It’s a tough job, branding. A strong brand helps sell cars, and the more cars sold, the more money is made. If the reason people are buying those cars is because of a brand’s prestige, then dilute it at your peril: you risk chinking away at its charms. The Audi A1 is a masterclass in distilling Audi's brand values into a more compact, affordable form.
It serves as a great entry point to what is one of the broadest model ranges on the market, and offers a solid helping of that style and quality that make the A8 luxury limousine, the swanky Q8 SUV and the crushingly quick R8 sports car so successful. It also, for the time being, exists in its own private playing field – neither BMW or Mercedes-Benz put their names to such a diminutive and accessible car as Audi's A1.
Audi’s baby first debuted in 2010, wearing proudly those famous four rings, but to make sure there was no brand dilution it was bestowed with cutesy looks and an interior so upmarket that the Queen could’ve held court in it. Sure, underneath it was based on the Volkswagen Polo, but to admiring onlookers and owners alike, there was no question: the A1 was a proper Audi.
Time to see if Audi can pull off the same trick twice. The second generation of A1 is, as before, based on Polo underpinnings. This time, though, it faces a stronger army of rivals than ever before, from its Polo cousin to its arch nemesis, the Mini 5dr. The current Ford Fiesta and our favourite small car, the Seat Ibiza, make cheaper but oh-so-compelling propositions, too.
So, is the A1 still upmarket enough to justify spending a premium on it? Read on to find out. And, afterwards, head to our New Car Buying page to check out the stonking deals we have on all new small cars.
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
Audi's badging policy bears no relationship to engine size and, to prove the point, the range kicks off with a 25 TFSI that's actually a 94bhp 1.0-litre. We're yet to try it, but we have tried the 30 TFSI version with 114bhp and it’s a frisky little thing. It piles on a generous amount of shove from around 2000rpm and has a real keenness to keep pulling all the way to its 6000rpm-plus limiter. With a 0-60mph in 9.1sec, it's our pick.
If you need more poke, though; enough to match the Mini Cooper 1.5 or Ibiza 1.5 TSI, you might want to look at the 35 TFSI instead. This 148bhp 1.5-litre gets into its stride even earlier, at around 1500rpm, so not only is it faster outright but it's also more flexible. A 197bhp 2.0-litre (40 TFSI) is also available; we'll let you know what that's like once we've had a go.
Suspension and ride comfort
A smooth, controlled ride is something of a novelty in the small car class. Fortunately, the A1 and closely related VW Polo are among a rarefied group that offer just that — if you pick the right trim. Around town, the SE and Sport trims, which come fitted with 16in wheels and standard Dynamic suspension, deal with pockmarked urban roads very well; even the nastiest bumps don't ruffle its feathers. It’s a wholly calmer experience than you endure in the Mini 5dr, which rarely stops jostling.
It’s the same story on the motorway. Where the Mini struggles to settle, the A1 only fidgets on particularly corrugated sections and, in the main, proves itself one of the calmest-riding cars in its class. The package is completed by good damping control over speed bumps and long-wave dips and crests, so you're never bounced out of your seat.
S line trim is a different ball game. This comes with bigger, 17in alloy wheels and lower, stiffer Sports suspension, which inevitably firms things up. The ride is more brittle over potholes in town, but calms down at motorway speeds.
The A1 is a tidy car to drive, in a similar vein to the Polo. Its steering is nicely judged: light around town, but with enough weight thrown in at higher speeds. Those virtues are backed up by enough accuracy to allow you to place the car's nose exactly where you want on a meandering B-road.
If the bends tighten and you maintain a spirited pace, you’ll find a slight tendency for the car to lean in corners, but it's comparatively minor and there's plenty of grip on offer. In fact, the A1 hangs on determinedly until you reach its limit of adhesion, whereupon it lets go progressively and gently runs wide. Simply back off the accelerator and it’ll tighten its line accordingly.
S line trim, with stiffer Sport suspension, reduces the lean, but does that make it the best-handling car in the class? No. For something truly entertaining we’d recommend you get yourself behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta or Seat Ibiza. However, compared to the Mini, which is often perceived to be a sporty little number, any A1 is noticeably better balanced and more composed.
Noise and vibration
The A1 does a good job of delivering peace and harmony on the move. Let’s start with its three-cylinder petrol engines (badged 25 and 30 TFSI). They aren't quite as muted as the Mini Cooper’s 1.5-litre or the Ford Fiesta’s 1.0 Ecoboost, but are hardly boisterous and what noise they do make is pretty tuneful. You can feel a little vibration through the controls, but not an excessive amount. The four-cylinder engines (35 and 40 TFSI) are smoother overall.
At 70mph in top gear you’ll be hard pressed to hear the engines at all. And, while you can hear some road and wind noise, there's not enough of either to irk on a long drive — as long as you avoid the biggest 18in wheels. These not only increase road roar, but give rise to more suspension noise, too. Broadly speaking, the A1 is pretty similar to the Polo and proves a quieter cruiser than other rivals, such as the Mini.
Manual A1s have a clutch that's sharp enough to stall the engine if you try pull away at very low revs until you get used to it, and its gearshift action is long and notchy compared with the deft slickness of the Fiesta’s manual gearbox. We haven’t yet tried an A1 with the (S tronic) automatic 'box, but our experience of these in other models has found them to be a tad jerky at slow speeds. Lastly, the brakes are progressive enough to make the A1 relatively easy to stop smoothly.