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The Audi A1 is a stylish and competent supermini - but does it have the edge over the Mini?

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The design premise of the Audi A1 was clearly minimalism over maximalism.

In your correspondent's opinion, this is how you make a car age well, given that inside and out the Audi is as pared back as small hatchbacks get, and is certainly on the prettier side of the spectrum. It would be harsh to call it featureless, but it’s not exactly the automotive equivalent of Tobermory.

This Germanic attention to efficient, neat design has served the A1 well, because even now with the earliest examples more than 14 years old, they still look modern – a good thing, because they’re in a tussle in the classifieds with the evergreen Mini hatchback.

If you were to buy a Mini, would you be missing out? Well, unlike that car, the A1 didn’t draw on its maker’s heritage. Instead, it was one of the few small cars to have a team of engineers smelling each of its interior surfaces to make sure the scents didn’t clash.

Upmarket appeal was the clear priority here. That interior also offers enough space for average-sized passengers and their average-sized luggage but not much else beyond that. The rear seats will accommodate anyone below average height and the boot any load smaller than 270 litres. By contrast, the contemporary Mini makes do with just 160 litres, while the Mk6 Ford Fiesta offers 295 litres.

What about trim levels? If you can live with halogen headlights, entry-level SE models come with 15in alloy wheels, cruise control, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, rear parking sensors and a 6.5in pop-up display that, like many of the other trim pieces and buttons around the cabin, has the tactility of a Bang & Olufsen hi-fi.

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Stepping up to Sport trim grants you 16in alloys, sportier suspension, front foglights and USB and Bluetooth connectivity, while S Line (our recommendation) includes 17in alloys, xenon headlights, LED tail-lights, front sports seats, an aggressively styled bodykit and LED ambient interior lighting.

You could upgrade further to the Black Edition variant, getting 18in alloys black exterior trim, but we don't think it adds that much styling flair or kit over S Line.

For over a year, an S Line A1 was owned by yours truly, and never did I want for more. It was comfortable enough around town despite its firmer suspension, the gear change of its six-speed manual (a five-speed manual and a seven-speed S Tronic automatic were also available) had a reassuringly ramped and high-quality feel, it had a 1.4-litre four cylinder petrol engine that was more than potent enough and it regularly bested 40mpg. It certainly felt worthy of its Audi badges.

There were a multitude of powertrains available, ranging from a slightly underpowered 94bhp 1.0-litre three-pot petrol (replacing an 85bhp 1.2-litre four in the pre-2015 facelift model) to the 1.4-litre four with 123bhp, 148bhp or 183bhp, although that last version was axed in 2014.

You could also get a 1.6-litre or 2.0-litre diesel four, both of which offer up to 60mpg. The 2.0-litre is our choice of the oil burners, as it's not only abstemious but pacy too.

So, it depends on what you're looking for in your small car. If you're after some nostalgic charm, buy a Mini. But if you want refinement, quality appeal and a tidy (if slightly anonymous) design, it's A1 all the way.

RELIABILITY

Is the Audi A1 reliable?

Autocar's sister title, WhatCar? publishes a reliability survey each year, and while this generation of A1 did not feature on it, Audi itself ranked 26th out of 32 manufacturers featured in its latest survey, with an overall score of 89.1%. This placed it above Alfa Romeo, Jaguar and Vauxhall.

Yours truly owned an A1, which threw up the occasional electrical issue concerning the alarm and parking sensors. There are, however, some more specific problems affecting a wider range of A1s.

Audi A1 Common problems

Engine: A1s with the 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre TDI engines have diesel particulate filters that can become clogged up if the car is used only for short journeys. Happily, there is an easy fix: simply drive the car at 60-70mph on a motorway for 20 minutes and the warning light should disappear as the DPF clears itself out. On high-mileage cars, the timing chain can become stretched and wear out prematurely. Telltale signs include a whining noise when the engine is cold or powering the car up a hill. Budget around £600 for a replacement.

While the 1.4 TSI is a good engine, its turbocharger has been known to fail. This could cost around £2000 to replace, so check that there’s no black smoke coming from the exhaust or a loud whistle when the engine is under load.

Electrics: The alarm can go off at seemingly random times, and if your A1 is specified with parking sensors and it’s raining, they might think they are closer to an object than they really are. To save yourself from tinnitus, get an Audi dealer to run diagnostics on the electronics.

Interior: The infotainment in some A1s has been known to suddenly lose its connection with a smartphone or outright refuse to connect in the first place. So before you buy, make sure everything links up as it should and the connection stays uninterrupted during your test drive.

An owner's view

Jackie Rothenberg: “I bought my A1 Sportback new in 2016. I was looking for a nippy hatchback and chose the Audi for its neat styling and quality fittings. There’s enough interior space to carry four people in a car that’s ideal for driving in town, and having four narrower doors is a boon in car parks. I have some issues with the sat-nav, though: while it’s easy to program and the radio/navigation console is nicely laid out, the maps aren’t very clear. I have driven a lot of BMWs in the past and think Audi could learn something from them. But overall it’s a great little car and not one I want to change yet.” 

Also worth knowing

It is likely that the A1 has been used by younger drivers who may not have taken as much care of it as you would have wanted, with many examples out there looking quite neglected. So ensure there’s a comprehensive service record of the car and at the very least check that it has had two long-life services.

Also check tyre and brake wear, oil and coolant levels and how many advisories the car received on its last MOT test. Essentially, try to work out exactly why the current owner doesn’t want it any more.

The A1 was available with either three or five doors; the Sportback tag attached to some examples simply signifies the latter.

DESIGN & STYLING

Audi A1 side tracking

Our first look at the Audi A1, of a fashion, was as the Metroproject Quattro concept at the Tokyo motor show in 2007, and it’s a credit to Audi’s design studio that it made it through to production virtually unscathed. Even debadged, it would be recognisable as not just the son of Metroproject but also the product of Audi, and trademark signatures like LED running lights abound.

Beneath the uniquely Audi exterior lines, meanwhile, lies something altogether more familiar. The Volkswagen Group is the master of sharing platforms and architecture, but never before was quite such a brazen attempt made to justify the price of an Audi that used the same underpinnings as a Seat Ibiza.

The A1’s wrap-over bonnet looks noticeably large against the A1’s short wheelbase but it links the A1 to Audi’s sporting models, the TT and R8. The grille marked a departure from the traditional trapezoidal Audi shape, with an additional side introduced in each of the top two corners.  

This contrasting roof line comes in four different colours, depending on the main body colour. Polished tailpipes, along with front foglights, help identify Sport models. S-line trim added revised front and rear valances and a roof spoiler.

The battery is placed in the boot to improve weight distribution, but it means there is no room for a spare tyre. There is, however, a little extra storage space for small items under the boot floor around the battery.

Lift the large tailgate and you’ll find additional rear light lenses. They’re fitted to ensure that the A1 can be seen at night when the tailgate is up.

Numerous changes were made to the A1 during its mid-life facelift, chiefly the addition of a new grille, bumpers and headlights, alongside a new electric power steering system and adaptive dampers. However, the biggest news was the quiet removal of the entry-level 1.2-litre engine, for an all-new turbocharged, 1.0-litre, three-cylinder TFSI unit which produces 94bhp, only 99g of CO2 and the ability to do over 60mpg.

The rest of the engine range included two tunes of the 1.4 TFSI engine producing 123bhp and 148bhp respectively, while promising fuel returns of 55.4mpg and 56.5mpg respectively. The only diesel available was a 114bhp, four-cylinder, 1.6 TDI version, while topping the range was the ferocious 227bhp 2.0 TFSI unit which powers the S1 and can propel it to 62mph from a standstill in 5.8sec and onto 155mph.

INTERIOR

Audi A1 interior

Inside, the main switchgear is recognisable from other Audis (no bad thing), and in general there is an aura of solidity that befits the four-ring badge. Our initial review car came equipped with nearly £5000 worth of optional equipment, which was bound to add a sheen of luxury. However, even an entry-level model feels plusher than the average supermini.

When viewed from the driver’s seat forwards, the cabin generates an upmarket impression. The A1’s air vents are neat and the cabin layout is cleaner than that of larger Audis. It says something about the perceived quality that it comes as no surprise many elements of the A1’s interior filtered up the preceding Audi range.

Generally, though, the A1 feels much like a conventional supermini. The rear seats are big enough for average-sized passengers, but you’d find at least as much in most cars in the class.

The boot is equally average. Luggage capacity of 270 litres with the seats up is less than that of the then Ford Fiesta (292 litres) and the Nissan Micra (300 litres), and way behind the Seat Ibiza with its 355 litres of boot space, although it significantly betters the Mini’s rather apologetic 160 litres. Unfortunately, the five-door Sportback offers no more luggage space, its boot capacity being identical to the three-door's.

Even refinement falls into the ‘good but not exceptional’ category, with tyre noise frequently causing a notable background hum. But most buyers will care more about the sensation the A1 offers from the driver’s seat, and although it successfully manages to feel like a miniature Audi A4, it lacks the outrageous, brazen look of the Mini. 

If you are planning to buy one, then there are four core trims to choose from and a dedicated one for the S1. Entry-level SE models got 15in alloy wheels, halogen headlights, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, cruise control and rear parking sensors as standard, while inside you got manually adjustable front seats, air conditioning, and front floor mats. Dominating the dashboard is Audi's MMI infotainment system, complete with a 6.5in pop-up display, DAB radio and SD card reader.

Upgrade to Sport and the A1 is adorned with 16in alloy wheels, firmer suspension, front foglights, and USB and Bluetooth connectivity, while opting for S line added 17in alloys, sports suspension, xenon headlights, LED rear lights, front sports seats, an aggressively styled body kit and LED ambient interior lighting to a fully loaded package. Black Edition models got 18in alloys, a gloss black exterior trim, climate control, automatic lights and wipers, and a leather and Alcantara upholstery.

S1 buyers got all the equipment of the Sport trim plus Audi Sport developed sports suspension with adjustable dampers, steering rack and quattro system. There's also an aggressive bodykit, a quad-pipe exhaust system, and lots of S1 badging.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Audi A1 engine bay

The 148bhp 1.4 TFSI engined car was the most potent Audi A1 available throughout the majority of its life. That gives it Mini Cooper S troubling pace (0-62mph takes 6.7sec), with enough on-demand acceleration to make overtaking a cinch. The caveat is that you need to be prepared to work the engine to get this performance.

If most of your driving is done in town the three-pot 1.0 is more than adequate; 118lb ft of torque is available from 1500rpm, so the A1 picks up keenly from low revs. However, at higher speeds and higher revs, the smaller engine feels more restricted. It’s not exactly slow, but 0-62mph in 11.7sec isn’t brisk, either.

The 1.6 TDI unit is also not the motor of choice if you want entertainment. Long gearing means it can feel quite underpowered, but with familiarity it can be worked harder to offer perfectly acceptable performance. The upside to this occasional lethargy is 74.3mpg combined and just 99g/km of C02. It really is the best A1 for high-mileage users, but we would recommend any of the petrols for the lower-mileage private buyer.

With plenty of rubber for a small car, braking performance is strong. The A1 actually recorded a shorter stopping distance on MIRA’s fully wet track than on the damp and greasy ‘dry’ surface.

RIDE & HANDLING

Audi A1 rear three quarter tracking

Those coming to the A1 from a larger Audi may be surprised that the cabin has no controls for altering the suspension or steering systems. However, it is offered in three set-ups, each trim level dictating wheel size, ride height and spring rates. The Sport model is not the most focused but sits, on firmness of suspension as well as price, between the SE and S-line.

In Sport form, it’s noticeably firmer than a regular supermini, particularly the related Volkswagen Polo. Thankfully, this does not translate into the disastrous ride quality that we have experienced with some sporting Audis. In terms of secondary ride, on the optional 17in alloy wheels fitted here, you’re always aware of the road surface but the response is more nuggety than crashy.

Audi’s choice of spring rates causes more concern in the primary ride, but only at motorway speeds, where the A1 Sport suffers a little vertical agitation over small ridges. At the time, Audi introduced the Dynamic set-up to the Sport models, softening off the suspension slightly. Whilst still firm and increasing body roll a fraction, it does offer better bump absorption than the regular Sport springs and dampers.

Of course, if comfort is a real concern, lookking for a car with the standard 16-inch wheels would be advisable. With more forces working through it, over more challenging roads, the suspension does a better job of keeping the body movements in check. As such, Sport is our preferred trim level, but with the Dynamic suspension option.

Given the commonality with other VW Group cars, arguably the A1’s biggest success is that it feels noticeably different from a Volkswagen Polo, Skoda Fabia or Seat Ibiza. The real achievement, though, is that the A1 is not simply different, but better. Rather than exhibiting a single dynamic behaviour, the A1 seemingly adapts its character to how and where it’s being driven.

The A1’s chassis also feels more accurate and responsive than its group siblings’ and, as a consequence, more fun. The cleverness, though, is that once on the motorway, the A1 swaps its small car feel for composed stability. Unless you glance behind at the limited rear seating, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were travelling in a car from the class above.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Audi A1 front three quarter lead

Our measured fuel consumption test results for the 148bhp 1.4-litre car are good for a warm hatch, helped by an effective, unobtrusive stop-start system; 34.3mpg is a realistic average, with 43.5mpg possible on the motorway. CO2 of 124g/km means annual road tax is affordable.

None of the regular A1s have an average claimed mpg of less than 50mpg. The 1.6 TDI is the diesel A1 to go for, but the best A1s are still petrol-powered.

With Audi dealers being masters at tempting you with the options list, it’s somewhat surprising that the standard cars are so well equipped; that makes them good value, especially on the used market. Air-con, alloy wheels, and a decent stereo with an aux-in socket are standard, but you do have to pay extra for Bluetooth.

VERDICT

The Audi A1 has the cabin quality and powertrain refinement that you would expect from an Audi. The cabin may lack the quirkiness of either a Mini or DS 3, but when it launched it set a new quality benchmark for a premium supermini.

From the driver’s seat it’s clear you’re in a proper Audi – there are no signs of cost-cutting with plush materials and switchgear that is often a hand-me-down from a model higher up the Audi range.

Look over your shoulder and the view is somewhat more unusual. There’s not a whole lot of space in the back – it’s best described as ‘occasional use only’ for adults. The boot is a bit miserly, too, although in both respects the A1 is better than the equivalent Mini.

The engines, although not the most powerful in the market at the time, offer sufficient performance coupled with economy and refinement.  

But it is how the A1 drives that overturns our expectations, because this is a small Audi that is fun. It is not as supple as a Ford Fiesta or encompassing as the Seat Ibiza, but it is still an enjoyable and capable car to drive quickly, and it comes without a harsh ride quality. The breadth of abilities is highly impressive, then, and best of all you can grab one now from just £1500.

Jonathan Bryce

Jonathan Bryce
Title: Editorial Assistant

Jonathan is an editorial assistant working with Autocar. He has held this position since March 2024, having previously studied at the University of Glasgow before moving to London to become an editorial apprentice and pursue a career in motoring journalism. 

His role at work involves writing news stories, travelling to launch events and interviewing some of the industry's most influential executives, writing used car reviews and used car advice articles, updating and uploading articles for the Autocar website and making sure they are optimised for search engines, and regularly appearing on Autocar's social media channels including Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

Audi A1 2010-2018 First drives