Apart from the limited edition A1 quattro, S1 Sportback and S1 are the only A1 derivatives with AWD

Apart from the limited edition A1 quattro, S1 Sportback and S1 are the only A1 derivatives with AWD

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Given how long Audi has been having success with marketing quattro as a sub-brand, it's surprising how long it took to release a series production small car with all-wheel drive. Was the S1 worth the wait? 

Strictly speaking, this isn't the first A1 variant to offer quattro drive. A limited edition of 333 cars was built in 2012, all with left-hand drive. Like the S1, the A1 quattro had a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine. However, its output was 18kW higher than the 170kW (231PS) produced by both the S1 and its five-door Sportback derivative.

These two cars were first seen at the Geneva show in March, which was four years after the debut of the original three-door A1 range. The A1 Sportback was launched six months after the A3, at the 2011 Tokyo motor show. All are manufactured in the Brussels suburb of Forest at a plant which was once a Volkswagen factory but now makes only Audis. Europe is the main sales area for the littlest Audi. Mexico is the only market in North America, with the S1 having just been added for the 2015 model year.

The high-end, high performance versions of the A1 are priced accordingly. The S1, as tested, started off at GBP24,080 but a large selection of options took the list price up to GBP30,945. Things such as Nappa leather sports seats, 18” spoke-star alloy wheels, electrically retracting mirrors, an SD card-based satnav system, red brake callipers, a Bose surround sound system and parking system plus were the main extras.

There’s no doubt that the S1 looks the part, and from every angle. At the front, there’s that deep grille with an ‘S1’ badge on the driver’s side, the big alloys, aluminium silver mirror casings, an aero body kit that includes a roof spoiler, and four chrome-tipped exhausts.

Jump in and the sporty look continues, with a thick-rimmed and flat-bottomed steering wheel that has the S1 logo on it, silver door sill finishers with the same two characters, a tachometer that’s redlined at 6,400rpm (seems a bit low for a sports car), fantastically grippy seats, and a large START-STOP button. Everything you touch seems solid but with a soft-feel surface.

The doors are heavy and in their trims there are white-light speaker surrounds which add a touch of the theatrical. Firing up the turbo 2.0-litre you’re initially disappointed as it doesn’t sound menacing but that soon goes away as after a decent interval to allow warm-up, you can certainly make it sing once it hits 4,500rpm and above. The six-speed manual shift is superb and if you’re suspecting there will be some torque steer from that 370Nm, you’d be wrong: the all-wheel drive system has more or less eliminated it. 

Audi’s official performance figures are a top speed limited to 155mph, zero to 62mph in 5.8 seconds, a Combined MPG average of 40.3 (I saw mid-30s) and CO2 of 162g/km (166 for the Sportback). Consumption is that low due to tall gearing for sixth, the stop-start system and weight of just 1,315kg, though all those options would have put the car I tried somewhere between 1,350 and 1,400kg.

The quattro system has a hydraulic multi-plate clutch located on the rear axle and operated by control software which Audi says has been specifically tuned. An electronic differential also features and operates as part of the ESC. The has two-stage deactivation and will brake an inside wheel to increase stability when needs be.

Drive to the rear axle is one of the reasons why the boot floor is somewhat higher than you find in other A1s, though components for the Bose system were also housed below a lift-up panel on the test car. The rear suspension is bespoke and this multi-link system is fully independent. On other A1s, there is instead a semi-independent set-up with a torsion beam.

At the front, there are modified pivot bearings for sharper cornering response and damper settings are also adjustable via the Audi drive select adaptive dynamics system. This lets you vary the response of the throttle and the operating parameters of the electronic climate control. There are multiple settings, including one designed to optimise efficiency.

Try as you might, it’s extremely difficult to make the S1 lose traction. No matter how hard you push, it just grips. The suspension can be too firm on poor surfaces, and you need to take speed humps very slowly but I wouldn’t call it an uncomfortable car, and neither did my passengers. For such a small model there’s even quite a good amount of rear legroom, which I hadn’t expected due to the front sports seats.

There aren’t that many small performance hatchbacks on the market with AWD and this is one of the better ones. The Mercedes-AMG A 45 packs a lot more power (265kW/360hp) but it’s very expensive, prices starting at over GBP37,000. BMW’s M135i is also much dearer than the Audi. It lists at a few hundred pounds under GBP32,000, and is RWD-only. The AMG has five doors as standard, whereas Audi and BMW give you the choice of two body styles. Will there be an RS 1 to match the power of the A 45? It’s an obvious niche but it might be too close in pricing and performance to the RS 3.

The addition of the S1 and S1 Sportback is giving the A1 line a handy boost as it approaches mid-cycle. All these cars should gain a facelift in 2015, with production likely to continue until 2017 or possibly 2018. The AU370 successor models will use MQB Zero, the same architecture as the next VW Polo.

By not matching the pricing and power of its two most direct rivals, Audi has managed to create yet another niche in the market with the S1 and Sportback. Obviously, sales will be in the hundreds in the UK but still, these cars will play their part in maintaining the sporty-premium image that is one of the reasons why Audi is the market’s number one luxury brand. Year to date, it has sold 139,380 vehicles, a year-on-year gain of 12 percent, with October’s total up 20 percent. It’s 15,000 units ahead of BMW and 32,000 ahead of Mercedes-Benz, SMMT figures show. Models such as the S1 and Sportback might be niche products but they clearly work in helping to sell more mainstream vehicles.