Overall rating: 4/5
Audi's smallest car finally gets the quattro treatment; Golf GTI-baiting power, mated to four-wheel drive traction, makes for a heady combination. The S1 price tag means it does come up against more talented machines, but there are still lots of reasons to love the fast baby Audi.
You always remember your first time: the fear, the trepidation, the barely contained excitement. The hopelessly fumbling around with familiar yet strange apparatus. The feeling that now, after years of waiting, you have finally achieved nirvana.
My first time was with a certain Dave Humphreys, in Girona, Spain where Shane (CompleteCar.ie's editor) had dispatched me for my first international car launch (gotcha - get your mind out of the gutter). Audi was launching the five-door Sportback version of the A1 supermini and it was my job to test drive it and report back. I distinctly remember skipping most of dinner such was my haste to file copy and impress on my first launch.
Being the professionals that we are, Dave and I drove the cooking versions of the A1 first - the 1.6-litre TDI, which might actually sell in Ireland, and the 1.4-litre TFSI with cylinder-on-demand that Audi was pushing at the time. Then Audi let us loose in in the range-topping 185hp S line version, in which we managed to cook the brakes, such was our attempt to battle its inherent understeer. Every time we entered a corner carrying a lick of speed (which, as young bucks, we were wont to do) all the car wanted to do was kill us by driving straight off the mountain pass. It was somewhat anti-climactic - much like my first time really - and it was decided there and then that the A1 needed four-wheel drive. It needed quattro.
Fast forward nearly three years later and the A1 does indeed have quattro and 231hp. The first four-wheel drive A1 to arrive was, rather fittingly, called the A1 quattro, but that was a limited edition, left-hand drive only, test-bed for this, the Audi S1.
In essence the S1 is an A1 with a detuned version of the S3's engine or, to put it another way, an A1 with the Golf GTI's engine. Despite dropping nigh on 70hp from the S3's high the S1 is still chuffing quick: 0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds and a top speed of 250km/h are not to be sniffed at. A lot of this is to do with the fact that Audi trimmed only 10Nm of torque off the top to separate the S1 from its big brother. Remembering that the A1 is based on the Volkswagen Polo - to give you an idea of the size - any car that has access to 370Nm of torque from 1,700rpm is going to be quick.
But that 185hp S line in Girona was quick; so how does this S1 handle?
Quite well, thanks very much for asking. When pushed there is still a desire to understeer; however, it is more 'safety' understeer than limitations of the chassis. In fact, if you lift off the delightfully responsive throttle pedal and allow the weight to transfer away from the rear wheels, the banks of computers that control the quattro system send power rearwards and you can counteract this desire. You are not going to get any sideways moments as you would in the likes of the RS 4, but the S1 always feels beautifully planted - even on the lovely wet roads that Ireland specialises in.
The reason the rear-end will not come out to play properly is because the S1, like the S3, uses a Haldex based four-wheel drive system rather than Audi's pukka quattro componentry. The original system was designed to work with longitudinal rather than transverse mounted engines and that is why small fast Audis handle differently to their bigger brothers; fundamentally, they are front-wheel drive with power only sent rearwards when required. That is not to say they are bad. In fact, the split nature of Haldex equipped cars is a good counterpoint to the shockingly competent quattro equipped ones; while you know the S4 will pull you out of a corner the S1 requires a modicum more work. It requires you to remain engaged and in control - it is you driving the car rather than the other way round and that (from an enthusiast point of view) is always a good thing.
That feeling does not come cheap though. At €36,970 for the three-door and €37,570 for the Sportback, the S1 is a mightily expensive pocket rocket and you do have to question whether you are going to have more fun in it than in the €25,760 Ford Fiesta ST. Where the S1 claws back a lot of that price difference is in fit and finish. Indecently fast as the ST is, its cabin is dull and uninspiring. On the other hand, inside the S1 is typically Audi, impeccably finished, of the highest quality materials with just enough unique 'S' additions to put it above a common-or-garden variety A1. There's also the fact that it looks the mutt's nuts on the outside too with its beefy body kit, slightly weird rear spoiler and the standard 'S' car additions such as the '5-twin-spoke' wheels, exhaust pipes, mirror caps and badging.
Whether or not that means it offers good value for money is up to you but you do have to wonder how much further Audi can push to create an RS 1 without making the S3 look irrelevant. Can you imagine a five-pot in this? Mmmm...