It is perhaps with all the speed of a mighty iceberg, but increasingly, more and more North American buyers appear willing to think smaller when pondering their next auto purchase. The other shoe, which still has largely yet to drop, is for automakers to convince consumers of the merits of a luxury subcompact, paying a price premium for a longer list of creature comforts, options and badge appeal. However small, this trend in the States is best represented by BMW and its Mini range, followed (with a few stumbles out of the gate) by the Fiat 500.
In Europe, however, there is already a well-defined tradition of premium minicars on which buyers happily lavish extra dollars, and there is no model quite so indulgent for the masses as the Audi A1. Through its first complete year of sales in 2011, the Bavarians built at their factory in Brussels, Belgium – and sold – nearly 120,000 A1 three-doors.
Now we've finally gotten the chance to drive an Audi A1 Sportback with five doors, a model first shown publicly at last October's Tokyo Motor Show. The five-door model carries on with the basic A1 recipe of offering big things in small packages, and rather unusually, we think the model with more doors might actually look better this time. That may not seem altogether based on reason at first glance, since both the three- and five-door A1 designs have a length of 155.7 inches and a wheelbase of 97.2 inches. (Only the Fiat 500, Jeep Wrangler, Scion iQ, Smart ForTwo and various two-door Mini models take up less parking space.)
The A1 Sportback does have a few key alterations that please our eye more than the somewhat busy details of the original three-door design. First, the front door length has been lessened by one inch in order to ensure the newly sprouted rear doors are actually useful. Then, by increasing both overall height and width by two-tenths of an inch and extending the roof rearward a bit (imparting a steeper angle on the rear window in profile), the design takes on a maturity and completeness that we've been waiting for, not to mention improving visibility in all directions.
Our tester had the setup for four passengers – you can get the three-across rear seat at no cost – and the room for all four sitters is definitely adequate, even if not abundant. The A1 Sportback brings levels of comfort and interior quality to a tick better than what is customary even in bigger cars like Volkswagen Golf or Volvo C30, so its smaller atmosphere is made all the more tolerable. Versus the Polo (with which the A1 shares the PQ25 configuration of VW Group's MQB architecture), things have been improved upon quite nicely. Besides, VW Group has chosen the A1 Sportback to launch its first four-cylinder engine with the company's new Cylinder On Demand technology.
When your author tested the A1 three-door in 2010, it was powered by the then top powerplant, a turbocharged and direct-injected 1.4-liter TFSI with 121 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. These days, this engine goes as far as 182 hp and 184 lb-ft in fullest twin-charger tune (as seen in the Polo GTI). But there is also now the more important 138-hp 1.4 TFSI (still at 184 lb-ft, though) with Cylinder On Demand technology that results in about ten percent greater efficiency versus the same engine without COD or standard start/stop function. Projected average miles per U.S. gallon for this engine calibration with these technologies is 50.5 mpg.
Temporarily deactivating the stability control and slotting the optional seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission alternatively into its Sport and Manual detents on a sunny Spanish day, we indulged in the forced oversteer shenanigans of this sprightly front-wheel-drive and found it to be good entertainment. The 182 hp of the top engine would have been nice to have, but our engine's 138 horses worked up good steam and we didn't notice that much of a power deficit because the torque loses nothing between 1,500 and 4,000 rpm. At 2,844 pounds with driver aboard, this trim A1 Sportback remained solid all day over the many hills and through the region's copious curves.
This engine with COD and start/stop represents the VW Group's first such execution within the new EA211 family of more efficient and powerful three- and four-cylinder engines. Our first encounter with VWAG's cylinder-deactivation technology was with the recently launched big Audi S cars, the S6, S7, and S8. In the context of these larger sedans, the technology was much more complex simply because there was more cylinders and more power and torque to wrangle. In the EA211 four-cylinder, at lower cruising revs or throttle inputs, the middle two cylinders stop their combustion processes via grooves machined into the camshafts that keep the valves from initiating their lift sequences that would otherwise cue the injectors and spark plugs to fire away. This bit of engine trickery was very well disguised, though there were times where the transition between two-cylinder and four-cylinder modes wasn't quite as seamless as on bigger and beefier V8s. In Sport or Manual mode, the two-cylinder mode is locked out, so any real benefits of the COD technology is realized only by leaving everything in Drive.
Throughout our curvy day of driving, the A1's electronic stability program worked well with the electronic brake differential software (XDS) to keep hotter entries into bends as free from understeer as possible. The electronic limited-slip technology let the rear end swing around just so in a good, neutral balancing act that practically made us forget we were piloting a front-drive chassis. It's precisely this sense of infinite balance that we enjoy so much on the A1 Sportback S-line.
As we've said a few times previously, this evolution of S-tronic seven-speed dual-clutch is VW Group's best two-pedal setup ever. Upshifts and downshifts are timed just right whether at slower speeds while switching between two and four cylinders in town, or while piling into corners near the edge of the A1's dynamic envelope with the tachometer in its upper reaches. The automated S program on the console lever is very sweet in its sense of timing, but the manual paddle shifts in sequential mode prove even better.
This Samoa Orange car – a color specific to the A1 Sportback – arrived bedecked with the mostly cosmetic S-Line trim for the A1. Cosmetic, since the suspension height and steering weight remain the same, though there is at least added firmness in the ride. Standard A1 S-Line wheels are 16-inchers, though buyers can opt for 17- or 18-inch wheels. The setup here – optional 17x7.5-inch alloys with Goodyear Efficient Grip 215/40 R17 (87W) tires – were steady soldiers all day long, even when the driving got pretty hot and heavy. The larger 18x7.5-inch optional wheels and tires were, indeed, too aggressive for this application and actually looked too big just eyeing them.
Given the A1's titchy footprint, we had our concerns about how easy it might be to get in and out of the rear doors. The short answer is that it's all good enough – just as when we drove the five-door VW Polo. You can watch us perform the feat in the Short Cut video above. Granted, you cannot put four or five full-sized people in the cabin all day and hope to come away fresh as a daisy, but a couple of amicable extra larges and one or two medium sizers or kids will do just fine even for longer trips. And cargo space can flex between a paltry 9.5 cubic feet to a quite useful 32.5 cu ft.
The A1 Sportback goes on sale in Europe with five engine choices next month, while the 1.4 TFSI with COD arrives later in the year along with a 141-hp/236 lb-ft 2.0-liter TDI version. If it were to go on sale in the U.S., the A1 Sportback 1.4 TFSI with COD would likely cost somewhere around $21,500 for starters, or $22,300 with the S-line trimmings. And then you'd start adding more goodies to make it all yours, just like those spend-happy Europeans.