Audi S1: a refined city car packed with power and precision
The little A1 was a big success when it was launched back in 2010. Having made its name as a saloon car supplier, the A1 took Audi back to its roots - specifically the Audi 50 of 1974, subsequently rebranded as the VW Polo, and the futuristic A2 from the turn of the century.
The A1 was an exercise in compressing the German brand’s rigorous values into a smaller package, skimping only on scale and not quality or design. By and large it worked, extending the marque’s octopus-like reach into every conceivable sector of the marketplace. Rather than being an ‘entry-level’ Audi, the A1 is pitched as a smart city car for those who don’t want to downsize their everyday environment.
There are two main ways of taking your small car into the premium marketplace: build in craft and technology or make it very, very fast. The original A1 had the former qualities but now Audi has turned to the latter. The main selling point of the S1, the new flagship of the range, is, naturally, power. There's oodles of it, channelled to all four wheels by the company’s justly celebrated ‘quattro’ system. The 2.0-litre turbo engine delivers 228bhp and a hefty chunk of torque is accessed through a manual six-speed gearbox.
Far be it for us to trot out that perennial cliché of the ‘pocket rocket’, but the S1 is proof positive that the horsepower wars of modern car manufacturing know no bounds. Aficionados nostalgically recall the heyday of compact sports cars back in the 1980s - the so-called 'hot hatchbacks' - but the relentless march of technology makes these precursors look truly archaic and unrefined.
The S1 is tall and narrow, and the driver’s stance and view feel rather counterintuitive at first. But the view ahead and compact dimensions make the car shrink around you. The horizon seems to shrink as well, with ample acceleration available right through the gears. Audi’s skill at a taut-handling lightweight sports car with a premium interior is what sets the S1 apart. The detail design never slips into vulgarity - the chrome isn’t too over the top and the switches click with tactile precision - and the whole package screams taste and refinement. The S1 is also happy to dial down the thrills when required, with an eco mode to eke the most economy out of the powertrain.
No true city car needs to top out at 155mph, nor does it need to corner on rails. But whereas the standard A1 is a suitable second machine for those times you want to downsize, the S1’s abilities make it the perfect only car for the peripatetic enthusiast unwilling to sacrifice style, speed or scale.