Audi S1 review

Audi's smallest S-car looks set to be one of its most popular. Jonathan Crouch reports.

Ten Second Review

Audi's S-car formula is poured into its tiniest receptacles in the nubile forms of the 228bhp S1 and S1 Sportback. For around £25,000, you're getting real pace in a supermini-sized package, backed up by all-wheel drive traction. Ingolstadt just hit this one bang on the sweet spot.

Background

Four-wheel drive, a hatchback and 220-odd brake horsepower is a formula that has worked for Audi in the past. There's a rightness about these ingredients that forms a sweet spot into which Audi posted the delightful S3 when it first appeared in 1999. That car gradually grew and morphed into a 300bhp monster, vacating a space below it that many rivals sought to exploit. Armed with around £25,000 in your bankroll, there's a wealth of fast hatchbacks to choose from, ranging from something serious like a John Cooper Works MINI or a Renault Megane 265 through to something a bit warmer and softer like a Skoda Octavia vRS. Now Audi has rejoined the fray with its S1, the smallest car to wear the hallowed S badge. It's offered as a three-door car or alternatively as the slightly more capacious five-door Sportback. With 228bhp on tap from its 2.0-litre TSI petrol engine, it's not going to be left standing by even the hardcores of this class.

Driving Experience

You might recall the limited run A1 Quattro. That was a rather special thing, packing 256bhp and priced at a faintly terrifying £41,000. So strong was demand for a hot version of the A1 that this S1 is the logical result. In this guise, there's 228bhp which is enough to scuttle the three-door model to 62mph in just 5.8 seconds, with the five-door adding another tenth to that time. The 370Nm of torque drives through a six-speed gearbox and a Haldex multi-plate-clutch four-wheel drive system. An electronic differential lock is part of the two-stage electronic stability control set-up, limiting wheelspin and enhancing traction out of corners. The S1 gets an uprated version of the A1's MacPherson strut front suspension with a meatier electro-mechanical steering system. A serious four-link rear suspension replaces the torsion beam arrangement of the A1, along with variable damper control. The 17-inch alloys are wrapped in surprisingly modest 215/40 tyres and you also get Audi's rather lovely Drive Select system, which allows you to play with the settings for throttle, dampers and steering. Upgraded brakes are also included with hefty 310mm front discs.

Design and Build

Aside from the alloy wheels, the S1's exterior is finished with standard xenon plus headlights, which are linked here to LED rear lights with horizontally-structured graphics. Audi introduces extrovert Vegas yellow and Sepang blue paint finishes and there's even an optional quattro exterior styling package incorporating a sculpted roof spoiler should you really want to turn heads. The interior of the two most compact S models is finished in dark hues with piano black air vent sleeves and dark-grey instruments which contrast nicely with the brushed stainless steel pedal set. It's well judged, having enough visual impact without teetering into caricature. The A1 three-door body can only afford so much interior space in a package 3954mm long, but the 267-litre boot extends to a respectable 920-litres if you drop the back seats. The Sportback model is six millimetres taller and six millimetres wider and inside offers a smidgeon more head and shoulder room as a result. It also makes provision for a third passenger in the back, although it's a squeeze for adults. Luggage capacity is on a par with the three-door A1. The loading lip is a comfortably low 66 centimetres, and stowage can be further simplified by an optional luggage package which features divided storage compartments under the loading floor to prevent your bottles of Coke mashing your eggs on the way home.

Market and Model

You'll need around £25,000 for the three-door car or just under £26,000 for the Sportback model, which seems like the bargain of the century compared to the £41,000 A1 quattro and isn't outrageously priced when viewed against its contemporaries. By comparison, a 220bhp Golf GTI three-door will retail for over £26,000 and is notably slower than this baby S-car. Yes, you're trading space for pace but it's not out of the question that buyers looking for a fast hatch with a quality interior will cross-shop these two models. Pitching the S3 at a strong value £30,000 means that the Audi were forced to shuffle the S1's price down commensurately. That's good news for UK buyers. Equipment includes sports seats with combination Milano leather and Olympic cloth upholstery, electronic climate control, a six-speaker single CD audio system with auxiliary iPod connection and SD card reader linked to a 6.5-inch retractable colour display, a Bluetooth interface and a Driver's Information System. From the options list, customers can choose S sports seats in black Nappa leather, or opt for a quattro interior styling package which includes these and adds a choice of three colours - high gloss black, red or yellow - for sections of the backrest. The quattro styling package also adds enhancements such as a flat-bottomed leather multi-function steering wheel with contrast stitching in silver, red or yellow, door armrests in black leather with contrast silver or yellow stitching or in steel grey with contrast red stitching, air vents in high gloss black with a red ring and a high gloss black, red or yellow finish for the centre console. Black floor mats with double piping in contrasting colours complete the look.

Cost of Ownership

It used to be the case that if you bought an Audi that sported an S-prefix, you weren't particularly interested in running costs. Bludgeoning through on the outside lane of the motorway while making a sound like Brian Blessed stubbing his toe were higher priorities. Things have changed though, with the S8 moving from a V10 to a V8, the S4 ditching its V8 for a V6 and this S1's 2.0-litre four making a decidedly saintly-looking 40.3mpg in three-door guise. Emissions are also hardly going to send the polar bear population to Davy Jones' locker, the 162g/km being amazing for a car that can head-butt a 155mph speed limiter. All of this spells excellent residual values for S1 owners. You're certainly going to see a good deal more of your investment back than if you plumped for a Ford Focus ST or a Renault Megane 265, making the S1 one of the cheaper hot hatches to run over a long term period. There really aren't too many holes in this car's argument.

Summary

Before dismissing the Audi S1 as an expensive indulgence, ask yourself this. How much space do you really need in your sports hatch? Yes, you could buy a car from the next size up such as a Golf GTI, a Megane Renaultsport, a Astra VXR or a Focus ST - but do you need to? When it comes to hatches, smaller and lighter is always better and the Audi S1 delivers. It's cheaper than a Golf GTI, feels more special inside and will take the Volkswagen's trousers down when it comes to sheer pace and effervescence. For around £25,000, you're buying an Audi S-car that can hit 155mph and get to 62mph in less than six seconds yet will nevertheless better 40mpg and emit just 165g/km. That's a formula we'd have dismissed as pie in the sky just five or six years ago. Those numbers just weren't mutually compatible. Audi happily vorsprungs away durch technik however, and you're the beneficiary. It might be small, but the S1 seems almost perfectly formed.