Good: economy, looks, cabin quality
Not so good: expensive, tight on space, not all that sparkling to drive
As facelifts go, this is a particularly subtle one. In fact, if you parked an 'old' Audi A1 and this new one right smack next to each other, I'm not entirely confident I could tell them apart. There is, apparently, a new grille, some new lights (they do look a bit different, right enough) and thanks to some changes to the bumpers, the new A1 is a full two centimetres longer than before. Honestly though, to tell them apart, you're going to need an anorak. And a microscope.
All this apparent lack of effort to take on the challenge of BMW's new MINI and with Citroen's new DS 3 waiting in the wings - is Audi guilty of just doing too little to keep up?
Hmmmm. Perhaps not. Audi actually seems to make something of a habit of doing things like this, or at least perhaps I make a habit of noticing. Take the Audi Q5 SUV - when originally launched, I just plain old didn't like it. However, one minor facelift later, and again one that you'd pretty much have to work in Audi's design department to be able to spot, and I loved it. Some small tweaks here and there and suddenly the Q5 snapped into focus, for me at least.
So it proves with the A1, a car that hitherto I've never had all that much time for. In fact, waiting to collect this one for its test drive, watching other colleagues coming and going in larger, comfier and supposedly grander machines, I began to make a mental list of cars I'd rather drive home in than the A1. It was a long list.
Yet I came to the end of the week really and honestly not wanting to hand back the keys. As a grower, the A1 is distinctly mushroom-like - fast moving and tasty by the end.
It's also rather more brisk to drive than you would think. The tiny little 1.4-litre three-cylinder diesel has been thoroughly re-worked and tweaked to the point where it is effectively a new engine. It has a mere 90hp, which doesn't sound like much, but the key figure here is the 230Nm of torque, which is rather a lot for such a small engine and plenty to be working with in a car that weighs just 1,100kg. The whole car has been given Audi's Ultra treatment to make it as light and efficient as possible too, so you can squeeze an official 83mpg (3.4 litres/100km) out of it (mid-sixties is more realistic to be fair, but still impressive) and CO2 emissions are a Revenue-frustrating 91g/km.
All of which might have you thinking that this is some sort of sluggish economy special - over-geared and under-fun. Not so. Yes, the little engine gets a bit breathless towards the top end and you need to work the sweet-shifting five-speed gearbox for it to give its all, but it's surprisingly peppy. In fact, you'll easily spin up the front wheels in first if you're a bit careless with the throttle. It even sounds good, with a little throaty warble when you rev it hard that's entirely charming. The only demerit is the fact that it's far too easy to stall when running at low rpm in town - no doubt an owner would soon learn how to deal with that.
Inside, again, Audi says there have been changes but bugger me if I can spot them. It's the usual Audi mix of harmonious design and high quality. There are some new options (including contrast colour panels for the circular air vents), but the rest is familiar and it's a pleasant place to be. Comfy seats too. In fact, this is where the A1 starts to pull out a serious lead over the new MINI for me. BMW's new small hatch has sacrificed a lot of front seat space and comfort and now the A1 is a much more comfortable companion over a long distance.
It's not as sharp to drive as the MINI - the steering (a new electrically assisted system) is too light and distant for that, but the A1 is still reasonably good fun. Our test car, thanks to its optional S line kit, did ride a bit too firmly around town, but the extra body control through fast corners was welcome.
It's a shame that there's not more space in the back, but then this is really a car designed for singletons and couples, not growing families.
There's also the concern over the price. A MINI is a MINI - no other car uses the same mix of chassis and engines. The A1 though has to try to justify its prices in light of the fact that it's basically the same underneath as a Skoda Fabia and Volkswagen Polo. Both of those cars feel pretty much as good to drive and both will save you many thousands compared to the €30k price tag of this A1 as tested.
And yet, it's still a car I handed back reluctantly. In spite of being a million miles from the A1's target audience, in spite of the inflated price tag, in spite of the tight rear seat space. In spite of all of that, I reckon the Audi A1 has grown into the best small premium hatch you can buy.