What Car? says...
If you want a small car with a properly posh badge, your options are actually quite limited. In fact, you could argue the Audi A1 is in a class of one.
In reality, the Mini 5dr (built by German rival BMW) is seen by many as similarly premium and is roughly the same size. But otherwise you have to go bigger and more expensive (think Mercedes A-Class) or accept a less glamorous badge (think Volkswagen Polo).
You have a broad choice of engines, all of them petrol, with power outputs ranging from 94bhp to 197bhp, and the choice of a six-speed manual or DSG automatic gearbox, depending on model. As well as Technik, Sport and S line trim levels, there’s a Citycarver model that gets SUV-aping exterior body cladding and a raised ride height. Sadly, traction-enhancing quattro four-wheel drive isn’t offered on any A1.
There’s no small amount of prestige to be found in driving a small car made by a premium carmaker, but is the A1 actually any good? And is it really upmarket enough to justify its price premium over big-selling mainstream rivals, including the Polo but also Seat Ibiza and Ford Fiesta? Read on to find out.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
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. If you go for the marginally heavier A1 Citycarver, you only get a choice between the 30 TFSI and the 35 TFSI. It’s very slightly slower from 0-62mph than a regular A1, with either engine.
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'll 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. The A1 Citycarver also uses the Dynamic suspension setup as a basis, but with 50mm of extra ride height that makes tackling abrupt obstacles such as speed bumps a tad comfier than in a regular A1.
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 let you 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, then lets go progressively and gently runs wide. Simply back off the accelerator and it’ll tighten its line accordingly. The Citycarver leans more in corners than other A1 models, but not to the point that this detracts from the driving experience.
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 with 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); these 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 settle down peacefully at a cruise. 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 largest 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. Thankfully, the automatic ‘box doesn’t suffer from the initial hesitation that some other Audi autos do, so you won’t have your heart in your mouth when exiting busy junctions. Lastly, the brakes are progressive enough to make the A1 relatively easy to stop smoothly.