Giant-killing supermini offers plenty of fun to match the German premium brand's cool allure

What is it?

Audi’s bad-boy Audi A1 supermini, the S1 – finally available in the UK, and in series-production right-hand-drive form.

Offering permanent quattro four-wheel drive, a totally redesigned suspension system and a reworked Volkswagen Golf GTI engine with enough power and torque to put a full-size hot hatch in the shade, this car offers much more than the average warmed-up supermini. And with a full-fat asking price starting just below the £25k marker, it needs to.

The irony is that the S1 takes the place of the limited-run A1 Quattro – a car that sold out at a price north of £40,000. So even given that it's close to Renault Mégane RS 265 money, the S1 almost looks like good value.

But does it drive like it? The likes of the Mini GP and the Citroën DS3 Racing have already shown that it can make sense to downsize your fast hatchback by a class for a machine of real purpose, verve and distinction – and we rated both.

A full road test on the S1, unlocking every last scrabble and lunge of character and fun, will be forthcoming in a few weeks. Meanwhile, for some first impressions on British roads, read on.

What's it like?

The new Audi S1 is fast, desirable and highly specialised – all good signs.

In three-door form the S1 cracks 62mph from rest in 5.8sec – a solitary tenth of a second slower than the last Ford Focus RS we figured in 2009. And it’s offered with a six-speed manual gearbox only, so with a launch control-enabled S-tronic transmission, it might have been quicker still.

The S1’s engine is yet another version of the Volkswagen Group’s ‘EA888’ turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol, as featured in cars as distantly related as the Seat Leon Cupra and the forthcoming entry-level Porsche Macan. Knowing that, you can’t help wondering if Audi might have given the S1 even more power than the 228bhp they’ve ended up with. Or, perhaps, if they’re deliberately leaving room for a near-300bhp RS1 in years to come.

Either way, the S1 hardly feels like it could do with the extra poke. Point-to-point accelerative pace is full-on, grown-up and very serious. It’s defined more by the instant rush of mid-range torque than by high-rpm power.

Flatten the accelerator and the engine wakes up and chimes in with a not-so-subtle thump of 273lb ft from about 2000rpm, but by 4500rpm, the show is over, more or less. The engine will still pull cleanly, but no more urgently, nearer the redline. Given that its four-cylinder growl lacks a little bit of detail and audible charm, you’d say the engine is both impressive and effective – but it’s short on enticing character.

More transformative than that engine, in fact, is the S1’s four-wheel drive system. It's a proprietary set-up driven by a multi-plate clutch rather than the passive, Haldex-type system that Audi has used on its transverse-engined cars in previous years.

Under normal conditions, it splits engine torque 60/40 front to rear, but when wheelspin is detected up front, up to 50 per cent of drive goes rearwards. So there’s always a healthy portion of power at the rear wheels, whether the front ones have started to run out of grip or not.

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The upshot is that the S1 corners quite sweetly. Audi’s habitual bias towards handling stability is a little bit in evidence; the car’s front end doesn’t exactly dart towards an apex, and you have to work quite hard to induce any throttle-off slip from the rear. But still, the S1 feels quite grippy and direct enough on turn-in, when there’s very little body roll to eat away at directional response.

Passing the apex and from there on out, you drive the S1 more like a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo or a new Golf R than a Mini JCW. Ask for power early to wake up that turbo, let the driveline worry about which axle to send it to, trim your line with the steering as that driveline introduces some neutral cornering attitude and be ready with the next gear – because you’ll need it sooner than you think.

It may not quite be the match of what’s on offer in a Ford Fiesta ST or a Mégane RS, but there’s plenty fun to be had if not a great deal of delicacy. The car’s torque-centric powertrain can also feel a bit brutish if you time your gearchanges badly or you’re injudicious with the accelerator.

The ride is flat but ever-firm. Very firm with the variable dampers operating in Dynamic mode. Uneven cross-country roads tend to flummox the chassis slightly, leaving the car either to thump and hop its way onwards over the bumps or to fidget and pitch just hard enough to suggest you should ease off until the smooth surfaces return.

And four-wheel drive or no, the car’s 273lb ft of torque is more than enough to corrupt the car’s steering – which is otherwise nicely weighted but isn’t as informative as it might be.

Should I buy one?

That depends on what else is on your shopping list, and what you want for the outlay.

The best £25k full-size performance front-drivers on the market – the likes of the Renault Mégane RS 265, Ford Focus ST and Seat Leon Cupra – offer a slightly more rounded, precise and rewarding driving experience.

None, of course, match the Audi’s four-wheel drive, nor its German premium-brand allure. But they do offer that extra bit of practicality. You wouldn’t ask an adult to travel in the back of an S1 for long, for example.

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Meanwhile, if you can manage with that lesser practicality and you just want the best fast supermini you money can buy, a Mountune-fettled Fiesta ST offers greater pure amusement than this Audi – and is £7000 cheaper.

But for its mix of pace, desirability and thrill factor, the S1 makes a welcome addition to the hot hatch class. It’s a giggle, and it doesn’t feel at all like a token gesture, a place-holder or a half-measure.

Truth be told, it’s been a while since an S-branded Audi appealed so much.

Audi S1

Price £24,900; 0-62mph 5.8sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 40.4mpg; CO2 162g/km; Kerb weight 1315kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 228bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 273lb ft at 1600-3000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual

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.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
xxxx 10 May 2014

specced up

sorry that's not 2 options for £5000. And 18 inches, an expensive sound system, and luxury paint finish rather than the £340 metallic finish are not pretty normal options. You've just ticked every box. I can get the fiesta up to nearly £21,000 which is getting close to the base S1
fadyady 9 May 2014

It is a good start

It is a good thing, I couldn't help notice. In a world up to the neck with the auto box which I believe beats the very object of the hot hatch, Audi offering 6-speed manual is a good thing (shame on Renault Clio RS).
Audi can always offer DSG for those who can't steer and change gear at the same time. It may help lower the all-important 0-60mph sprint too.
However after reading the article with a fair degree of interest, I'm left feeling that this car may be a lot less exciting than the numbers suggest. And while the price may seem fair to the four-ring badge lovers, it's a tad too high for this badge neutral such as myself.
At the end of the day if fun be the chief factor, there are better cars available, for far less outlay. If it is straight line pace, AWD, cabin quality and resale value, one is after then the S1 betters rivals.
xxxx 9 May 2014

What a bargin, that's why they're called options

Don't spec 'em then. Besides what 2 items costing £2,500 each were you thinking of and that you'd possibly want anyway! (already comes with half leather and adjustable dampers)
Engelbert Humpe... 9 May 2014

Badge pricing.

Just quickly specced up an S1, came to £29,770. 30k for the luxury of paint that's not silver, leather seats, speakers, an armrest (!), floor mats (!), 18 inchers, and a warranty. Pretty normal selection of options I'd say. So, an S1 with wooden steering and an armrest of a bare stock Golf R? I'd take the R.