x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

2011 Audi A1

The Audi A1 is a competent small car, but James Oxford feels it could use a little more confidence.

The quality control is up to Audi's usual excellent standard even if the 1.4L variant earmarked for the Middle East isn't the most thriling ride.
The quality control is up to Audi's usual excellent standard even if the 1.4L variant earmarked for the Middle East isn't the most thriling ride.

It takes a peculiar type of sadism to force an Englishman to travel to Germany on the very night that his team were trounced in the Fifa World Cup. It was almost as if Audi had known all along that the two old enemies would meet on that very day with Germany getting the better. Doing so would be edgy, a little like Berlin - the location chosen to test the new A1 - a city divided, annexed, half-starved and then returned to the status of national capital. Unfortunately, the word edgy wouldn't extend to describe this new car, even if Berlin's tangle of streets suited it right down to the ground.

"Young, urban and lifestyle-orientated" (whatever the latter means) was how Audi described the market for a car that would "condense all the virtues of the brand into less than four metres". The Ingolstadt car maker even went so far as to claim to be "the first premium car in the subcompact segment", although the rival Mini might have a few words to say about that claim. Based on the size of the Volkswagen Polo, the A1 is certainly playful in design, especially with the available sweep of contrasting colour from the A to the C pillar, its centrepiece design cue. Like Mini, it is even available with separately coloured wing mirrors and bodywork stickers for added individuality.

Inside, the materials are first rate and more suited to cars with more length and prestige. Typical Audi values of ergonomic excellence, simplicity in design and quality craftsmanship slap you in the face as you take your seat for the first time in the A1 - they really are so fine and obvious, probably given one's lowered expectations for cars of this size. The plastics are soft and sheen-free, the seat fabrics, in either premium cloth or leather, are striking and playful in their designs. The real focal point in the cabin is the sweep of air vents within their painted-metal bezels that take a swipe at Mini's interior theme.

This car feels slightly bigger than a Mini in front and more convenient behind with the front seats placed higher to allow for more foot room. However, taller rear-seat passengers - and that's anyone over five-foot-10 - will find their head rests on the padded roof as opposed to the dedicated headrest. This would be perfectly fine if Audi hadn't introduced a bump exactly in this spot. The exterior designers really have come up with a decent representation of how to squeeze full-size Audiness into a subcompact area. While there is none of the ungainliness of the A2, neither is there the innovation of an aluminium chassis frame. Its proportions are spot-on excellent from every angle and sing out the Audi name, albeit in the smallest possible way.

What is really novel is how the designers managed to integrate a playfully sloped hatchback, more than passingly reminiscent of that on the Fiat 500, while maintaining the corporate Audi look. And in a time when the Chris Bangle hallmarks are being erased from the BMW range, Audi is the next manufacturer to receive the highly defined crimping treatment so previously beloved of its southern German neighbour.

Actually, even though it is little more than a seam, this crisp lateral treatment, which passes from the grille all the way around the car - tail included - is extremely important as it helps establish a look of planted poise on a car that could very easily have missed the mark. Unfortunately for the A1, its driving behaviour isn't nearly as planted as its looks would suggest, and the go-kart characteristics of its main competitor really do get the nod here. The Audi shares its engines with the Volkswagen Polo, the 1.2L and 1.4L TFSIs producing 86hp and 122hp respectively. Sadly, these units lack the punch you would expect from a car entering this segment and neither inspire the driver with their performance or handling. Only the 1.4L will be available here in the Middle East.

And with a seven-speed automatic gearbox and 6,000 rpm redline, it's hard to get a great deal of high-revving excitement, especially when almost all of its juice trickles out at around the 5,000 rpm mark. It is comfortable rather than exciting. That the A1 is a meld of the bigger Audis rings true: here is a car that behaves with impeccable refinement at pace, with quiet purpose and no little comfort, and in the city it is agile and nimble, squirting out just the right amount of momentum for lane changing and green-light take-offs. But all the good work is let down by imprecise steering more befitting of a budget saloon than a premium hot hatch.

With its looks and its stated intent, Audi would have loved this car to be edgy in the extreme, but they missed out by giving it good manners, a little bit like the German people after their round-of-16 defeat of England. While everyone was happy to make a comment, they did so politely and without the crowing one would expect from a major sporting win. Likewise, it seems that the A1 embraces this spirit when what it really needs is a great big helping of vocal self-confidence.

The Audi A1 will be available here later this year. No prices have yet been set. motoring@thenational.ae