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First drive: Serious fun from Audi

Oh baby: It's no Mini, but Audi's entry-level A1 achieves premium motoring in a small package.

Baby A1 hatch delivers a grown-up driving experience in Audi's smallest bundle

29 Jun 2010


CENTRAL Berlin was designed to intimidate the observer, with buildings built to a giant scale against which Audi’s A1 should feel more toy than serious car.

But this new three-door entry hatch is serious for Audi, which aimed for a vehicle that could be fun, yet elegant and mature.

The result is a sculptural form that looks both good on the road and bigger than its actual dimensions, thanks to a widish track and statement Audi design cues.

In Europe, it launches with four engines, but Australia will start with two: the 90kW/230Nm 1.4-litre TFSI petrol linked to the six-speed manual or the seven-speed S Tronic dual-clutch transmission as fitted to sporting VW Sciroccos and Audi’s TT S, or the 66kW/230Nm 1.6-litre TDI diesel that gets the same S Tronic or a five-speed manual.

Both have idle/stop and a recuperation system to divert braking energy to the battery to boost urge off the line.

The petrol 1.4 – sampled with the ultra-efficient auto – soon proved my favourite, capable both of frugal cruising and joyous rushes of acceleration, further honed by selecting ‘sport’ mode.

Audi says these cars are the lightest premium models on the market – the entry-level A1 tips the scales at 1040kg – and that no doubt helps. So does the fact it will pull from the 1500rpm at which the torque peak arrives, until 4000rpm, where it drops off.

Audi claims 5.3l/100km fuel economy our drive returned 6.7 over an extended loop out of Potsdam – former seat of the Prussian kings – traversing a plenitude of 50km/h villages, a matching number of brisk charges to the limit and the closest to swerves the press drive allowed.

7 center imageInitial impressions suggest A1 will be a rewarding drive. It’s based on a variation of Polo platform but with a wider track, and with suspension stuned for this application.

There was little discernible body roll and a hint of understeer Audi cites the electronic limited slip diff that comes allied with stability control for its neutral behaviour, while steering feels direct and precise.

Audi doesn’t pitch A1 directly against the more sporting Minis, but the handling feels sufficiently assured to have us looking forward to a date with a more sinuous stretch of road.

As for the 1.6, it performed well enough in the manual format tested, but was lazy at low revs and required a brisk throttle attack before reached the livelier response zone above 1700rpm.

Perhaps because of our vigorous approach, we could not match Audi’s 3.9l/100m claim, instead achieving 4.2l/100km over a mixed bag of 120km/h motorway cruising, central Berlin’s evening gridlock and an extended detour after getting lost.

Fortunately, the car is agile round town and all-round visibility is excellent for the driver.

Shorter rear passengers may regret the high waistline, but they are not second-class citizens in other respects. The two seats divided by a double cupholder and cubby deliver sufficient elbow room and reasonable head room. Entry and egress is reasonable via the wide front doors.

Audi is covering its bases with a wide range of option packs and colour and trim choices that range from sensible to eccentric. The smart exterior can be matched with an almost equally ascetic interior that oozes quality with fine finishes and thoughtful design, or a bit of cheek can be injected via quirky colour choices.

Product manager A1 Lars Adler said the inset colour options available at launch would change over time to help keep the car current.

Meantime, you can have any combination that works – beige with chocolate exterior and eye-catching lime with silver the best examples we saw.

Audi says up to 800 exterior configurations are possible, but the contrast curve from A to C-pillar is only available in certain combinations.

Final Australian spec has still to be settled, but there’s good news for those rendered uneasy by the lack of a spare wheel for European cars.

Mr Adler says Australia is among markets that can get cars with a spare, provided they are ordered thus from the factory.

Otherwise the launch supplied a bewildering array of spec choices, although none of the cars apparently the standard Attraction and Ambition trim levels Australia will start with.

Gadget geeks can opt for the MMI navigation plus with a fold-out monitor, 20GB of memory that’ll even allow you to download CD cover art, Bluetooth for phone and audio devices and more.

But options or not, we loved the sports seats that will be standard for Australia too – and the 270-litre boot’s versatility, with elastic straps and tie-down points.

The rear seats split-fold for a flat load floor and 920 litres of space to the roof line. A squarer back would have supplied more, but was sacrificed to the elegant lines.

Audi seems to have managed the difficult juggling trick of imparting Audi elegance in a small car, with enough personality in the cabin and options to keep a wide range of customers happy.

It’s also built a car that feels larger than it is – in part because even the peppier cars still feel quiet and refined.

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