Athletic hatch has the need for speed
PLEASE forgive the fine folk from Mini for developing a complex.
Over the past two years they have been in the sights of several manufacturers. All want a bigger slice of the premium small hatch market, and Audi has been successful in eroding some of Mini's dominance.
During the first half of 2011, the new A1 (that starts from about 30 grand) has outsold Mini's three-door range and now there is a new player in town that takes aim at the high-end performers.
With underpinnings shared with the all-conquering Volkswagen Polo GTI, the A1 Sport comes packing plenty of punch but with a luxurious edge.
It's the meanest looking member of the A1 stable that's focus is pure performance.
Four-ringed treatment resonates through the cabin.
There is a familiar feel to all Audi interiors, although the A1 has its primary buttons and operations mounted vertically on the dash rather than in a centre console dial.
Fit and finish is of premium quality, as you would expect for the $42,000 retail price. Designers had aircraft inspiration with the interior, with the instrument panel "reminiscent of an airplane wing" while the air vents look like jet turbines.
We couldn't quite see the correlation, but the vents do swivel in just about every direction and the dials and gauges are easy to read.
Operating the climate controlled air-con is easier than some other Audi models and just requires altering dials rather than a selection process from various buttons.
The seats hug you into place and fold easily for entry into the back, the steering wheel has telescopic reach and there is reasonable head and legroom up front - those in the back aren't so fortunate.
Having the armrest down can cause some issues getting at the handbrake and gear selector and it's best left vertical until you are up and running.
On the road
There is fun to be had in the A1 Sport. Using the same 1.4-litre supercharged and turbocharged engine as the Polo GTI, this version gains a few more kilowatts for good measure.
With a sports tuned suspension and rapid acceleration response the little hatchback embraces the twisties.
The supercharger operates at low revs, there is a hint of lag, although you quickly catch up to your right foot's needling and the turbo takes control for a brutal power boost. It's only available with a seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission, yet this box encourages lively performance and you rarely long for a stick shift.
You can take control manually (or opt for paddle shifters) but we found the self-shifter intuitive.
Steering is well weighted, not traditionally Audi-light, and the electronic systems help pull back the oversteer when you push things hard in the corners.
That sports set-up makes things firm and anyone wanting a plush ride would probably best avoid this performance derivative.
What do you get?
There is fruit aplenty atop the A1 tree. You could easily live without many of the items on the extras list, with standard fare incorporating climate control air-conditioning, rain sensing wipers, CD stereo system with Bluetooth phone connectivity and streaming, xenon headlights, LED running lights, parking sensors, six airbags, a chunky leather-rimmed steering wheel, cruise control and a trip computer.
The key competitors include the Mini Cooper S ($40,700), Citroen DS3 Sport ($35,990) and the much cheaper and lower-spec Polo GTI ($28,990). It may even have the potential to woo buyers away from the larger Subaru WRX ($39,990), Volkswagen Golf GTI ($42,990) and Mazda3 MPS ($38,435).
With three doors and a penchant for performance, this isn't family lugging territory. We still managed two child seats without issue, but boot space is restrictive.
Adults too would find things squeezy in the back without the front passengers sliding a long way forward.
Fuel consumption isn't a worry, it's actually pretty frugal at about six litres for every 100km. Insurance may be the concern for some, depending on driver history.
Compared to the standard A1, the Sport gains lower and deeper front and rear bumpers, as well as the S line roof spoiler and a rear diffuser. It's a muscular looking little package.
It also has a wonderfully refined rorty sound, especially from about 4000rpm.
There are some key players in this premium hatch segment. The A1 Sport doesn't quite have the personality to match the Mini, or its driving excitement, but it does have a great air of luxury and badge kudos.
The three-door reeks of fun and excitement from the moment you hit the start button.
It is a pricey little offering but it does strike an impressive balance between luxury and performance.
Model: Audi A1 1.4 TFSI Sport.
Details: Three-door front-wheel drive hatchback.
Engine: Dual-charged 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 136kW @ 6200rpm and peak torque of 250Nm @ 2000-4500rpm.
Transmission: Seven-speed S tronic dual-clutch automatic.
Consumption: 5.9 litres/100km (combined average).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 6.9 seconds; top speed is 227kmh.
Bottom line: $42,500.