Audi A1 Sportback: can this supermini's driving dynamics match its sporty looks?

Audi A1 Sportback
Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler

Audi’s A1 is the smallest car in the German marque’s extensive vehicle line up and is one of its most accessible, offering a neat hatchback with the quality and features Audi has been known for, at a price that’s not atrociously high. 

First introduced in 2010, the A1 has gone through a fairly linear evolution over the past eight years, offering a refined and modernised look and high-performance models. The latest A1 Sportback brings a hefty design overhaul to turn a rather stylish hatchback into a much more aggressive and sportier-looking machine. 

Design

The more rounded lines of the older A1 models have been replaced by some seriously sharp angles, with the new A1 sporting an aggressive-looking font with angular intakes and front grille, and full LED headlights that look like the eyes of an angry Transformer staring down the road ahead. 

Three intakes sit above the grille to funnel air into the engine, and are designed to convey the idea that this is a car that’s been inspired by Audi’s Quattro rally cars as opposed to fashionable city superminis. 

The hood also has some sharp lines, while the wheel arches are flared to suggest this is a car that wants to be thrown around corners rather than cruise along side streets. 

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

This sportier look also is something we’ve seen with the Q3 and Q8 SUVs that have been refreshed this year, so we’re not surprised to see that design language get pushed down to the new A1. 

A bit more eyebrow-raising are the color schemes Audi has opted for. There are 10 options, ranging from classic white and red to slate grey, dark green and bright yellow and blue.

You can mix and match all manner of configurations depending on the trim level (currently available in standard SE, Sport, and higher-end S-line guises) and the edition. One option is to have a Turbo Blue A1 with white alloys, which is a bit in-your-face, but we did like the Tioman Green color with burnished gold coloured alloys, which are a lot more tasteful then they sound.

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

The different trims offer other small variations in exterior styling as well, like replacing the traditional chrome Audi logo and model name accents with smokey black versions. Audi has also killed off the three-door A1, with only the five-door Sportback variant on offer. 

Overall, the new A1 looks significantly different to its predecessor. Some might find the sportier and aggressive sayings too ostentatious while people who like hot hatches are likely to fire admiring glances at the new A1.

Interior

The new A1’s sporty design gets toned down a bit when moving to the inside. Granted, a lot of the controls are angled towards the driver to give it that ‘driver-oriented’ feel, but everything else feels more like a traditional 2018 Audi setup.

That’s to say the cabin is stuffed full of tech. Audi’s excellent digital instrument cluster comes as standard, which offers a 10.25in digital dashboard and 8.8in touchscreen infotainment unit.

The latter has a neat user interface and haptic feedback when using the centre console to adjust everything from navigation and radio stations through to driver assistance systems and the car’s handling.

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler 

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

You’ll need to fork out an extra £1,600 (about $2,000, AU$3,000) to get the ‘Technology’ package, which offers Audi’s full Virtual Cockpit, delivering a 10.1in infotainment display and a higher-resolution digital dashboard that a joy to glance at given it offers more information options like the ability to select a detailed 3D navigation map at the touch of a button on the steering wheel, as well as other info like car performance and active driver assistance systems. 

Speaking of which, there’s a suite of driver assistance systems. Some come as standard, such as lane departure warnings, while others are optional extras like rear parking sensors and cruise control.

All assistance features, and indeed the rest of Audi’s tech, work very well, but that’s expected as Audi has been a frontrunner in car tech for some time. Don’t go expecting any fancy autonomous parking though; such clever tech is reserved for much more expensive Audis. 

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler 

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

You might be getting the impression that a lot of A1 features are optional extras. And you’d be right as they are, and that’s particularly true of the interior luxuries. 

Various trim, seat and other interior options only come with Sport and S-Line models, or are costly extras for the SE model, such as the £150 (about $200, AU$300) LED lighting pack. 

One thing prospective A1 owners really should go for however is the ‘Comfort and Sound’ pack, which is a £995 (about $1,300, AU$1,800) option for the Sport and S-Line A1s, as it offers a Bang & Olufsen 3D sound system. With 11 speakers and an output of 560 watts, the system is genuinely impressive, delivering that clean and crisp sound B&O is known for.

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler 

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

Of course, such luxury options really ramp up the Audi A1 from its starting price of £18,450 (about $24,000, AU$33,600), but we’d say it’s worth spending more on the A1’s interior, as in the S-Line models we tried out a fully-kitted out cabin is a pretty comfortable place to sit, especially with some artificial leather trim and sport seats. 

The base A1 SE has bit of a plastic-heavy looking interior, which doesn't really convey the luxury the A1 can offer. That being said there were some plastic bits in the S-Line that perhaps weren't as nice as we'd like them to be, though the colourful optional trims can help hide this at a casual glance.

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler 

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

We were also pleasantly surprised at how much space there was in the back and how comfortable it felt to be there. That’s thanks to the A1’s longer wheelbase than its predecessor. 

All in all, the inside of the A1 is as neatly designed as its exterior, though less divisive in aesthetics. It’s not the most tech-filled Audi around, but it offers plenty for a supermini class car.

Performance and driving

There are four engine version of the A1 currently available. The A1 25 TSFI offers a three-cylinder one-liter turbocharged engine with 94 horsepower, while A1 30 offers the same capacity engine that delivers 114bhp. The A1 35 kicks out 148bhp from a 1.5-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine. At the top-end sits the A1 40, which comes with a 2.0-litre four cylinder turbocharged engine that delivers 197bhp, not dissimilar to the type of power one would expect from a hot hatch. 

The first three engines can be paired with a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission, while the A1 comes with a six-speed S-Tronic transmission only. 

Firmer sports suspension is available on the S-line models, while a fully-kitted out A1 S-Line Competition will come with adaptive dampers. 

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler  

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

So with all those options can the A1 deliver a driving experience to live up to its design? Not quite. 

Making the sprint to 62mph in 6.5 seconds, A1 40 felt pretty nippy when we got behind the wheel. But despite having an engine that’s basically taken from the VW Polo GTi – thanks to VW Group sharing the MQB platform across it’s brands – which delivers a good dose of power, the A1’s motor feels a tad vanilla. 

It doesn't seem too keen to rev in a manner we’d expect from the A1 40’s sporty setup, and despite being turbocharged there isn’t an exciting surge of torque delivered at any point in the rev range. 

The six-speed S-Tronic gearbox is smooth enough at cruising speeds but bury the throttle and it can be a bit slow to respond, even when the car is set up in its dynamic performance mode.

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler  

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

Synthetic engine noise is also piped into the cabin in this setup, which is fun at first but feels a little tacky after a while; give us real engine sound, even if it’s muffled. 

As such, the A1 40 engine felt more felt more like that of a premium ‘warm hatch’ that a dynamic hot hatch; some would argue that’s more in keeping with Audi’s brand and the A1, but we felt a tad disappointed. 

We also drove the A1 with the 35 TSFI engine, which would be our choice of motor as it wasn’t too sluggish, managing the 0-62mph sprint in 7.7 seconds, yet didn’t feel like it was trying to offer performance that it couldn’t deliver. The seven-speed S-Tronic transmission in the car also felt smoother if not super sharp. 

When it comes to handling, both S Line A1s delivered. Steering was very much a neutral affair with little of the so-called ‘feel’ that petrolheads desire, but it was direct and felt suitably weighted, which is a pleasant surprise as some Audi’s steering can feel a tad light.

Audi A1 Sportback

Image credit: Roland Moore-Coyler  

(Image: © Roland Moore-Coyler)

Slipped into dynamic mode, the steering feels more responsive and sharper, while the sport suspension means it can tackle corners at a decent lick without wallowing in them. 

At no point did the S Line models really offer much in the way of driving thrills or dynamics; they were fun but never felt properly sporty despite their looks and badge. 

And while the sports suspension is fine on smooth roads, you’ll certainly feel the bumps on scrappier surfaces like those of the hills around Spain’s Malaga or indeed a British B-road. We wouldn’t mind sacrificing comfort for a more exciting driving experience but the S Line A1s didn’t deliver that, which isn’t ideal for a premium hatchback. 

In isolation the A1 is very pleasant to drive, and we’d be comfortable weaving it through city street and cruising it down motorways, but when compared to other superminis it’s not quite as premium as we’d expect from Audi.

Verdict

Audi’s new A1 is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s more aggressive design and sportier trim options would suggest it wants to be a hot hatch, but the driving and dynamics, while far from bad, don’t deliver on the road. 

Arguably, the A1 has always been more about style and delivering a supermini with premium interior features rather than raucous road performance.