One of the key trends which has emerged in the car industry over the last couple of decades has been the idea of convergence; whether it be on platforms, engines or merely driver technology, manufacturers have realised that it’s much much cheaper to spread research and development costs between two or more companies rather than simply going it alone. Often-times this has seen smaller companies swallowed up by big conglomerates, as is the case in many other industries across the globe; American car-makers have long followed this mindset and GM in particular has long existed with a huge umbrella of brands ranging from sporty Corvette down to budget Geo, GM’s ventures haven’t always been successful but it has become big enough to survive (bankruptcies aside!).
By the far the leader in terms of production numbers in recent years has been Toyota – the Japanese manufacturer has a decent number of smaller brands (notably Lexus) but essentially their growth has always been sustained by the main Toyota brand in most of it’s markets. But coming for Toyota’s crown hard has been the all encompassing Volkswagen Auto Group, or VAG for short. Giggidy. In comparison to some global car manufacturers, Volkswagen is actually a reasonably young company whose growth has been built on the relentless absorption of smaller rivals in European markets, and built on ever growing profits from it’s core historic ranges of the Beetle and of course the Golf. Even so they have always been very keen to pioneer platform sharing, and with the seemingly never-ending popularity of their premium Audi brand it has now meant that they are slapping it’s badge on every platform they make.
Until the rumoured introduction of the VW Up!-based Audi A0, the baby of the Ingolstadt headquarted brand is the dimunutive A1. Similar in dimensions to the ill-fated but pioneering A2 of the early 00’s, the A1 is a much more conventional supermini which is based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Polo as well as it’s siblings, Skoda’s Fabia and Seat’s Ibiza. Unlike those cars though, the Audi was introduced as late as 2010, 2 years after the others. As such it’s still probably not due for a replacement for a couple of years yet, but remains a solid choice in one of the hottest segments of the car market. The question is though is it worth the sizeable premium over it’s siblings, or are there any other rivals worthy of consideration given the sheer number of options available.
If we’re being honest, a large part of the Audi’s appeal lies on it’s outside, both in terms of the way it looks and the fact it has an Audi badge on the front! As with other models from the marque, the A1 is quite a conservatively styled vehicle which has a few design flourishes which make it stand out from the pack, particularly important in the supermini class where a lot of rivals offer a host of customisation options for buyers to make the car their own. Probably the most eye catching of these details are the roof pillars which can be optioned in contrasting paintwork to give an appearance akin to Citroen’s questionable C3-Pluriel, often found in silver alongside matching side mirrors I am not a massive fan of them but they do at least make the car stand out a bit more. Much more successful are the sharp headlights which on higher trims come with distinctive LED running lights, a must have for any modern Audi especially when paired with the gaping egg-crate grille at the front. Around back the lights are attached to the body work as with the Q3, Q5 and Q7, meaning that they raise out of the way with the boot when it is raised! Personally I think that both the 3 door and (slightly dumpier) 5 door version do look a little like an 80’s Austin Metro in a certain light, but given that car’s popularity with classier ladies of the time maybe that’s not such an unusual comparison to make! But regardless of body style and colour choice, an A1 looks awkward without S-Line or Sport packages with their larger wheels and updated bumpers.
Getting behind the wheel and we find another solid reason for choosing the A1 over it’s platform-mates; Audi knows how to make a good interior and in the A1 they have a vehicle which out does everything in the class bar possibly BMW’S MINI, but without the retro-kitsch of that model. Making liberal use of soft-touch plastics, the A1 manages to avoid the generic look of the Polo and Fabia by featuring eye catching air vents and a very Audi-esque retractable navigation system, which when properly optioned brings a lot of big car features like Google Maps and App support. Other posh options like climate control and heated seats are available too, but although they will make living with the car a more pleasurable experience it is unlikely that they will add much future value to the A1. Unfortunately there aren’t really any good option bundles like with the MINI and it’s Salt and Pepper packages, but interior space is at least reasonable with a 270L boot comparable to most vehicles of the same size and bettering the MINI.
On the road and let’s just say the A1 is apparently good for whatever you want to chuck at it. Handling-wise it is no razor sharp corner curver like the Ford Fiesta or sportier trims of the MINI, but it has a degree of sophistication missing from those vehicles and offers more sound deadening, although not a softer ride admittedly because with anything other than base 15-inch wheels the ride is best described as firm. There is an adaptive driver system but realistically not many buyers need to bother with it as the difference between each mode is very slight. Under the bonnet lurks a decent little range of engines for a premium offering in this segment (the MINI restricts you to 1 or 2 per model), starting at the moment with a 1L TFSI with 94bhp and a decent turn of speed. A larger 1.4L petrol can be had in 2 states of tune (123bhp and 148bhp), but with the base engine being such a strong performer they really need to be thought about before being checked on the options list. A sole 1.6L diesel returns up to 76mpg, but although it is quick and refined, the cost increase is quite severe for those who won’t see the mileage benefits on shorter journeys! If you want an automatic the 7-speed dual clutch S-tronic is available with all engine options, but again be careful that it’s worth the premium.
If you’re looking at the A1 then you’re probably at least aware of some of it’s more immediate rivals – clearly the one with the closest brief is the MINI hatchback, which has followed the A1’s lead of offering both 3 and 5 doors. The MINI is a better car to drive with more up to date engines and interior tech, but it’s looks inside and out are now starting to grow a little awkward and bloated for some buyers. The Fiat 500 is another rival but one that wears cuter looks and a cheaper price tag, even with the fiery Abarth engine option – but again the looks aren’t everyone’s cup of tea and interior quality is miles off of the Audi’s. The Citroen DS3 is another premium hatch which like the A1 turns it’s back on retro detailing, but despite being popular it may not wear a posh-enough badge for some, and as with the Fiat the interior isn’t quite as nice. Any others? Well the Polo is actually pretty posh and offers a very similar ownership experience for a nice chunk less change, and even the similar Seat Ibiza offers a nice drive and sportier looks for less again.
Really the best way to get a feel for any of these models is to do a little research online and then go and take a look at a couple in the metal, but regardless of whether Audi’s posh Polo is the best option on the market, it is still a decent option for those after a nicer ownership experience than your regular ‘mini.