Road test: Audi A1 Sportback is like a big car, only smaller...

The Audi A1 Sportback is meticulously designed to give drivers big-car sophistication
The Audi A1 Sportback is meticulously designed to give drivers big-car sophistication
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WHEN Audi launched the A1 it played to a market that most manufacturers had either ignored or failed to even recognise. It had already had one crack at it with the aluminium-bodied A2, but the product wasn’t quite right and customers had yet to come to terms with the idea of boutique small cars.

In short, there was a latent demand growing for small cars which offered all the quality feel inside of a big car. Many car makers struggled to comprehend the fact that if the product was finished and marketed correctly, people would pay for the privilege. I remember having a conversation with an utterly baffled Mercedes executive who simply would not countenance the fact that anybody who could afford a big car would buy a small one instead.

Soaring sales of Audi’s A1 showed that this was indeed the case, and it’s now joined by a five-door Sportback version to cast the net wider still.

Less room but lots of vroom?

All the engines are turbocharged, the petrol engines starting with an 85bhp 1.2, moving up to a 120bhp 1.4-litre and topping out with the 185bhp 1.4 TFSI. This gets the seven-speed S tronic twin-clutch gearbox as standard, helping it to sprint from 0-62mph in 7.0 seconds on the way to 141mph. This performance-oriented transmission is also available as an option for the 120bhp 1.4 TFSI while all other models are fitted with a light and easy manual transmission.

Go diesel and you’ll get a 103bhp 1.6-litre TDI. It’s not the most refined common rail unit in its sector but, as you might expect, it offers the most pulling power, its 250Nm of torque enough to get this A1 through 60mph in 10.5 seconds, a second quicker than the petrol 1.2 and a second and a half slower than the petrol 1.4. A 141bhp 2.0-litre TDI is in the offing and dealers will be happy to take an order.

The Volkswagen Polo-derived underpinnings work well enough, although the A1 isn’t the most sparkling steer of its peer group. Weight distribution is nevertheless remarkably even front-to-rear and combined with short overhangs and the latest generation Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) with electronic axle differential, this makes for safe handling. The Sport models get a tauter set-up, and even more so with the S line-specific settings. You might want to try one of these before you buy, especially if you have to live with scabby roads, potholes or speed humps.

What’s the score on the doors?

Although the silhouette isn’t quite as pure as that of the three-door A1, this Sportback model is still a handsome thing with the rear set of doors well integrated into its compact wheelbase.

It’s six millimetres taller and six millimetres wider, and inside offers a smidgeon more head and shoulder room as a result. It also makes provision for an third passenger in the back although it’s a squeeze for adults. Luggage capacity is on a par with the three-door A1.

The cabin is quiet and maturely finished with no speedometers the size of dinner plates or garish graphics. Audi contend that if you’re downsizing from a bigger car, you expect big car sophistication and the A1 serves that up in spades. Everything is soft touch, silicon damped and consistent in feel and design. You’ll need to work hard to spot compromises brought about by cost.

Is it worth the money?

Starting at a squeak under £14,000, the A1 Sportback isn’t cheap but then nor would its customers want or expect it to be. In order to be finished as well as it is and for it to be sufficiently expensive to retain a certain cachet amongst owners, Audi has had to walk a delicate line and I think they’ve pitched it just right. .

The Sportback carries a £560 premium over its three-door sibling, a markup which is just on the right side of predatory. Standard equipment includes two front airbags, side airbags and curtain head bags. Isofix child seat fixings, seatbelt tensioners and integral headrests round out the safety provision. There’s also xenon headlights with LED running lights, interior lights and tail lamps, light and rain sensors, panoramic sunroof, two navigation systems and a thumping 465-watt Bose surround sound stereo with no fewer than 14 speakers. There’s a choice of manual or automatic air conditioning systems and heated front seats are an option.

The Bluetooth online car phone is interesting. It brings “Audi connect” online services to the A1 Sportback. These include navigation with images from Google Earth, news, weather and travel information, web radio and voice-controlled points of interest search. At a later date it will also incorporate Google Street View images. A WLAN hotspot connects mobile devices on board to the internet but do check the terms and conditions of your service provider’s data coverage.

Wee car, wee fuel bill?

Despite its high level of sophistication, the A1 is a lightweight proposition that can tip the scales at as little as 1,040kg. This will help from an efficiency point of view, as will Audi’s work in making the car as aerodynamic as possible and the standard inclusion of a stop-start system to cut the engine when you’re stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. The result of all this is that the 1.2 and 1.4 TFSI petrol engines return very similar economy figures in the mid-fifties on the combined cycle, whilst CO2 emissions vary between 118 and 126g/km. The 105bhp 1.6-litre TDI diesel is substantially better, with an excellent 74.3mpg return and a 99g/km CO2 output.

Even the most powerful 1.4-litre TFSI twincharge engine is very economical, returning a combined fuel figure of 48.2mpg, although that figure tumbles quite quickly if you work the turbocharger with any great regularity.

Audi they do overall?

Developing a car such as the A1 Sportback isn’t easy. It needs to offer a properly upmarket feel without pricing itself out of contention. The asking price and the target market then need to be subtly tuned to that perfect pitch whereby the car contributes significantly to the manufacturer’s bottom line but doesn’t do so at the expense of badge equity or future residual values. It therefore takes a manufacturer with maturity and keen brand awareness to make such a car a success and you can count the car makers who could pull this off on one hand.

It’s a well-engineered car and one that makes the owner feel good about his or her purchase. There are enough big car cues to prevent a feeling of slumming it. Downsizing might be the trend but Audi thinks more in terms of rightsizing. The A1 Sportback? Right on the money.


CAR: Audi A1 Sportback range

PRICE: £13,980-£21,270

PERFORMANCE: 0-62mph 7-11.9s; Max speed 112-141mph

COMBINED MPG: 47.9-74.3

Insurance (1-50): 9-28