Ur-Quattro influences new Audi A1 but serves to court size controversy
When he first saw the latest Audi A1, Iain Robertson admitted to infatuation, as much for its retrospective styling, as its keener, more focused driving position and decidedly up-market leanings that its £30k price-tag underscores vaingloriously.
Four-wheel-drive was an open option in the late-1970s rallying scene, where the ubiquitous rear-driven Ford Escort ruled the landscape. Much talk of technological advancement meant that stage speeds would escalate, increasing the demands on the driver but also delivering a spectacle, whether in forests, or on tarmac competitive sections. A carmaker was sure to break cover in 1980 and it would emanate from Ingolstadt, Germany.
Landmark creation was the job of the very first Audi Ur-Quattro coupe of 39 years ago, which was gifted its name by engineer Jorg Bensinger and is not a Yorkshire possessive prefix (which would have been ‘Oor’!). Developed into an all-conquering rally car, as renowned for its flaming exhaust, chirruping wastegate, yellow-glowing brake discs and the off-beat yowl of its 450bhp, much modified, racing five-cylinder engine, it created memories that even millennials would find memorable. It won innumerable rallies and several vital championships and meant that all of Audi’s rivals would be driven into creating their variations on the 4WD theme.
Nine years ago, Audi filled the entry-level gap in its much-lauded model range by launching the A1 supermini in three-door hatchback form; a five-door variant followed around a year later. Potential ‘Four Rings’ owners would be drawn to its compact dimensions and the possibility of having access to the well-established quality and style of the brand. They received it in spades, even though it was really just Audi’s version of the Skoda Fabia/VW Polo/Seat Ibiza. It sold in decent numbers, right from the outset.
In June of last year (in fact, if you dip into our motoring archive, you should find the first mention of the car), an entirely new A1 was revealed. It grafted the bolstered wings and above-grille slots of the Ur-Quattro onto Audi’s compact newcomer. As a perfect means to tease quattro-philes into closer examination, it works the oracle. Naturally, as a BMW Mini rival, tease needs to translate into taste and, with gurning lower bumper grilles fore and aft, a blending of exterior plastic trim finishes and colours and a tactile interior sure to satisfy every finger-tapper and sensory overload, Audi fulfils its stated promise.
The gorgeous Bugatti blue (actually, ‘Turbo Blue’ in Audi-speak, at £575 extra) paint finish of the test car is one of several attention-grabbing colours from a broad palette that infers fun and character. Powered in A1 30 TFSi form by VW Group’s beguilingly sweet 1.0-litre, turbocharged petrol-triple that develops a modest 113bhp, hooked up to a seven-speed S-Tronic (DSG) automated-manual gearbox, its front-wheel-drive performance envelope is very strong. In fact, it will top-out at 126mph, despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in a brisk 9.3s. It returns up to 48.7mpg and emits just 108g/km CO2 from its tail-pipe and, even punting it in a vigorous manner, most drivers will seldom attain less than 40mpg, as a measure of its overall efficiency.
Tailor the ride quality, using the Mode Select switch in the centre console, to one of four settings that range from default ‘comfortable’ to firmly sporty, and you can indulge in the A1’s taut handling envelope. In truth, the standard setting is the best for an acceptable compromise; the more beefed-up setting will jar out your teeth. The electro-mechanical power steering is pleasantly weighted and, despite its compact aspirations, the A1 does not feel like a ‘puddle-jumper’, which is probably due to its 2.5m wheelbase, which is quite generous for a (just) sub-4.0m hatchback. Grip levels from its 17.0-inch diameter low-profile tyres, fitted to £250 optional 5-spoke alloys, are superb.
The A1’s interior is a wonder to observe. The dashboard is a jutting, sharp-edged device that dominates the cabin. While its door cappings are produced from hard plastics (just like the Fabia alternative), the upper section of dashboard is produced from slush-moulded and soft-touch material that affords the interior a warm and tactile high-quality finish.
However, tall occupants, like me at 6 feet 6 inches, will struggle to obtain the most comfortable driving position…it is there but it is tight for access and egress and leaves insufficient space for another adult behind. If you are of average dimensions, it should not pose a problem. Yet, its interior still sets a fresh standard in the compact car category. The test example is in sporty S-Line trim, which includes Alcantara and cloth seat materials, which are both great looking and comfortable.
The several ways configurable instrument panel that allows the driver to place Google Maps sat-nav information in the pod (in full-screen, or reduced forms) is matched by an equally dominant driver-angled touch-screen, in the dash centre. They are allied to a ventilated and leather-wrapped steering-wheel rim peppered with buttons that are deliciously up-market, although they are common to other VW Group products. A pair of drinks-holders are located in the space between the front seats, alongside a conventional parking-brake. There is also a mobile-phone charging-pad at the base of the console.
However, you do pay a hefty price tag, the test example features £7,570’s worth of extras that whisk the list price (pre-dealer discounts) to an eye-watering £29,930. When you consider the raft of items that includes a contrasting black roof (+£425), sports front seats (+£600), Technology Pack (+£1,650), Comfort and Bang & Olufsen Sound Pack (+£995) and other electronic features, it is mildly distressing to discover that the centre console armrest costs an extra £150 and dual-zone climate control is further £450. Appreciating that Audi has always provided a base-line for its models, to which you must factor-in a host of accessories to personalise the car, when over a quarter of its value comes from option packs, it is unsettling to me.
The truth is, I do not want to get hung-up on prices, especially as BMW, Merc and many of the other brands have now followed suit in a manner that has become ‘the industry norm’. Audi customers tend to know what they are in for. Apart from its cramped cabin, which makes my equally proportioned Suzuki Baleno look like a limousine in comparison (at half the price!), the new A1 is still a most charming and desirable compact car.
Conclusion: Packed with technology, with a wide choice of petrol and diesel engine options, the latest Audi A1 creates a compelling acquisition demand. Be careful on the options front, because not all of them will aid its trade-in value three to five years down the road.