Ray Leathern is an A1 sympathiser and has been from the very start. What will he make of the über A1 Sportback S Line?
Deep in the no-fly zone of the German auto industry resides the four rings of Audi. Each ring represents an automobile pioneer – DKW, Wanderer, Horch, Auto Union – and each signify typical German solidity, dusted with the subtlety of a Wagnerian double act. Audis aren’t for Tuesday night comedy, they’re about their underpinnings, or at least it appears this way, because the Volkswagen foundations on which they operate are so substantial these days.
What I’m saying is, I for one, feel more aware of the engineering in an Audi than in any other German car. In a Mercedes you wonder if old Chrysler gremlins aren’t still lurking under the armrest, like latent radioactivity, waiting to turn the whole thing into a throbbing pile of cogs by the road side.
In a BMW you just get on with the joy of driving, but at the same time you get the impression that all the hi-tech systems onboard aren’t particularly fond of you. They’re a bit like your best mate from University: stock broker, great guy, very successful, meanwhile behind the scenes he may or may not be befriending your girlfriend. That guy probably drives a ‘Bimmer’.
So that leaves us with the Audi’s, where we turn to the ineffable Audi copyrighter’s line: “Vorsprung durch Technik”. This famous line came about when Ferdinand Piech gained control of the company back in the 1980’s. At that stage, Audi was stuck at the crossroads of an automotive wilderness. Piech believed that using Audi as a test bed , before establishing its identity as, “…one from audacious technical advancement”, would give the company the direction it so desperately needed.
Three decades on and what do we have? ‘Quattro’ all-wheel-drive, ‘ASF’ aluminium space frames, ‘TFSI’ turbo engines, etc. Each an engineering tour de force that has kept the automobile stuck to its evolutionary straight and narrow.
Now we have the Audi A1 city car, arguably the most concerted attempt at functional intelligence we’ve yet encountered from Audi. The three-door variant arrived last year, with little fanfare sure, but now the more practical five-door, or Sportback as Audi are calling it, will try tempt the young and upwardly mobile once again.
Sure, it’s a small car with a hefty price tag and you could be forgiven for damning it as such straight off the bat. However, for those of us who err on the side of not wanting more than we need, for those of us who favour living efficiently within our means rather than excessively beyond them, this Audi could be the very car you’ve been looking for.
I think the A1 is the best car Audi have made in a long old while. I nominated the three-door as finalist for the SAGMJ’s 2012 Car of the Year competition. It failed to qualify into the top ten by quite a spectacular lack of votes, but here’s why I’m a sympathiser anyway…
On the outside it looks exactly as it should and it’s not hopelessly retro, which I like. It has perfect rear tail lamps that look like something from the movie ‘Tron’. Once you’re on the inside of an A1 there is absolutely no evidence that you’re in the cheapest Audi money can buy. Quite the contrary, in fact, A3 through A6 all twinkle in this little ones eye. It’s the best Audi interior I’ve encountered in years and that’s saying something because they’re all good.
As is the way with small cars, all the componentry needs to be miniaturised and given a youthful tightening. This works wonders for the traditionally austere Audi leather and soft touch plastics, but all the functionality is still exactly as it should be. Stunning, next-generation, 3D satellite navigation, instant audio Bluetooth, intuitive trip computer, the A1 has it all if you specify it all. Micro sized efficiency is all part of today’s new functionality. Bigger is not always better and the Audi A1 has a way of making all other cars feel like old Nokia 3310’s in that respect.
Don’t get me wrong, though, the A1 is not just a smart phone with an engine. It is good fun when it comes to ride and handling. This full-fat, top of the range S Line model, with 136 kW and 250 Nm of torque accessed via a 7-speed S Tronic gearbox, is fast. Moreover, it’s small and rigid, running on its Volkswagen Polo derived chassis with a torsion beam rear suspension and sophisticated McPherson struts upfront. Its compliance and sportiness is really noteworthy for such a diminutive, humble car. Of course the ride is on the firm side, it’s a tiny car and, if I’m honest, the regular A1 without the 17-inch sport rims did ride better, however, the firm damping and rebound settings are exactly what you want when mashing your foot into the carpet.
Overall grip and drivability around corners puts many bigger, sportier cars to task. The steering is heavy and brilliant too. I love how it doesn’t have a five way adjustable Drive Mode Select either. It’s just ‘Sporty’ all the time and its turn-in makes it feel like a tenacious little thing. Let’s put it this way, in a week with the car, despite my best efforts I assure you, I barely got the front tyres to get out of shape around a corner. Off the line with all that TFSI punch, sure, they squealed like piglets, but a very safe traction control and vehicle dynamic control system ensures you’re never going to out-do yourself and you’ll always stay firmly on the black stuff. In typical VW and Audi style, the chassis feels like it can handle even more power than the already significant 136 kW. The gutsy 1.4T FSI engine also sounds fantastic at full throttle, not unlike the buzz from a hornets nest.
My only misgiving, and it seems to be the overarching issue surrounding the Audi A1, is the price. My 1.4T FSI S Line S Tronic starts life at R319 500, but depending on how ambitious you’re feeling with the options pencil, you can increase that to R450 000 for a fully loaded A1. Wowzers!
In conclusion then, the small A1 is every bit the latest Audi we want. It’s modern, brilliantly made, fast in S Line guise, safe and with a premium feel beyond its modest size, but after you’ve optioned a few extras it’s going to cost you. On the other hand, if you specify a fully loaded A4, it will cost you close to R750 000. So yes, options are going to cost you no matter what car you buy, which means we can cut the little A1 some slack.
What we like…
- 1.4T FSI that loves to play.
- The 7-speed transmission that gives it all: sound; economy; power and comfort.
- Brilliantly hi-tech interior, if you specify all the bells and whistles.
- The rear doors do make it more practical.
- How it’s the perfect car Audi should be making right now.
What we would like…
- Less intervention from the VDC systems when driving quickly.
- A softer ride, but then again you could just avoid the 17-inch rims.
- Maybe all we’re hankering after is the Volkswagen Polo GTI, which has the same drivetrain?
|Base Price||R319 500|
|Warranty||1-year / Unlimited km|
|Engine Capacity||1 390 cm³|
|No. Of Cylinders||4-cylinders, In-line|
|Aspiration||Turbocharged and Supercharged|
|Power||136 kW @ 5 250 r/min|
|Torque||250 Nm @ 2 000 – 4 500 r/min|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Acceleration||0 – 100 km/h in 6.9 seconds (claimed)|
|Fuel Consumption||5.9 L/100km (claimed combined)|