Audi has given its new-for-2019 A1 Sportback a sporting look that mixes elements of the original Sport quattro rally car with up-to-the minute levels of personalisation and cutting-edge lighting technology. Will that, and a range of efficient turbocharged petrol engines, be enough to take on the evergreen MINI? Here's our first drive in the likely best-seller, powered by a 1.0-litre engine.
In the Metal:
Audi has given the new A1 a pleasingly distinct look from the rest of the line-up, ramping up the aggressiveness in the design by taking cues from the original Audi Sport quattro no less. Check out the three slots above the sharply-drawn front grille (they have no function, other than giving the face a menacing appearance), for instance, and the vaguely bulging wheelarches. These are complemented by more modern detailing, such as the sculpted front bumper and air inlets, plus the LED lamps that feature a new signature in the daytime running lights front and rear. The back has a similar shape to before, but the lights are sharper and more distinctive. All this is emphasised if you go for a contrasting roof (black or grey), the sportier looking S line specification and one of the sets of tasty 18-inch wheels (we expect 15s on the entry-level model). Conversely, the A1's newfound presence can be toned down if you stick to a single colour and a more demure finish. Audi says there are some one million combinations of options available, though there will not be a three-door model produced this time around.
There's so much going on with the exterior styling that you are likely to have failed to notice that the new A1's dimensions have changed. The new car isn't drastically different, being 6mm narrower and 13mm lower, but the overall length has increased by 56mm, while the wheelbase is a whopping 94mm longer than before. That obviously helps with the pert overhangs, but also means more space inside, especially at the rear. There are seatbelts for three as before and it's no competitor for the Audi A3, for example, but the increased room is welcome. The boot is usefully 65 litres more capacious, too.
We realise, of course, that prospective buyers may not take as much notice of the practicalities when they first sit into an A1 in an Audi showroom, as they're likely to be bamboozled by the fancy new digital instrument cluster. It looks and operates well, and is complemented by the equally dazzling centre touchscreen, all angled at the driver. The passenger side of the dashboard looks a little unusual, though, with two air vents joined by strakes. As you'd expect from Audi, however, the rest of the cabin is made of tactile materials of high quality.
At the international launch of the 2019 Audi A1, we had the opportunity to test the top-ranking petrol models, both the 35 TFSI (1.5-litre, 150hp) and the 200hp 40 TFSI version. Fast as these are, we were more impressed by the modest 30 TFSI. This uses the 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol unit we've tested in many a Volkswagen Group car, putting out 116hp to the front wheels. And as before, it's a perfect fit for the A1. It's smoother and more civilised than the four-cylinder engines, despite its layout, and yet it punches above its weight in the performance stakes due to its low weight and a willingness to rev. It even sounds good if you feel the need to extend it. The six-speed manual gearbox is suitably slick around its gate and the clutch has resistance without giving your left leg a workout in bad traffic.
The more powerful engines come with the expectation of sportiness from the chassis, which the A1 just can't deliver on. The MINI still rules the roost on that count. However, with a smaller engine under the bonnet and a more modest set of wheels fitted, the A1 is in its comfort zone, and it makes long journeys enjoyable, while absorbing the worst potholes and road surfaces around town when needs be. Show it a few interesting corners and it's competent and safe, with moderately direct steering and good body control, though it's not what we'd call engaging to drive. Wind noise is low, tyre noise (on the smaller wheels) is subdued, the engine is quiet unless you extend it and the A1 does a good impression of a bigger car.
What you get for your Money:
Audi Ireland has yet to release information on the 2019 A1, so we'll update this section once we have pricing and range details. There will be no TDI diesel models, just a range of turbocharged petrol engines (TFSI in Audi-speak) using Audi's latest naming strategy where '25' is likely to be the lowest model (95hp 1.0-litre), rising to '40' (200hp, 2.0-litre - unlikely to be offered in Ireland).We assume there will be SE, Sport and S line versions offered and it appears that the digital instrument cluster is standard-fit across the board at the very least, as will be air conditioning and electric windows.
Audi hopes to grab the imagination of supermini buyers with a bit of cash to spend with its new A1 Sportback. We reckon it looks the business and to that it adds more space, loads of technology and a line-up of feisty petrol engines. Still want that MINI?