Rather than watch Mini erode the A1's lead in the posh baby spice club, Audi has sharpened the value, lowered prices and – best of all – dropped a sizzling 1.0-litre three-pot turbo in the base model, creating a more compelling (and fun) proposition.
WHAT IS IT?
As the all-important young person’s Audi, 75 percent of A1 buyers are fresh to the Audi fold. It's also Ingolstadt's thorn in rival Mini's side, and is based on the VW Polo platform, but sporting its own high-minded styling and quality-soaked cabin design. Cheaper and better value, welcome to the mid-lifecycle facelift.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
It's Apple Watches and boutique beer at high noon right now, thanks to the deadly duel between Audi's A1 Sportback and BMW's resurgent Mini. With the latter finally back on top, the former has cut prices, added more kit, and introduced two compelling engines to the facelifted range, in the hope of regaining the premium supermini class lead.
Mini Cooper 5-Door, Alfa Romeo Mito, Citroen DS3 DSport
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Audi has released the A1 that it should have had five years ago, with strong engines across the range, improved specification and – most of all – lower prices. And it is the newest of the drivetrains – a terrific turbo triple in the 1.0 TFSI – that is the most compelling, making the most of the VW Polo-based chassis' inherent goodness. But cracks have also appeared in the harsh riding bigger-wheeled S-Line models, while the lack of rear camera availability shows off the A1’s advancing age.
PLUS: Punchy 1.0-litre engine; efficiency, handling, refinement, quality, design, standard ride
MINUS: 1.8's hard ride and road noise, no rear camera, still hardly cheap
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IN 1974, a fledgling Audi released a premium supermini called the 50. But overlords Volkswagen soon turned it into a Polo, forcing Audi to toil over turbos, quattro, and obsessive quality instead. We understand the tearjerker Not Without My Daughter, starring Sally Field, was all about Ingolstadt’s stolen baby. Probably.
Anyway, in 2000, it tried again with the all-aluminium Audi A2, an ambitious but expensive flop. So a cross VW ‘suggested’ Audi dovetail the 2010 A1 with its ever-improving Polo, ironically, finally reuniting mother and child, in THS True Hollywood Story fashion.
Now, 500,000 units later, the A1 Series II surfaces, with the world’s least visible facelift. Only wavy-style tail-lights give it away. Audi insists the grille is wider and the bumpers are bigger; the superb dash remains pretty much unchanged.
Fortunately, improvements underneath see the Belgian-built baby partly re-engineered to adopt the next-gen MQB-0 electrical architecture. That means upgraded infotainment/multimedia and electro-mechanical steering that now feels light yet still direct.
Meanwhile, the diesel’s history, replaced by a sub-$30K 1.0 TFSI turbo triple petrol, bringing a $4K-cheaper automatic for the people, since the previous 1.2 TFSI opener was manual-only. And it’s a brilliant, providing a punchy, sporty character to an already dynamic supermini. As with most forced-induction three-cylinders, there’s fizz and fervour aplenty off the line followed by a rousing mid-range kick, and all swathed in bubbling refinement. Dizzyingly intoxicating, it is like sipping on a granita cocktail.
The 1.4 TFSI four-cylinder turbo volume seller, now with 92kW/200Nm, boasts incremental economy improvements thanks to Cylinder-on-Demand tech, so business-as-usual there. But the newly-minted $39,900, 141kW/250Nm, 1.8 TFSI S Line S-tronic (replacing the spirited 1.4 TFSI Sport Twincharger) just doesn’t soar.
Cribbed from the VW Polo GTI, its numbers are only slightly better – 6.9s 0-100km/h/234km/h v-max – questioning the logic of upsizing. That’s because the 105kg-porkier 1.8 TFSI abandons all ride suppleness on the (optional) 225/35R18 rubber (as tested), and lacks the 1.0 TFSI’s endearing alacrity. Sure, it’s quick, with outstanding grip and body control, but somehow this A1 misses the true hot-hatch point epically. Save with the more dazzling downsized models or save for the giant-slaying S1 quattro from $10K more instead.
And money, ultimately, is central to the facelifted A1’s story. It’s still expensive, but with $4K to $6K worth of extra kit according to variant, the Audi no longer screams rip-off. About the only (glaring) omission is no reverse-camera availability. Honed over 40 years of mostly-VW progress, the A1 is finally fulfilling its potential.
Model: Audi A1 Sportback 1.0 TFSI S-tronic
Engine: 999cc 3cyl, dohc, 12v turbo
Max power: 70kW @ 5000-5500rpm
Max torque: 160Nm @ 1500-3500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Fuel economy: 4.5L/100km
On sale: Now