First Drive

2019 Audi A1 Sportback First Drive Review | Revenge of the nerd

We won't get the A1, but we found it's a better Mini

2019 Audi A1 Sportback
2019 Audi A1 Sportback / Image Credit: Audi
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  • Trim
    30 TFSI
  • Engine
    1.0L Turbocharged I-3
  • Power
    116 HP / 147 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    6-Speed Manual
  • 0-60 Time
    9.4 Seconds
  • Top Speed
    126 MPH
  • Drivetrain
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    2,436 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    11.8 Cu. Ft.
  • Base Price
    $22,669 (Apx.)
Audi's proud history of minicars is not particularly well-known, and perhaps that's because the company's first two attempts haven't done so well in the marketplace. The ultra-light, fun-to-drive Audi 50 of 1974 was so good that the VW mothership grabbed its concept, called it the Polo, and killed off the Audi a few years later. The 1999 Audi A2, with its aerodynamic full-aluminum body, was another marvel of light-weight technology, but it was overpriced and underpowered. But the Audi A1, launched in 2010, can be considered an all-round success.

With a choice of gasoline and diesel engines and a 231-horsepower, all-wheel drive top version called S1, it put BMW's Mini to shame in almost every respect. Quiet, powerful and incredibly nimble, it was the quintessential luxury minicar. But it wasn't offered here: North American customers like their small cars cheap, luxury still corresponds with size. We were truly missing out.

Now Audi has launched the second generation of the A1, and the new models begs the question: Are we still missing out on a great car?

At first glance, maybe a little less than before: For the new model generation, Audi has ruthlessly cut back on variants for the next A1. Gone is the three-door version, there is no more diesel, all-wheel drive has disappeared - and there will be no S1. The top-of-the-line stereo system, which gains Bang & Olufsen branding, has less speakers than the previous top-level system - and Audi didn't even bother to develop a sunroof, not to mention a panoramic roof like on its predecessor. That's decontenting that is hard to swallow.

2011 Audi A1 2019 Audi A1 Sportback

That said, the new A1 stands on a superior architecture. It shares its underpinnings with other MQB models like the new VW Polo, which brings with it a number of advantages. It is lighter, and offers the chance to include cutting-edge infotainment and assistance systems. This, indeed, is where the A1 now shines. Nerds will rejoice: The A1 can be fitted with a plethora of ultrasonic-, radar- and camera-based assistance systems, including an adaptive cruise control with a stop-and-go function. A digital instrument cluster is standard, and while there is an entry-level stereo system that is exclusively operated from the steering wheel, any of the several up-level systems includes a large central touch screen that allows the driver to control multiple vehicle settings, apps and phone connections. The glass screen lends the A1 the same futuristic aura that permeates the latest A6, A7 and A8 models.

As a nod to the presumably more youthful customer base in the A1, it can be specified with colorful decor around the driver-side air vents, the door handles and the gear shifter. Screens, buttons and vents are arranged in a horizontal way, with a fractal style. We like it. The same is true of the seats, which Audi offers in a multitude of styles ranging from plain cloth to stitched leather and grippy alcantara.

2019 Audi A1 Sportback

The seats are comfortable as well, keeping the driver and passengers firmly planted even under spirited driving. And that's a very good thing as you may find yourself frequently pushing the A1 to its remarkably high limits. This minicar feels stiff and solid, it turns in with precision and remains firmly planted on the road even on uneven and rough surfaces.

The A1 is fitted with a McPherson front axle and a multi-link rear axle with a stabilizer; wheel sizes range from 15 to 18 inches. A sports suspension is optional, as are electronically adjustable dampers. Instead of the Mini's faux go-kart responses, which end up coming across as darty to the point of obnoxiousness, the A1 feels more harmonious. This is a more mature sporty hatchback.

There is a range of engines, starting with two variations of a direct-injected 1.0-liter three-cylinder turbo, rated at 95 and 116 horsepower. Don't get us started on the model designations: Audi calls them "25 TFSI" and "30 TFSI." The entry-level three-banger takes 10.8 seconds for the 0-62 mph sprint, and it tops out at 119 mph. Move up to the 116-horsepower version, and the 0-62 time drops to 9.4 seconds, while top speed increases to 126 mph.

2019 Audi A1 Sportback

The rev-happy three-cylinder engines fail to capture this writer's heart: Their throbbing sound doesn't fit the premium character of the A1, and while the acceleration is acceptable it hardly pins you into the seat. The 1.5-liter turbo four, the 35 TFSI, is a significant step up. Rated at 150 horsepower and 184 lb-ft, it pulls strongly throughout the rev band and emits a pleasant, sonorous sound. The sprint from 0 to 62 mph takes a mere 7.7 seconds, and it tops out at a remarkable 138 mph. And there is a range-topping 2.0-liter four, obnoxiously called 40 TFSI. With 200 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, the tiny A1 charges to 62 mph in 6.5 seconds and tops out at 146 mph.

While that's impressive, we think the 1.5-liter engine is the happiest choice for two reasons. First, it comes with a cylinder deactivation system that operates at low loads and up to 3,200 rpm; it is virtually imperceptible yet it manages to cut fuel consumption up to 20 percent under suitable conditions. And even more importantly, it comes with a slick and precise six-speed manual transmission that fits this car's character perfectly. A "dry" seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional, while the 2.0-liter model is only available with a "wet" six-speed automatic. No manual is offered on that top model, and combined with the fact that it doesn't feel much quicker than the near-perfect 1.5-liter model, we think the step up is not worth it.

The Audi A1 is not just fun to drive, it is also quite practical. Even though it is a mere 158.6 inches long, 68.5 inches wide and 56.3 inches tall, there is ample room both up front and in the rear, provided the middle seat remains empty. The trunk holds 11.8 cu ft of cargo.

2019 Audi A1 Sportback

So the new shape is practical, but whether the A1 looks better than the predecessor is debatable. Those trademark arched roof pillars have disappeared; instead, we see more horizontal lines than we can remember, a rather conventional roof contour and so-called "Quattro blisters" on the flanks. These blisters, just like the three non-functional air intakes on the hood that are supposed to evoke the historic Sport Quattro, just don't seem very authentic in light of the fact that Quattro all-wheel drive has actually disappeared. It seems like this busy design might not age as gracefully as the previous model.

But we are sure of a few other things: The Audi A1 is by far the best choice in this segment if you are not into the cutesy retro look of BMW's Mini. It begs for an S1 derivative with over 250 horsepower and a manual transmission. And it would be a great car in the U.S. if Audi came around to offering it here – a serious alternative to a Mini that by comparison has lost its way. Prices in Europe start below 20,000 euros, including a 19 per cent sales tax.

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