Wednesday 28 June 2017

missing the magic

You know what they say about great expectations. They are rarely met. I suffered that with this week's car, the Audi A1 'baby' premium hatch.

I'd go even further and say I'm underwhelmed really.

Audi make really good cars. Some, such as the R8 supercar, are mind-blowing. I love it. Some, such as the A3 and A4, are understated in their ability, engineering, longevity and ability to maintain trade-in values. And some, such as the A8 luxury supreme, are just a dream.

So maybe I shouldn't be that surprised or disappointed with their new baby, the A1, which competes with sparklers such as the MINI and Citroen DS3.

Even allowing for that, I thought too many elements bordered on the tepid, despite all the technology and quality-build know-how.

Conversely, that could end up making it a roaring success -- because that's the way things often work with Audi. They start with understated, build a name and then inexorably it becomes a benchmark.

Still, I now consider it to be a major opportunity missed. This could have been a real revolution, a real styling rival for the iconic MINI, which needs a good challenger to make it wobble on its perch. Instead we have a shadow of what might have been -- certainly of what I expected. I am so sad to have to say that, because I was really looking forward to this breaking a few moulds.

There are quite a few things that did not appeal to me. Most comprehensively, the look is downbeat, lacking impact and the sort of pert, energetic appeal you'd expect. Cars like this need just a little brush of magic here and there to make them stand apart. The silver crescent strip of roof that contrasted with the black body colour of the motor I had on test markedly cheapened the look and the effort. I thought it was awful.

Maybe it looks better in red or some bright colour that might highlight the rear 'lip'. No, wait a minute, it does look better in red or white. But in black it looked uninspired.

Inside was a different affair, I'm glad to say. Now here's a lovely cabin. Materials feel like a premium hatch should. Everything was really easy to find and use.

The dash is a lesson in getting audio, ventilation etc controls where you expect them. This is how a premium hatchback should be laid out, designed and made to feel.

My seat, firm rather than opulently comfortable, suited me grand for quite a bit of sprinting around the place. And sprint it can. And I gave it every opportunity, I can tell you.

The 1.4-litre petrol engine has lovely balance -- between pep and high-gear pulling power. Sure I was spoiled really, the seven-speed S-Tronic transmission making driving so easy. The two rear seats afford more room than might initially be surmised. There will be more when they make the 5dr version -- next year or the year after.

This is a small motor and in fairness the two back seats will take two medium sized adults (so long as the front two push up a bit). It has more useable room there than the MINI.

Handling and ride were fine on the quality motorway tarmac but on the backroads -- and I traversed quite a few -- things weren't quite so definite. This has really good tuck-in-on-corners ability -- easily a rival for the MINI. I loved really going for it: excellent grip, plenty of confidence coming back to you through the steering and the chassis. Over time that will become a sizeable attraction. Indeed it is an outstanding attribute. However, the tyres transmitted too much buzz on rough surfaces that had mere ripples of roughness, and I could feel that through the steering wheel as well.

The sport suspension didn't suit some of the roads I drove over and was a tad harsh, and was unforgiving where we met a pothole or two.

I prefer the slightly more rounded feel of the MINI in that area or the energy that comes through in the Citroen DS3, one of the real surprises of the year.

And now to my concern. This had a Stop Start system to reduce fuel consumption. Effectively this means when you come to a halt and press the brake to hold the car the engine switches off. Great. But I found myself having to re-brake many, many times in this situation as the engine re-started and the car nudged a little forward. I blame myself in large measure and the frequency of incidence lessened on acquaintance but I think there should be a greater margin between brake pressure and re-ignition, especially in tight traffic conditions.

In town, it was a delight to nip around in. The engine is excellent no question and is one of the few major players for the A1. There's a good level of standard equipment but the boot is, understandably I suppose, small.

Now comes the hard bit. I canvassed neighbours and friends and they were split down the middle on it. They all liked the interior and some thought it looked well. I think I brought greater expectations to it than they did.

But I will say this: with a starting price of around €19,000 there is no doubt this puts it up to the rest. Here's an Audi -- regardless of what design/visual/dynamic shortcomings I might have -- for the sort of money you buy a Focus or Corolla or Golf. Of course the three just mentioned have more passenger and boot room. But for some, and I don't know how many, the allure of owning a 'premium' hatchback (the A1's platform is based on the VW Polo) will undoubtedly win out.

And that is true given the marque's ability to stretch its virtues over the new and used cycle of its life. I have no doubt this will go down well.

I just think it is a real opportunity missed.

ecunningham@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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