Audi's improved little A1 might well be at its best when fitted with a particularly clever 1.4-litre petrol engine. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The A1 1.4 TFSI 150PS COD features a modern turbocharged petrol engine that features a cylinder cut-off system which means that when cruising, it'll run on two rather than four cylinders. The result? Economy of 58.9mpg, yet it has the ability to nip to 62mph in less than 8 seconds.
It's a fact of life that we want to have our cake and eat it. We want tasty food that's low in calories, we want bargain basement flights but expect quality service and we all want a well-paid job that sends you home with a smile on your face. The sad fact is, most of the time it's a fruitless pursuit. Once in a while, however, a car comes along that really can offer you the best of both worlds. It's rare that you'll find one that's both quick and economical, and it's almost unheard of for that car to also be family-friendly, stylish and not be saddled with a vast asking price. Step forward Audi's A1 1.4 TFSI 150PS COD. Okay, so its name isn't the most elegant thing about this thing, but stick with it. This is a car with a trick or two up its sleeve.
We've seen this cylinder deactivation system on some of the bigger Audi models such as the S8, but it really comes into its own with this little A1. This engine was originally launched in this car with a 140PS version of Audi's 1.4-litre TFSI powerplant but that unit's now been teased out to 150PS. As before, it features a clever piece of engineering on the camshaft. Basically, the second and third cylinders of this four-pot unit are shifted to a cam profile which doesn't activate the valves under low and intermediate loads and when coasting. This can occur at any point between 1400-4000rpm. Give the throttle or brake a good prod and it reverts to firing on four. It's actually devilishly hard to detect when it's operating because you're normally just tickling along. The central display screen can give you the nod or, if you've got a good ear, you can hear a slight change in engine timbre. It's certainly quick enough, managing 62mph from rest in 7.8 seconds, the kind of time which used to be the preserve of a respectable hot hatch. Aside from the smart engine tech, the A1 1.4 TFSI COD feels remarkably conventional. The Volkswagen Polo-derived underpinnings work well enough, and weight distribution is remarkably evenly spread, front-to-rear. Combined with short overhangs and the latest generation Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) with electronic axle differential, this makes for safe and predictable handling. You can drive it really hard and revel in its faithful responses, knowing that it's on your side. Some sports hatches might offer a little more in feedback, but it would take a very well driven hot hatch to put distance between it and a well-driven A1 1.4 TFSI on a twisty road.
Design and Build
You can get this engine with both the three-door A1 and with the five-door Sportback variant we tried. Both bodystyles have been improved by a range of recent updates. You might well spot the flatter and wider singleframe grille, the revised bumpers, the different standard alloy wheel designs and the updated colour palette. Otherwise, it's still a familiar shape with the arcing roofline that looks so good in contrast colours. The cabin adheres to typical contemporary Audi design language. If you've driven an A3 or an A4, you'll feel very much at home here, as indeed Audi has intended in order to attract customers looking to downsize. Unlike some rivals, the interior is quiet and maturely finished with no speedometers the size of dinner plates or garish graphics. Audi contend that if you're downsizing from a bigger car, you expect big car sophistication and the A1 serves that up in spades. Everything is soft touch, silicon damped and consistent in feel and design. There's now additional chrome and high gloss black detailing, new upholstery choices including an Alcantara and leather blend and new upholstery colours, such as Rotor grey for S line models like this one which until now have had an exclusively black finish. The A1 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. It's a little bigger than most citycars but is aced for space by a lot of superminis.
Market and Model
Don't expect the A1 to be inexpensive in 1.4 TFSI 150PS COD guise. That's partly because of the sophisticated technology - and partly because it's only available in plush S line trim. You'll pay around £19,500 for the three-door version - and just over £20,000 for the five-door Sportback version. There's the £1,500 option of Stronic dual clutch auto transmission if you want it. Standard equipment includes 'Audi drive select', as well as the Audi Music Interface and preparation for SD card-based navigation. Plus sports seats, Bluetooth mobile phone preparation and a Driver's Information System. S line trim also adds xenon headlamps with LED daytime running lights and LED rear lights, further enhancing an additional specification which already included 17-inch alloy wheels, exclusive S line exterior styling and interior detailing, S line sports suspension and leather and cloth combination upholstery. There are also Tech and Comfort packs available if you're not already spent out. One extra feature that's certainly worth a look is the Bluetooth online car phone. It brings 'Audi connect' online services to the A1 Sportback. These include navigation with images from Google Earth, news, weather and travel information, plus web radio and a voice-controlled points of interest search. At a later date, it will also incorporate Google Street View images. A WLAN hotspot connects mobile devices on board to the Internet but do check the terms and conditions of your service provider's data coverage, especially if you're abroad.
Cost of Ownership
Yes, it can be an out of body experience writing a cheque for nearly £20,000 for the smallest model Audi makes, but play the long game and you'll end up with a very enjoyable car that isn't going to cost a fortune to own. Much of that comes via residual values that are already the very best in the supermini class. Couple that with reasonable insurance premiums and excellent economy and emissions figures and you have a car that's expensive enough to combat oversupply, yet cheap enough that it makes realistic sense for young families with plenty of other competing spending priorities. Fuel economy is impressive. According to Audi's figures, the COD system can save up to 0.4 litres per 100km, so by my maths, this A1 will return 58.9mpg, which compares favourably to the 55.4mpg figure of the 120bhp 1.4 TFSI without CoD technology. It's a similar story with emissions, where the COD-equipped car manages 112g/km and the standard 1.4 TFSI 119g/km. More power with lower emissions and better economy? That's about the size of it.
The Audi A1 is a neat and appealing package. Team it with the quite brilliant 1.4 TFSI COD petrol powerplant and it merits a five-star verdict. This is technology as it should be used, to bring real and appreciable benefits to drivers while demanding very little in return. With this car, you get 150PS when you need it and a car that reverts to two cylinders when you're merely noodling along. It's an engineering solution that's good enough for the likes of Bentley, who use an Audi-derived V8 engine in the latest Continental GT which features exactly this cylinder deactivation system. Downsizing isn't always an easy thing to do. Fortunately, this hi-tech A1 offers a viable solution. It's practical, stylish and safe. With this 1.4 TFSI COD engine, it's also both quick and economical. Audi couldn't have done much more.