Confident, but lacks real quirk
Audi's premium baby attempt, the A1, should make a solid and dependable impact in its sector, though it is not without fault, writes Campbell Spray
If it hadn't been for the bad weather, I might have dismissed the Audi A1 as an also-ran in the competition, so long dominated by the Mini, to have a premium baby car.
Audi has really set the pace recently in the executive and sporting market, with brilliant cars that have pure driveability as well as a reputation for excellent build quality.
Sport models ranging from the TT Coupe to the massive R8 are among the most desirable on the planet and corporate car parks are full of people with the A6, because of a perceived idea that they have the edge in power and prestige over their rivals from Bavarian Motor Works. The company has produced the odd turkey as well. The big Q7 SUV is grossness personified, even if the company is planting forests by the mile to offset its lack of greenness. The small A3 models have never really impressed me, either. They don't have the looks or capacity of their bigger sisters.
However there is a very definite Audi lifestyle being pushed, which aims to get customers young and keep them as they rise up the ladder of success and also then catch on their return as individuals and families downsize.
The A1 aims to be the first rung for many and goes after the young, funky market that the Mini in its latest incarnation has made its own. And premium rivals like the Citroen DS3 also aim to get a share of the spoils, with attractive options allowing people to really personalise their vehicle.
The Mini has been at the summit for so long that its rivals have had a lot of time to make their response. It will always be difficult to replicate the pure exhilarating go-kart drive of the Mini, but its rivals can make their own niche.
That's why I was initially quite excited to be driving the A1. However, first impressions weren't great, despite the car being bright red with a contrasting roof. It didn't scream fun, mould-breaker or excitement of any kind.
There isn't really either sport or funkiness about its rather staid looks. But this may have been the result of a superb 08 R8 coming into the dealer forecourt just as I was to take off. It was like Arkle nodding to his cousin, the pit pony. Yet the AI cannot be faulted for its build quality although the rather half-hearted attempt at some retro attitude with a layer of rocker switches seemed more pastiche than real.
However there is more room for passengers in the three-door hatch than in the Mini and the boot is much bigger and more adaptable.
The whole effect is rather like being in shrunken saloon. This feeling was exacerbated by small mirrors, bad visibility front and rear and an imprecise gear change. But maybe that's what Audi is after. Making the bigger saloons immediately aspirational for A1 owners rather than making the car a brand in its own right.
So by the time I had driven the A1 to work and then home, I had settled down to a belief that it was worthy but boring. I had little temptation to drive it. But, as always, necessity came hurtling along in the form of the snow. A daughter had to be picked up and then dropped to school the next day, supplies had to be delivered, people met and work got to.
From the very first, the A1 gave me a brilliant confidence. It had just the right control to cope with the snow and ice. It went where many would be afraid to venture. And the very solid feel of the car gave you a security that increased your own self-belief. Over three days, it was an able work-horse whose only fault was its air-conditioning and ventilation system, which never managed to keep the car demisted for a whole journey without manual interference.
There was a feeling of total competence on the road, which put a lot of my earlier niggles in the shade. I still have doubts about whether the car can take on the Mini and win converts to the Audi brand.
The price may start at around €19,000 but for the decent 1.6 diesel and a package of extras to take the spec up to a proper premium level you will be paying the guts of €25,000 at least. The A1 is more practical than the Mini, but nowhere near as much fun. It is better built but not nearly as quirky.
Because I have never really grown up and I have great memories of my youth, I probably would still prefer the Mini, but after seeing the massively confident way the A1 behaved last week, it reflected well on Audi, and I think it will grow into making a solid and dependable impact in its sector.