What’s the baby hot hatch like to drive and own?
No one would have shoehorned a 228bhp engine and four-wheel drive into a tiny hot hatch 20 years ago, but now such an approach barely earns a second glance. The Audi S1 version of the diminutive A1 is a more exclusive, if rather more expensive, alternative to the likes of the Ford Fiesta ST or Mini Cooper S, and it will hold on to its value well on the used market, too. The three or five-door (Sportback) comes with a manual gearbox only; does its drive justify its cost?
Four-wheel drive and wide, gummy tyres give the S1 superb traction, which combined with the strong pull of the 2.0-litre turbo allow for slingshot-like, sub-six-second acceleration from a standstill. That beats the likes of the larger VW Golf GTI or Ford Focus ST, and is nearly on a par with the S1’s big brother, the S3. The precise gearshift has a fairly long throw for a hot hatch.
Such performance doesn’t come quietly, though; the engine’s menacing growl is enticing but the booming quad exhausts can become wearing on the motorway – as can the tyre roar.
Corners can be attacked with relish, yet thanks to eager turn-in and a clever inside-wheel braking set-up you’ll rarely come unstuck. Comparatively slow and lifeless steering means less involvement than in the Fiesta ST or GTI, though. The adaptive dampers give a firm ride across all settings, particularly on optional 18-inch wheels. Imperfections are better dealt with than in the ST, but less so than in the GTI.
All Audis have high-quality cabins, and the S1 is no different. Its superb fit and finish, S1 logo’ed dials plus part-leather seats and other classy materials give a very upmarket feel. A multi-adjustable steering wheel and high-set driving position give excellent comfort, even if the standard seats offer less side support in corners than the ST’s and the optional super sports seats are very costly. The MMI infotainment with Bluetooth and DAB radio is easy to use and the dash layout is also simple. Sat-nav is a cost option.
Front space in this four-seater is great; rear space less so. In the three-door S1, the near-vertical rear seatbacks are particularly uncomfortable, but the five-door Sportback at least allows two adults a bit more comfort even if headroom is still limited.
The seats can be folded to boost boot space, but load practicality is hampered by the intrusion of the four-wheel-drive system. There are lots of more practical hot hatches in this price bracket.
So, is the Audi S1 overpriced or a performance bargain? It costs a lot next to similarly sized rivals such as the Ford Fiesta ST and Mini Cooper S, but is cheaper and faster than a VW Golf GTI, so it makes sense if space isn’t a priority. Its relative exclusivity means it’ll keep its value better than most of these, and while insurance isn’t cheap, it’s not outrageous. You’d have to drive gently to come anywhere close to the official 40mpg economy, however.
Climate control, xenon headlights, LED rear lights and auto lights and wipers are all standard, while full leather trim, heated front seats and cruise control are reasonably priced options. The extra-cost 14-speaker Bose sound system is great but takes up even more load area.