more thrills. With a bit of luck, the hotter S1 will do more to put a smile on our face when it arrives in a couple of years time.