Popped collars are as irritating as ever. Turtlenecks, however, are interesting. After all, only cool, creative people can wear them without looking “turtle-ly” stupid – Apple guru Steve Jobs, for instance, or some bespectacled German guy by the name of Andre Georgi.
That’s the Audi dude who did the neat LED exterior lights for the Audi A1. Obviously a bright designer (geddit?), he paints a vivid picture of the headlamps in the product video shown at the car’s local launch. Several executives presented different aspects of the Audi A1 in the clip, but Georgi stood out – because he wore a black turtleneck.
Dressed for success, indeed, is Audi’s new baby. Its three-door styling formula is original and fresh – it refuses to act cute like the MINI, pretend to be edgy like the DS3 or play the Fiat 500’s retro card. Instead, the Audi A1’s creators looked to the rest of today’s Audi range for inspiration – right up to the A8 flagship.
That striking shield of a grille, for instance, is shaped like the one on the latest A8; the clamshell bonnet “overlapping” the fenders is similar to the TT’s, while the “flagstaff” side mirrors recall those on the R8. Inserting these design elements from an epic limousine, an iconic coupe and a spectacular supercar respectively into a compact hatchback is impressive.
Making an even stronger impression is how the Audi A1 looks as a whole. It is small – less than four metres from bumper to bumper, noticeably narrower than the A3 and features a roof that sits just a thumbnail over 1.4 metres from the tarmac.
But the level of detailing and the bespoke touches belong to a bigger, costlier car. For instance, the roof arches can be specified in one of four possible contrast colours, mixed and matched (or mismatched for that matter) with the palette of 12 body colours.
Eleven are standard paint jobs, while the special shade is Daytona Grey. A few more choices are also available under the Audi Exclusive programme.
Those contrasting arches, incidentally, are painted in the factory. No cut-and-paste shortcut here, or sneaky decals. It’s proper emulsion that requires the Audi A1 to go through the paint shop twice, with the 48 robots there having to work doubly hard just so you can have your car in Scuba Blue with a flash of Ice Silver.
Then there’s the so-called tornado line, which runs all the way around the body shell. This feature is a first for Audi, whose design department describes it, quite eloquently, as “eliminating the separation of the front, side and rear to create a single sculptural effect.”
The full-width, wraparound tailgate allowed the unique shoulder line to cut smoothly into the rear lamp clusters from above, completing the prescribed effect.
Apparently, this sheet metal solution was expensive to engineer and is difficult to manufacture, with the subject being an entry-level car and all, but it shows the project team’s commitment to supermini perfection. The Audi A1 is not an A3-minus, but a positive standalone model.
It isn’t a glorified Polo, either. Even though its platform and suspension are shared with the Volkswagen runabout, the A1 has been modified so extensively and specified so indulgently, it is a dramatically different device with its own set of attributes.
The pricing, options and performance, too, are out of the Polo’s league – unless it’s the overachieving GTI variant, which is not sold here anyway. In Hollywood terms, the A1 is Julia Roberts, while the Polo is Eric Roberts.
This leads to our next pertinent question: Is the Audi A1 a car for men or women? The Mini tends to attract the fairer sex because it’s petite and pretty, whereas the DS3 is a more masculine machine that appeals to “Backstreet Boys” (but with much less singing and dancing).
The Audi appears to straddle both demographic extremes, coming across as a decidedly unisex ride in look and feel. With a man at the wheel, maybe it leans a little towards the metrosexual side of motoring, but this feeling of “happiness” never overwhelms the driving experience. To hijack Audi’s designations for its equipment lines, the Audi A1 is a great little blend of Attraction and Ambition.
The attractive car’s ambitious nature is most evident inside its cabin. Its quality is not just high, it’s sky-high. So high in the sky, in fact, that it makes the current Golf – one of the best-built hatchbacks ever – seem second best. It also makes the interior of the Polo, the Audi A1’s distant cousin, look like a cheap mint that will melt in your mouth quickly. It even makes the well-assembled Audi A3 cockpit appear rather tired.
This sky-high quality is the substance supporting all that style inside the Audi A1. Its interior designers envisaged an “aircraft wing with turbines” for the dashboard, and the “rear end of a yacht” for the centre tunnel console.
These visions make for sexy sketches in a 164-page product guidebook, but they have been realised (to a certain degree) and the end result is, well, visionary. Less aesthetically clean than the “Ikea inspired” Volvo C30, perhaps, but tidy and user-friendly.
The switches, meters, labels and displays are familiar “takeaways” from the Ingolstadt parts bins, and they are either a half notch or a full notch above their Volkswagen equivalents in classiness and tightness.
The standard infotainment system, simply called “concert radio”, includes a 6.5-inch dash-top colour display that is deployed or stowed manually. Managing the various information and entertainment options is Audi MMI (multi media interface), with a central rotary/push controller surrounded by seven “soft” contextual keys and eight “hard” category keys (e.g. Car, Radio, Info and Nav).
Squeezing eight loudspeakers, two tuners (one receives stations, the other searches for them) and the usual digital players into the teeny Audi A1 is already music to the ears of your average audiophile.
Top up another $3000 and said music becomes even more pleasing, thanks to the optional Bose surround sound system with a 10-channel amplifier that pumps 465 watts of high fidelity through no less than 14 speakers.
In tune with the Audi A1’s dedication to details, subtle white illumination (from a combination of LEDs and light guides) shines indirectly on the trapezoidal housings for the Bose mid-range woofers mounted in the doors. This is stereophonic for the sophisticate.
Even more “powerful” than the audio is the air-con – to be exact, the four circular air outlets meant to be reminiscent of jet turbines. Very well made and equipped with a super-slick ball mechanism to swivel/open/close the airflow, these vents won’t look out of place in a Bentley (if they ever do a “Tinynental” GT) or even a Bugatti (if they ever do a “Babyron”).
They can also be used to decorate some fashion boutique at Paragon because Audi offers a choice of, well, fashionable colours for the air vent sleeves. They can be specified in glossy black, high-gloss white (presumably more groovy than glossy), velvet beige, titanium grey, amulet red (might be lucky) or, most daring of all, wasabi green. Japanese horseradish served with German horsemeat – now that’s vehicular fusion food.
It’s actually precision-printed film with a crystal-clear coating. This is fine art compared to chintzy silkscreen trim. More importantly, the plastics are fantastic, too. Solid throughout the cabin and soft to the touch on much of the dashboard, the top-drawer plastics in the Audi A1 make those in the MINI seem a little brittle.
Even the covers for the sunvisor mirrors are impossibly classy (too bad they have no “make-up” lamps). The Audi is not free of flimsy bits, however – our white test car’s front passenger seat rattled when unoccupied, and the holding clips for its parcel shelf are basic items from the Germans’ bargain basement.
The boot itself is slightly smaller than the Polo’s and usefully larger than the MINI’s (a token 160 litres), with a capacity of 270 litres expandable to 920 litres. The cargo area is even in shape but shallow, and the split-fold back seats have a delightful secret feature – their seat belts can be used to pull them back up again.
Another secretive delight are the dual tabs on the bootside walls which automatically prop up the floorboard when it is lifted open. Underneath is a tyre repair kit and, believe it or not, the battery. Such a placement is novel for a supermini. It helps to balance out the Audi A1’s weight distribution and could have been a packaging decision (that is, to save space under the low bonnet).
Under the hood is a turbocharged 1.4-litre 4-cylinder with 122bhp and 200Nm, put through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. It’s essentially the same drivetrain used by the Golf, but with the roughly 1.1-tonne A1 weighing around 100kg less than the VW, there is a significant improvement in performance.
Step-off is occasionally hesitant, but once the S tronic engages completely, the car sprints away. Upshifts are quick, and the urgent acceleration is especially useful downtown where short bursts of speed are often needed to get ahead of the traffic situation.
To get ahead even faster, slot the gearbox selector into S. This mode not only keeps the gears lower, for longer and shifts more aggressively, it also drops to first (instead of D2) when slowing to a crawl, which allows the car to speed up rapidly. If your Audi A1 is specified with the $450 paddle shifters (worth every dollar), you can play with the gears yourself. Best of all, the paddles are more substantial than those in the Golf GTI.
The Audi A1’s 1.4-litre is a spirited number, but its soundtrack is workmanlike rather than likeable. The autobox is sweet and responsive when on the attack, but it seems unsure when reversing (the “creep” is inconsistent) and its tendency to “reclutch” right before you come to a complete, well-modulated halt makes it tricky to stop smoothly at traffic lights.
The biggest bugbear is the start/stop system. It kills the engine whenever the car is braked to a standstill and restarts it once your foot leaves the brake pedal. But there is a shudder on shutdown and a judder on startup, which is less acceptable than the “warmer” air-con when the compressor takes a nap.
Thankfully, the start/stop function can be disabled via a switch. Incentives to turn it on are the fuel saving (an extra 1km to 2km per litre) and the fact that the Audi A1 is only the second dual-clutch model after the Porsche Panamera with this capability. Another eco-feature is the energy recuperation system, which recharges the battery during braking and coasting.
Stopping, changing direction, tucking into corners – the Audi A1 handles these well, especially on the stiffer S line suspension and with upsized tyres (up to 225/35 R18, shod with Bridgestone Potenza S001). The ride is racy and sometimes rowdy on this “city rally” setup, but the payoff is action-packed agility. A tiny hatch placing so much rubber on the road is bound to be grippy and steady, but the Audi A1 goes one better by smoothing the way for the keen driver.
Outward visibility is superb, making it a cinch to manoeuvre the A1 into approaching apexes (and around multi-storey carparks). Its manoeuvrability remains a doddle in the dark, thanks to excellent xenon headlights which shine really “big” for a small car.
On the move, the electric steering is light and nippy, with just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, and it directs the front end precisely. The leather on the steering wheel could be “rougher”, though, to facilitate fast twirling. Helping pull the car out of corners is an electronic differential lock, which works like Volkswagen’s XDS by briefly braking the lightly loaded inside front wheel.
Speaking of wheels, having tried the 215/40 R17 and 225/35 R18 sizes back-to-back, we reckon the 17-inchers strike a more agreeable compromise between outright handling and everyday comfort.
Overall, the Audi A1 is less pointed than the nimble MINI Cooper, still the benchmark for playful cornering, but the Audi is significantly more settled over mid-corner bumpers. It also rides much better out on the expressway, with levels of noise, vibration and harshness which would make a small executive saloon proud.
There is negligible wind rush at speed, just a refined hush made possible by a rigid body with tight seals, while the hi-fi, climate control and cowhide cocoon the occupants in a “little” lushness.
The Audi A1 is a peach of a pocket hatchback, condensing Audi design flair and engineering eminence into a compact three-door. It will account for one in 10 new Audis sold worldwide, with the percentage in the Singapore market possibly higher than that.
Just as crucially, the automaker hopes that the Audi A1 owner will aspire to – and acquire in due course – the A3, A4, A5 and A6.
If he or she ever makes it big in life and buys an A8 or R8, congratulations – but don’t forget your turtlenecks.
Audi A1 1.4 (A)
ENGINE 1390cc, 16-valves, inline-4, turbocharged
MAX POWER 122bhp at 5000rpm
MAX TORQUE 200Nm at 1500-4000rpm
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch with manual select
0-100KM/H 8.9 seconds
TOP SPEED 203km/h
PRICE INCL. COE $126,888 (as of April 2011)
Check out the latest Audi A1 Sportback