Potent, four-wheel-drive supermini shows just what it's made of, but less costly rivals like the VW Golf R and Ford Fiesta ST offer similar thrills

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Few cars have a forebear as fresh in the memory as the Audi S1’s. The A1 quattro was introduced as a limited run in 2012 with a 252bhp version of the same 2.0 engine.

Despite being left-hand drive and costing over £40k, each of the 19 cars destined for the UK sold out almost immediately.

The Audi S1's claimed to be capable of 0-62mph in 5.8sec

The badge itself has a much older vintage: the Sport Quattro S1 was Audi's brilliant short-wheelbase addition to the phenomenon that was Group B rallying (although the homologated road car ditched the ‘S1’ bit).

The PQ25 platform on which the new S1 sits was always designed with four-wheel drive in mind, but apparently the powers that be at the Volkswagen Group weren’t entirely convinced that it was worth the associated engineering costs.

So for quite a while the S1 was simply going to be a front-drive model powered by the gutsiest version of the omnipresent 1.4 TFSI, until someone at Audi argued (vigorously, one suspects) that the ‘S’ badge had never been affixed to anything quattro-less before and shouldn’t be now. And thankful we should be that their determination bore fruit, otherwise the concept of a 280bhp RS1 would not have been conceived.

Even then, once they’d got their way, the engineers had to overcome significant packaging issues – and insisted on testing the ground with a limited run of vastly expensive prototypes before finally rubber-stamping the production version tested here.

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But if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. What we’re left with is among the quickest, most expensive superminis ever produced – and we rather like the reported history of the Audi S1’s rocky road to production.

The only question now is whether or not it is also one of the best. At the end of this review, we’ll know.

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Audi S1 Xenon-plus lights

At first glance, there’s not a great deal to mark out the S1 from regular Audi A1 hatches. But if you get the chance to put the two side by side and take a closer look, it’s easier to spot.

Then you can tell that the S1 rides 25mm lower than standard Audi A1s, and although there are no changes – unsurprisingly – to the metalwork, the front bumper is deeper and the front grille allows more air into the engine bay. The sills are deeper and there are aerodynamic addenda (or an impression of them) at the rear.

A deeper grille and larger holes help keep the 2.0-litre petrol engine cool

The engine is the Volkswagen Group’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre ‘EA888’ engine, as you’ll also find in everything from an Audi TT to a Volkswagen Golf R. As always, there is the mention of unique tuning – true to an extent, because the exhaust and induction routing of no two models is quite the same.

But the reality is that there are few changes to this widely used engine that, here, develops 228bhp and 273lb ft of torque, which plateaus from as little as 1600rpm. The RS1 scheduled to make its debut in 2017, will produce 280bhp from the same 2.0-litre 'EA888' engine.

It drives through a six-speed manual gearbox only. In most EA888 applications, there’s at least the option of a dual-clutch automatic, but there’s something determinedly old-school and likeable about the lack of such a choice here, and it drives through a four-wheel drive system, which is where the S1 gets interesting.

If you’ve looked at the S1’s list price and are wondering where a figure the wrong side of £25,000 comes from, it’s the fact that, to house the quattro permanent four-wheel drive system and its newly developed hydraulically controlled multi-plate clutch on the rear axle, the S1 requires a four-link suspension system rather than the torsion beam of the standard car.

Usually, the Audi A1 comes with a torsion beam rear axle — a compact set-up that most small cars need if they’re going to retain competitive boot space and, more crucially, to be sold at a competitive price.

But that doesn’t work with a four-wheel drive system like the one on the S1. Fitting the system “wasn’t a simple job at all”, says Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi’s research and development boss. “We had to reconfigure the whole rear end of the car.”

Doing so has created the space for a four-wheel drive system that, although dubbed ‘permanent’, usually pushes the majority of power to the front wheels. However, the hydraulically controlled multi-plate clutch on the back axle diverts power (up to half of it) to the rear wheels in an electronically controlled manner that is tied into other electronic systems.

The clutch, then, works with the ESC (stability control) to mimic a limited-slip differential by braking an inside rear wheel — which it can also brake under braking rather than on the power, to aid turn-in — making for what Audi calls “extremely agile, precise and stable handling”.


Audi S1's interior

It may seem unnecessary to pick fault with a cabin as immaculately appointed and finished as the S1’s. There’s as much room in here as any reasonable buyer would expect.

Which isn’t to say that there’s a lot, but probably enough for a typical second-car-of-the-household pattern of use. Material quality levels, to both the eye and the touch, make the S1 as distinguished as any Audi in any class in the market. The cool, technical, aluminium-accented ambience of the S1’s interior is very upmarket indeed.

Pedal placement is very good for a car so tightly packaged

But there’s very little performance drama to whet the appetite here. This is the understated fast Audi treatment done by the book; it just happens to be in miniature. Trouble is that hot hatchback convention is to cram performance flavour into every last fitting.

There are no boost gauges, lap timers, carbonfibre cupholders or brightly coloured go-faster trim stripes inside the S1. Peppering the cabin with a lot of that sort of paraphernalia wouldn’t be very ‘premium’, you’d admit, but it lacks a bit of a sense of occasion.

From a functional perspective, the cabin is harder to fault. The driving position is good, the controls well sited and the instruments clear.  It’s a shame that Audi couldn’t have found room on the transmission tunnel for the MMI controller and system shortcut keys though, which instead sit high on the stack, less conveniently.

Because of the downsized scale of the interior, this may be difficult to spot in our photos, but the seats could also be bigger and they offer relatively little lateral and under-thigh support.

The equipment tally, however, is quite generous. The S1 comes with all the standard equipment found on a Sport-trimmed A1, including Audi's 6.5in infotainment system complete with DAB radio and Bluetooth and USB connectivity, although sat nav can be added on its own for £570 or as part of the Technology pack for £1495, which includes numerous online services. While the S1 adds 17in alloys to the package, sports suspension, progressive steering, xenon headlights, an aggressive bodykit, automatic lights and wipers, and climate control.

To make the S1 more sporty, Audi has added to the S1 Competition trim which adds 18in alloys, numerous gloss black trim and a double-blade rear spoiler.


The fast Audi S1

Depending on which angle you’re approaching it from, there can be something either mildly impressive or slightly disappointing about the S1’s straight-line pace.

On the one hand, here’s a very small hot hatchback that can reach 60mph from rest in 5.9sec, whereas a Ford Fiesta ST wanted a full 7.0sec in our hands, while the ST200 is capable of reaching 62mph in 6.7sec.

Turbo lag only makes itself apparent from low speeds in second

On the other, it’s a four-wheel-drive car with a 2.0-litre turbo engine, and a similarly equipped Golf R needed only 4.8sec to cover the same benchmark.

And that, in a nutshell, encapsulates the rather unusual positioning of the S1, which has a bigger car’s price and engine size but is itself rather more compact. Ultimately, its accelerative prowess is about right.

The shortish gearing reflects the car’s size rather than the swept capacity’s, so in-gear flexibility is impressive. In fourth gear the S1 will pull along a slip road from 30mph to 70mph in only 6.7sec, and in third you can make that 5.3sec.

And because, at 115bhp per litre, it’s far from the most overworked engine in the class, there’s decent pulling power from any revs, once you overcome a touch of turbo lag at the bottom end.

The gearshift itself is precise and light, so there’s no bother – although no tactile delight – in swinging it around the gate. Likewise all the other major control weights, including a brake pedal that pushes on uprated stoppers that are impressive the first couple of times but fade like those on many other fast Audis – faster than in rival cars, at any rate.

It’s unlikely to be an issue on the road, but they’d want careful management on a track day.


The Audi S1

Audi’s magnetorheological adaptive dampers appear for the first time on an Audi A1 here, functioning in three familiar modes, in tandem with the steering, powertrain and ancilliary systems.

Those modes are Dynamic, Auto and Efficiency, and they seem to make more sense to us than the choice of several Comfort or Sport settings that rival BMW tends to supply.

'Drive Select' buttons work best when they're easy to access. So why not put them on the wheel?

The Dynamic mode in the S1 is, without question, too uncompromising for a lot of UK road surfaces. It leaves the S1 too stiff-legged to absorb typical back-road lumps and bumps and can cause adverse bodily reactions ranging from rotational head toss to quite pronounced pitch.

On a couple of uneven country roads that we often seek out to test ride and handling in particular, Dynamic mode turned the S1 into a rebounding, bump-steering, near-driver-unseating mess.

Mercifully, things improve when you select Auto mode. The ride calms itself down – although it still seems overly firm and poorly resolved at times – allowing you more freedom to concentrate on the car’s handling repertoire.

Odds are that you’ll like what you find. The S1 meets the expectations that we all have of ‘pocket rocket’ hot hatchbacks by being responsive to steering inputs, tackling corners with grip and directness and having plenty of impish attitude about it all.

Audi could perhaps have risked rebalancing the car’s grip levels towards the front wheels, which tend to run out of purchase just when you want to lean on them that little bit harder. Having said as much, if doing that would make the car’s limit handling any more boisterous, it wouldn’t be worth the trade.

The S1 is capable of eyebrow-raising things on a circuit. It has the pace, grip and staying power to run with the proper full-sized hot hatches against which it is priced. Its dry handling track lap time is fully two seconds faster than a Ford Fiesta ST’s and it is within six-tenths of the Focus ST’s.

But it also makes you glad that such potent superminis don’t come along very often. Relatively short, narrow, upright superminis aren’t meant to have full-house hot hatch power, after all. When ‘blessed’ with it, they can be troublesome to control as grip ebbs away and physics takes over.

And so proves the S1. Up to the limit of grip, with the ESC left on, it’s stable and well behaved. But push to the very edge and it yaws quite hard on turn-in and runs out of adhesion quite suddenly thereafter.

The four-wheel drive system, meanwhile, can be relied upon to stabilise the car with power in the dry. But in the wet it’s less predictable, not always shifting drive quickly enough to save a spin or to dial out the understeer.

The clutch-based four-wheel drive system gives the car surefootedness and traction on the road come rain or shine, but it’s not one to make the car feel rear driven when the right corner presents itself.

Despite Audi’s best attempts at ESP-based torque vectoring, throttle-steering isn’t a concept in which the S1 will indulge. Nevertheless, it will entertain you when you want it to.


Audi S1

Given the laboriousness of the S1’s gestation, one would hardly have expected Audi to spare the zeros when it came to pricing the thing, but buyers are still best advised to consider the bottom line from a seated position.

At £25,940 for the three-door and £26,675 for the Sportback, the S1’s entry-level price is far closer to a Golf GTI’s than a Fiesta ST’s. And it really does represent a jumping-off point; despite being the Audi A1 range-topper by some distance, it has not been equipped with much generosity.

The S1 should hold its value well for one so pricey

Our test car came with nappa leather seats, 18-inch wheels, sat-nav, cruise control, all-round parking sensors, high beam assist and a Bose surround system, but all were cost options, bumping up the price to £31,050 and putting it in the ballpark recently occupied by the vastly superior Golf R.

From a running costs perspective, the Golf R makes for appropriate company. At 40.4mpg, the S1’s quoted combined economy is actually a tad worse (Golf R 40.9mpg).

Supermini-sized rivals such as the Fiesta ST and Peugeot 208 GTI both return 47.9mpg in ideal conditions and emit less than 140g/km of CO2.

The Audi’s large engine and manual gearbox mean that it can’t even slip under 160g/km like the DSG-equipped Golf R. Its 162g/km puts it in VED band G, making it £50 more expensive every year than the Ford or Peugeot.

Not a drastic impediment, but further straw for an already groaning back.

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4 star Audi S1

The Audi S1 is an easy car to like but a rather harder one to recommend. At least with the A1 quattro, buyers knew that they were getting a limited-edition collector’s piece.

Here, it’s harder to escape the feeling that although there have been sophisticated engineering alterations and deep changes to the Audi A1’s underpinnings, you’re buying a moderately powerful small hatchback that offers fewer thrills than you can get elsewhere.

Very likeable but ultimately too expensive for the limited driver thrills that it can offer

For the same money as our options-equipped test car, you can buy Volkswagen’s deeply, deeply impressive Golf R.

For much less money than an S1 in standard form, the idea of a Ford Fiesta ST is a no-brainer, even before you consider the price difference.

And if drive to the rear wheels is really a deal breaker? Well, there’s always Toyota’s GT86 or a Subaru BRZ.

In short, for all of the S1’s likeability, everywhere else you look, there are preferable alternatives.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Audi S1 2014-2018 First drives