Have we reached Peak Supermini? The top of the curve, where the maximum number of small, zippy hatchbacks can be sold before the public realises it needs something larger or cheaper? MINI, MiTo, Polo, Panda, 500, Clio, Fiesta, DS3, Yaris… It’s a roller-coaster of pint-size fun, but could become a calamitous bandwagon of falling sales, dissipating confidence and lemming-like residuals.
Audi thinks Peak Supermini is a long way off, although the A1 hatchback, which arrives in Britain in November, is so full of contradictions and marketing baloney that it’s difficult to see how you could accommodate four adults as well.
The marketing department has strained every sinew to come up with “Concentrated Vorsprung durch Technik“, but there’s little technical revolution about the VW Polo-based A1. Audi’s revolutionary days are buried in the trenches of the asymmetric supermini war: the all-aluminium A2 broke new ground in the Nineties, but it was also ugly, expensive and rode like a Bechstein on a bobsleigh.
The A1 faces stiff competition, such as the MINI. BMW’s pastiche of Sir Alec Issigonis’s 1959 original succeeded in defining the supermini boutique car where VW’s retro Beetle failed. Then there’s Fiat’s 500, or Citroën’s new DS3 and, frankly, Ford’s Fiesta should be in there, too, if only for its fabulous package of handling and space.
Audi carpet-bombed Berlin with pre-launch publicity, so it was something of a relief finally to clap eyes on the little beast. It’s a nice exercise in timeless elegance, but hardly earth-shattering. At the rear, the hitherto understated and distinctive coachwork disappears into a vacuum. You’ll need to reverse park an A1 in a multi-storey or you might never find it again.
Behind the long doors you’ll find one of the classiest cabins in this class. The facia combines Audi’s exemplary switches and dials with the Polo’s bullet-proof build quality. Most of what you see and touch is delightfully finished – especially the curved seats, which are supportive and very comfortable. The knurled metal heater controls are simply perfect and Audi has miniaturised the A8 limo’s second-generation multimedia interface with wit and charm.
The penalty is a lack of storage space around the front-seat passengers, with tiny door pockets. And from the front seats backwards, the accommodation gets meaner and less well finished. The twin rear seats might look good, but they aren’t suitable for anyone taller than 6ft. The boot is large, however, and if you delete the spare wheel you get secret space beneath the floor.
Only a three-door body will be available initially, although a five-door is due in 18 months. There are three four-cylinder engines – two turbo petrol units (1.2, 85bhp and 1.4, 120bhp) and a 104bhp, 1.6 turbodiesel. The 1.2 and 1.6 engines have five-speed transmissions, while the 1.4 comes with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed, twin-clutch auto (a £1,420 option). Three trim levels are offered; SE, Sport and S line. Prices range from £13,145 to £18,280.
The diesel is likely to be the UK’s best seller, and the gutsy engine endows the 1.1-ton car with a 10.5sec 0‑62mph time, an EU Combined fuel consumption of 70.6mpg and 105g/km of CO2 emissions. It’s also gruff, noisy at idle and the major controls vibrate. It’s a lot less refined than the equivalent Polo.
The 120bhp 1.4 has equivalent figures of 8.9 sec, 53.3mpg and 124g/km and is the best all-rounder, being very refined with brisk performance and relaxed high-speed cruising. It’s an expensive option at £15,345, though, especially if you add the pointless twin-clutch ‘box. We really liked the little 1.2 – its buzz-bomb engine yields performance on par with the diesel, but it handles better, is much more refined and returns 55.4mpg. The five-speed gearbox works well and the brakes feel sharper, partly because it is 220lb (100kg) lighter.
Diesel criticisms notwithstanding, the A1 rides reasonably, although the twist-beam rear suspension does transmit wheel movements uncomfortably across the cabin. MacPherson strut front suspension is pretty much industry standard and the car copes with Berlin’s inner city roads with few complaints.
Although the 16in wheels and tyres provide the best ride, the 17in option isn’t as murderously severe as it is on a MINI. The steering is firm and accurate, but lacks the feedback and sporting feel of a MINI or DS3. Similarly, the handling is disappointing. Unlike its rivals, the Audi doesn’t feel as though it’s eagerly sniffing out corners. It turns in efficiently, but relies heavily on mechanical grip rather than intrinsic chassis balance. It’s safe if you lift off mid-corner, but a Polo feels more sporty.
What a wasted opportunity. The A1 is beautifully made and its cabin is the apogee of automotive design and assembly, but you would never consider driving this car for joy alone and the design is instantly forgettable. This is a supermini for bloodless accountants and one that you would buy with head rather than heart.