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Premium supermini - First drive: Audi A1

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In a growing market sector, Audi has launched the A1 to go up against the MINI, Alfa MiTo and Citroen DS3.

(Editors note: even though the A1 is not for sale in the U.S. we thought our readers might like to see what is available on the other side of the pond.)

Arriving nearly 10 years after BMW launched the first generation MINI, finally Audi has brought out a rival. This is the A1 – a small car with some big aspirations, it goes up against Citroen’s DS3 and Alfa Romeo’s MiTo in the growing premium supermini sector.

With some 18,000 models expected to be sold every year, Audi is pulling out all the stops. There’s a wide range of turbocharged engines, a long list of options for personalization and a focus on quality unseen in the class before. The icing on the cake is a price range that starts from £13,140.

So, what’s the A1 like to drive, and is it good enough to knock the MINI off the top spot? Well, the A1 is brimming with showroom appeal. Its chunky shape is attractive, classy and every inch the small Audi, with its bold front end, coupé-style sloping tailgate and optional contrasting roof rails.

Whether you go for SE, Sport or S line trim, you’ll get alloy wheels, stop-start, air-con and a six-speaker CD stereo with iPod connectivity – so there’s no lack of equipment, either. Of the three trims, S line (which we’ve driven here) is the most visually aggressive, with 17-inch alloys and a sharp bodykit.

But next year the A1 will be available with a £1,950 Competition Line pack, which adds even racier looks and stickers to make the car resemble the firm’s classic Quattro rally car.

Inside, the cabin offers quality none of its rivals can match. The dash is covered in a neat soft-touch moulding, all the switches feel slick, and the latest pop-up MMI cabin control system from the flagship A8 is available, too.

As with the exterior, there’s scope for personalization, with contrasting trim inserts and a range of packs that include kit such as 3D sat-nav, Bluetooth and a 20GB music hard drive.

For a car that measures 3.95m long, there’s loads of space as well. Tall adults have lots of room in the front, smaller adults will just about be comfortable in the back, while the boot is very impressive – it all makes the MINI seem cramped.

On the move, the A1 continues to impress. We tried what’s set to be the best-seller – the 104bhp 1.6-litre TDI diesel and the 120bhp 1.4 TFSI petrol. Other petrol options include a 1.2-litre TFSI.

Thanks to 250Nm of torque from just 1,500rpm and a slick five-speed gearbox, the diesel is responsive around town and has plenty enough urge for easy overtaking. The 1.4 TFSI is just as punchy, though, and much more refined, even if its 52.3mpg and 122g/km CO2 emissions can’t quite match the oil burner’s incredible 70.6mpg 105g/km.

Running costs for all models are further enhanced by a MINI-style, five-year, 50,000-mile service plan, which costs just £250. In fact the only thing that’s missing is the driver appeal that a MINI offers in spades. For instance, the steering is well weighted but feels a bit numb, and while the VW Polo-derived chassis is composed, it loses out on involvement.

Sport models offer a firm but comfortable big-car ride and impressive grip, yet S line versions are too stiff. Put simply, the A1 just doesn’t sparkle like a MINI. However, for many prospective buyers, the Audi will be no less desirable as a result. It’s a grown-up small car that offers a quality experience that’s never been seen in this class before.


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