It’s a clear sign of how far hot hatches have come that Audi’s decision to shoehorn a 228bhp engine and a four-wheel-drive system into the tiny A1 barely raises an eyebrow. A decade ago that specification wouldn’t have looked out of place on a rally car.
Lots of power doesn’t always equal lots of fun, though, so does the new range-topping A1 have what it takes to put a smile on your face? To find out we’re pitching it against the VW Golf GTI. It’s one of our favourite hot hatches because it’s great fun yet easy enough to live with when you need it to be.
What are they like to drive?
Both cars use the same 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, but the S1’s wick has been turned up to give
it 11bhp more than the Golf.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Audi is the faster car. However, its power tends to arrives in a dramatic surge when the turbocharger kicks in, and it runs out of puff earlier as it approaches the redline; you have to change gears swiftly to get the best from the engine.
The Golf, meanwhile, is effortlessly flexible from low revs, with sharper throttle responses and a wide power band that means you can build speed quickly without having to work the engine hard. All this makes the Volkswagen the easier to drive smoothly when you’re not attacking your favourite B-road.
Loud mechanical clunks and road noise all filter into the S1’s cabin more clearly than they do in the VW, and the menacing growl from the Audi’s four exhaust tail-pipes – while adding a layer of drama – can become tiring at a motorway cruise. That said, you might wish the Golf’s engine sounded a bit more tuneful when revved hard.
The S1 is the first version of the A1 to be fitted with adaptive dampers as standard (an £815 option on the Golf), but no matter which setting you choose the ride is noticeably firmer than the GTI’s. Our S1 test car rode on optional 18-inch alloys (17s come as standard) which didn’t help matters, causing the car to jostle and thump over bumps and ridges that the VW simply glides across.
This S1’s stiffer suspension does pay dividends once you reach a twisting country road, though. Its four-wheel-drive system also helps you to get back on the power earlier on the way out of corners, and there’s less body lean through tight bends.
Drive the GTI really hard and its front wheels will scrabble for grip and run wide before the Audi’s, but you’ll actually be having more fun, thanks to the VW’s quicker and more accurate steering, sharper brakes and more positive gearshift. The S1’s controls all feel a bit woolly.
What are they like inside?
You sit higher up in the Audi, which feels a little odd in such a focused car, and the part-leather seats aren’t as grippy or as supportive as the GTI’s standard cloth seats. Even so, the S1’s simple cabin layout and well-damped switches and buttons mean it feels every bit as premium and upmarket as
its larger rival.
The Golf is that bit more grown-up inside, though. There’s a wider range of adjustment to the seats and steering wheel, so it’s easier to find your desired driving position quickly. All-round visibility is also better, and the GTI’s extra head- and shoulder-room make it more comfortable for the driver and front passenger.
Both cars demand a certain level of flexibility when climbing into the rear seats, but access is easier in the Golf, and once inside, adult passengers will find a decent amount of space. Even taller occupants will have enough head-, leg- and shoulder-room to be comfortable on a long drive.
This is where the S1 feels most compromised. Its rear cabin is narrow and the sloping roofline eats into headroom.
You’ll also find your knees pressed into the front seatbacks, while the boot – despite being a useful shape – is very shallow and 170 litres smaller than the Golf’s with the seats up. Fold them and that difference stretches to 410 litres.
What will they cost?
The GTI commands a significantly higher list price than the S1. However, sniff out a good discount and that swings to a few hundred pounds in the VW’s favour; our Target Price shows that you can easily knock £1800 off this three-door model.
The Audi also costs more than its rival in other areas. Insurance, servicing and tax are all pricier, and the S1 is predicted to depreciate more quickly.
Meanwhile, the GTI is forecast to hold on to nearly 59% of its value after three years – or £1500 more than the S1. The difference in cost for company buyers is smaller, but the Audi’s higher CO2 output puts it at a disadvantage here, too. It’s also less economical in real-world driving, as proved by our True MPG tests.
In some respects the S1 comes with more standard equipment, and a larger media screen as standard. However, Audi charges £595 extra for front and rear parking sensors, which are standard on the Golf.
Both cars get climate control, Bluetooth, xenon headlights plus automatic lights and windscreen wipers as standard.
The GTI outscores the Audi for both adult and child safety in the NCAP tests, and comes fitted with a fatigue monitor, automatic braking, pre-sense crash detection and adaptive cruise as standard. None of these features appear on the Audi.
Hot hatches are all about fun, and the new S1 doesn’t disappoint. Its powerful engine and four-wheel-drive system give it huge pace and traction, meaning it stays composed long after the Golf GTI becomes unstuck.
However, the GTI’s quicker steering, better brakes and sweeter gearchange mean it’s more rewarding to drive quickly, and its supple ride, superior refinement and bigger boot make it easier to live with. The fact that it’s also cheaper to own seals the deal.
VW Golf GTI 3dr
For Fast and flexible engine; great handling; spacious cabin
Against Less power and grip; dull engine note
Verdict Still the best all-round hot hatch
Audi S1 2.0 TFSI
For Grippy handling; storming pace; plenty of kit
Against Bumpy ride; cramped cabin; sloppy controls; worse mpg
Verdict Quick, but not as convincing as the Golf