The Audi A1 was created for well-to-do customers who want a supermini with class. It may be small, but it promises quality, equipment levels and refinement that even some larger cars would struggle to match.
We hopped in the Audi A1 1.4 TFSI 185PS S line model with an S tronic dual-clutch gearbox -- whose engine is both supercharged and turbocharged -- to see whether small really is the new big.
Sadly, we weren't able to spend as long with the car as we'd have liked, as we tested it alongside a host of other Audi vehicles at a day-long 2011 range review. Because of this, we'll refrain from giving the A1 a final score out of five until we can spend a bit more time with it.
Our car, fitted with just about every extra Audi could muster, retails for £18,695.
On the whole, we think the A1 is a gorgeous-looking car. Sure, its overall shape isn't very exciting -- it's a hatchback for goodness sake -- but there are plenty of great touches, particularly in this sporty S line trim, that help lift it from the crowd. We particularly love the sweeping LED headlamps and gaping front air intake, which give the car an air of menace usually reserved for larger, sportier cars.
It's well sorted inside too, thanks to soft-touch plastics and customisable seat and interior trim colour combinations. Even in the basic entry-level car, the feel of the place is enough to convince you that you're in something that cost a fair few quid.
Technology and gadgets
The cabin is awash with some very advanced gadgetry. Our test car was fitted with the £1,375 technology pack, which consists of a satellite navigation system, a 20GB hard drive for storing music files, Bluetooth audio streaming capability, an SD card reader for copying tracks (USB is conspicuously absent), and a 6.5-inch display that's capable of playing video files.
The navigation system is a touch above the ordinary navs found in most superminis. It can be operated by voice alone, which is a nice touch. It's possible to input a full destination using just one command, rather than lots of separate ones, as is the norm for such systems. As a result, it's far easier and safer to use -- particularly when you're entering a new destination on the move.
The sat-nav also features Google-based points of interest. This feature works far better than traditional sat-nav points of interest, as the data, in our experience, is generally more up to date.
Spending £1,375 on interior gadgets is rather a lot, but it's a good all-round system that's well integrated and easy to use. Sure, it's possible to gain a lot of its functionality through the purchase of third-party add-ons, but if you don't fancy the hassle of trailing loads of cables, or smudging the windscreen with suction cup marks, then its a decent investment.
Somewhat cheekily, Audi has omitted a number of tech features from its technology pack and if you want them, you're going to pay through the nose. These include the DAB radio add-on, which is a further £305; the Bose surround sound speaker system, which costs £605; and the electronic climate control system, which automatically maintains a given temperature, and goes for an extra £330.
We'd seriously consider adding the DAB radio, seeing as the analogue spectrum is doomed to be switched off. We'd probably add the Bose stereo too, as it pumps out a pretty meaty sound for such a small car. But don't bother with electronic climate control unless you're extraordinarily lazy. It doesn't take much effort to twiddle a few buttons every now and then to get the temperature just right.
Having said that, if you're loaded with money, then Audi will happily relieve you of it. The company charges £125 for a front centre armrest with storage compartment. If you want your air vents finished in aluminium, you'll need to fork out over £100.
The Audi A1 comes with a range of engine choices. If it's a frugal petrol unit you're after, the most interesting is a 1.2-litre turbocharged unit that produces 86PS (metric horsepower), 118g of CO2 per kilometre and fuel economy of 55.4mpg.
It gets better though. If you're willing to go the diesel route, Audi provides a 1.6 TDI with 105PS. This unit, new for 2011, drops emissions to 99g/km and boosts fuel economy to a hybrid-bothering 74.3mpg. It's not as impressive as the 80.7mpg provided by the VW Polo BlueMotion, but it's jolly impressive all the same. It positively blitzes economy returns from many of its petrol rivals, including the 68.9mpg Fiat 500 TwinAir.
A hotter hatch
As impressively frugal as these engines are, we were pleased to say our test A1 was fitted with a different engine altogether -- a 1.4 TFSI petrol unit that combines supercharging and turbocharging to churn out a whopping 185PS. It's bleedin' quick. Bury the throttle and it'll work alongside Audi's S tronic seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox to hit 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds.
Driving this thing is a real geek fest. It's hugely satisfying to feel its supercharger kicking in at 1,500rpm and its turbocharger later at 3,500rpm. They provide a double-barreled performance assault as the twin-clutch gearbox works its magic, selecting and preselecting gears faster than you'd be able to with a manual gearbox.
It'll keep going until it hits 141mph, which is an impressive feat for something this small. Despite the power, the engine is capable of returning 47.9mpg, though its CO2 output suffers at 139g/km.
Handling and driveability
The 1.4 TFSI 185PS model left us feeling excited and slightly terrified. Its performance is exhilarating to say the least, as it charges forward with an alacrity that belies its size, but we're not sure its handling is quite sufficient to contain the car's performance.
Ask it to navigate a corner at speed, or worse still, to stop in a hurry, and you may find yourself closing your eyes in fright, praying, soiling the seats, or a combination of all three. If you're the type of person who finds it difficult to control your right foot, or you're of a nervous disposition, we'd recommend opting for a smaller, more sensible engine. Alternatively, you could just man up.
The Audi A1 is brilliant. It's classy, well designed and comes with a choice of engines that can transform it from frugal to fearsome. It also has some very modern and usable cabin technology, but all of this comes at a price.
If you're on a budget, you're probably better off opting for something with a less luxurious badge -- a Fiat 500 or VW Polo, perhaps. Likewise, if handling is a major requirement, then a Mini is arguably a better bet. But the A1 ticks many boxes and it's one of the most appealing premium superminis on the road today.