Overall rating: 4/5
Audi's quattro division turns its attentions to the smallest car in the range, the A1, and gives us the 231hp S1, available in three-door hatch or five-door Sportback versions.
In the Metal:
It's a striking little thing, the S1, one of our favourite features being the optional black panel in between the rear lights. Given that Audi saw fit to paint the launch models in a bright trio of colours - Misano Red, Vegas Yellow and the superb Viper Green for the Sportback - it was obvious to see that this is targeted at younger, more affluent folk. You can also opt to have a 'quattro' decal low down in front of the rear wheels, while all cars get a beefier body kit, small boot spoiler, tasteful 17-inch five-spoke alloys and the quad tailpipes of all S and RS Audis.
Inside is also a success, with plenty of switchgear you'll have seen before in other Audis but laid out in the S1's own way. The MMI screen is in the middle of the dash, there's a natty, metal gearshift lever and you can opt to have the centre console and tops of the seat backs finished in the same colour as the exterior, which makes for some eye-catching interior detailing if you get in a Vegas Yellow or Viper Green car. On more practical themes, there's space enough for four average height adults inside, the sports seats and driving position are excellent, and it even has a decent boot. MINI, this is how you package a small car...
The short review would be 'it's like a shrunken Audi S3'. In more detail, the engine is a gem. It's the EA888 unit and in fairly unstressed 231hp format here, although it's tempting to imagine how fast the new S1 would be with a simple ECU re-flash to take it up to the 300hp of its big brother, the S3. However, we doubt you'll find it lacking in pace, as Audi has only shorn 10Nm from the S3's 380Nm torque peak for the smaller car. Therefore, the blown four bestows more than adequate urge on the tiny hatchback and even sixth gear overtakes are no problem, thanks to its fat torque 'curve'. The all-wheel drive quattro system provides massive grip and a good amount of adjustability, with understeer not hugely noticeable; it does arrive, and we have to cut it some slack here as we were in icy conditions, but it's well-telegraphed enough that you can avoid it by easing off the sharply responding throttle pedal. Drive shuffles to the back and the S1 feels willing to help you go round corners, which is nice.
The steering is fine, with plenty of weight, but perhaps not the utmost feel, yet as it's super-direct and consistent you learn to live with it pretty quickly. The ride, however, is markedly more bouncy than other S Audis. There are only three modes in the S1's Audi drive select roster - Efficiency, Auto and Dynamic - but even in the 'softest' of these the car never truly settles down, presumably because of its short wheelbase. You'll only want to be in Dynamic mode when you're driving it harder on a road and therefore not concentrating on its (lack of) composure. Oddly, this is coupled with more pronounced lean in the bends than you might expect. On the plus side, the S1 never actually bangs over ridges and bumps, so it's not an awful ride by any stretch of the imagination. If you've driven a Ford Fiesta ST, that's about the closest analogue of the S1's ability to traverse rough surfaces.
Other than that, though, it's a supremely grown-up car, with high levels of refinement in terms of noise. Even driving in a Swedish gale, conversations in the cabin were conducted at civil decibel levels, and the engine can recede into silence on minimal throttle applications. It's a polished performance all round from the S1, thanks to superb brakes and a clean shift action for the manual gearbox too.
What you get for your Money:
At €36,970 on-the-road, the S1 is considerably more expensive than the other junior hot hatches mentioned here. However, we'd argue that, as it's hugely more practical, has all-wheel drive and a nicer car all round, the S1 is pretty special. A Fiesta ST will seriously undercut it and offer arguably a better drive, but again the cachet of quattro four-wheel drive should swing things in the Audi's favour. It's significantly quicker than any of the cars mentioned.
If the specification is the same as that offered in other parts of Europe, you get all the S exterior and interior styling - although, as already stated, the body-coloured bits inside are optional - the comfort of quattro all-weather grip, S suspension, Xenon headlights and the Audi drive select system, among other toys. There are options to be had, which will quickly push the price up.
The tag S1 has been used on an Audi before - namely, the sensational world rally versions used in the 1980s. In actual fact, at a test facility in Sweden Audi laid on none other than 1984 world rally champion Stig Blomqvist to drive an example of that year's WRC machine, although this was Walter Rohrl's car. Sadly, a be-winged, 476hp version of the new S1 with six Cibie headlight pods is unlikely to be on sale any time soon.
Audi's new S1 turns out to be a very likeable car. While it's not the most scintillating of performance hatches we've driven, it manages to blend all the usual Audi attributes together into a machine that's appealing and bloody quick in its segment. It has a discomfiting ride quality, which is strangely coupled with a bit too much body roll, and steering that lacks the final bite of a top-level set-up, but in all other respects the S1 is a planted, rapid machine with trendy looks. It costs a little bit more than some competitors but is class-leading in many areas. Now then, Audi, how do you go about making an RS version that doesn't impinge on the S3...?