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.
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.