Audi S1 offers 170kW and stunning performance, but it is not cheap.
Audi S1 offers 170kW and stunning performance, but it is not cheap.
Four exhausts look OTT but suggest you mess with this baby hatchback at your peril.
Four exhausts look OTT but suggest you mess with this baby hatchback at your peril.
Cockpit is beautifully finished but rear-seat space is cramped.
Cockpit is beautifully finished but rear-seat space is cramped.

ROAD TEST:

Audi S1 quattro 2.0T

Though it was almost five years ago, I can clearly remember Audi’s A1 international media launch. I can also remember German head honchos at the event promising a souped-up S1 version, which was to come the following year. Didn’t happen.

Well, it sort of did. Back in 2011 Audi released an A1 with a peppy little 136kW 1.4-litre super and turbocharged engine. This car, which is still on sale today, came with feisty-looking rims and body kit, blue instrument cluster needles, and a snappy dual-clutch gearbox which drove the front wheels only. And that bit right there was the problem. Front-wheel drive. Audi simply doesn’t make souped-up S-variants without quattro all-wheel-drive. Never has, probably never will.

That 136kW A1, which was supposed to be the called the S1, got a last minute name change so that the four rings could carry on the tradition of permanent all-wheel drive in its S and RS cars. And it’s a good thing, because it left the door open for this car - the real deal S1.

HEFTY DOSE OF TORQUE

It may have taken a few years but the white coats over in Ingolstadt finally managed to quattrify the A1 by shoehorning a rear differential and necessary propshaft into the tiny platform. And they didn’t stop there. The resultant S1 gets a huge (for its size) two-litre turbo engine - the same one (well, similar) that’s used in Golf GTI, Scirocco, S3 and plenty of other cars within the VW/Audi group.

In this application the motor’s tuned to 170kW and 370Nm, which compared to its higher performance peers means it’s running with a relatively stress-free amount of boost. You wouldn’t think it, though, with the way it delivers power at full throttle. In fact you won’t even need full throttle. Just a couple centimetres of pedal travel starts the turbo’s progressive churn and the car bounds forward with elastic leaps.

There’s a hefty dose of torque from low revs followed by a gradual buildup of power right up to a 7000rpm redline. This engine’s particularly smooth but it’s also particularly quiet. More so than you might expect from a cheeky little performance hatch, but its muffled nature does add to a mature and very Audi-like feel.

QUATTRO TRACTION

On paper the S1’s good for 5.8 second 0-100km/h sprints, but our test equipment recorded 6.6 seconds at Gauteng altitude. A frustrating second to third gear change just before the 100km/h mark didn’t help. Still, not at all slow and a best quarter-mile time of 14.6 seconds puts it into company with the Nissan 370Z and VW Scirocco R. The S1 is actually even quicker, slightly, than the Golf 7 GTI with a manual transmission. Clearly that quattro traction counts for something.

And while on the topic of manual transmissions, the S1 only comes with one. Audi says its S tronic automatic, or DSG in VW-speak, is just too big a unit to pair with this engine in the A1’s cramped engine bay. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that those white coats will make a plan in the near future and cram one in. The current six-speed manual does make for an involving drive and it’s a fantastically smooth operator. If your hand merely suggests a gear change, the lever almost follows through on its own.

In markets such as ours where snow is a non-issue, Audi’s quattro system is often accused of being heavy, overly complicated and unnecessary. And, if looked at as a slippery surface-beating system, it sort of is. But it does come with some nice side-effects, and in a short wheelbase, high power car like this, it also acts as a torque-steer eliminator.

OUTRAGEOUS HANDLING CAPABILITIES

Accelerate hard midway through a corner and the S1 tracks steady and true with no forces transmitted up through the steering wheel. Just point where you want to go and the car heads that way without fuss. Wonderful. The experience is much the same as in the bigger, but mechanically similar S3 (and Golf R). If you’ve driven either of those two cars you’ll know the feeling I’m describing.

The quattro running gear does have an adverse affect on boot space, though. An already small stowage compartment is further encroached upon by mechanical bits and bobs underneath and instead of a proper spare wheel you get a space-saving puncture-repair kit in the S1. Overall luggage capacity is also down to 210 litres (with seats up) from 270 in a normal A1. The cabin is also understandably tight, and rear-seat passengers are cramped with little head and legroom.

Its dimensions do give it outrageous handling capabilities though, and there are few other cars in this size bracket which can dart around with the S1’s level of agility. Front-wheel-drive competitors such as Polo GTI and the aforementioned 136kW A1 can zip in and out of traffic with much the same aptitude, but the confidence that quattro instills would leave those two in the dust on high speed corner exits. It’s also far more comfortable, partly because of its extra weight (quattro adds around 200kg), partly because of its unique multi-link rear-suspension setup, and partly because of its standard Drive Select button which can adjust shock firmness together with throttle sensitivity.

VERDICT

The S1 will inevitably target a very specific buyer. It’s based loosely on a VW Polo platform so, yes, it’s quite small. And, with all this performance-enhancing kit and high Audi quality, it’s also very expensive. The S1 starts at R442 000 and our test car with navigation, sports seats and cruise control comes in just shy of half-a-million bucks. A slightly more passenger-friendly S1 Sportback derivative, with an extra set of doors is also available starting at R449 500, but for this money cars such as Golf R (R490 300) start making more sense, let alone the normal GTI which seriously undercuts both S1s at a price of R399 000. - Star Motoring

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FACTS

Audi S1 quattro 2.0T

Engine: two-litre, four-cylinder turbopetrol

Gearbox: Six-speed manual

Power:170kW @ 6000rpm

Torque: 370Nm @ 1600 - 3000rpm

0-100km/h (claimed): 5.8 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 250km/h

Consumption (claimed): 7.0 litres per 100km

Price: R442 000

Warranty: One-year/Unlimited distance

Maintenance plan: Five-year/100 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Audi A1 3-door 1.4T S-line (136kW/250Nm) - R350 500

Audi S1 Sportback quattro (170kW/2590Nm) - 449 500

Mini John Cooper Works (155kW/280Nm) - R437 912

VW Golf GTI (162kW/350Nm) - 399 000

Vw Golf R - (206kW/380Nm) - R501 100