Ronda, Spain - It's probably hard to believe that the first generation Audi A1 made its global debut nearly 10 years ago.

To the delight of young up-and-coming professionals around the world. Instead of stretching budgets to jump into an A3, traditionally the smallest and cheapest Audi hatchback for quite some time, the A1 made it possible for many people to drive a ‘cheaper’, yet still ‘premium’, Four-ring car.

As oxymoronic as that sounds, in South Africa, the A1 has done remarkably well over the years, considering the cheapest derivative (1.0TSI) currently sells for around R350 000.

Sold in three-door and five-door guises, with petrol and diesel (now a dirty word at Audi) engines, manual and S-tronic, as well as tar-melting S1 formats, the old A1 seemed to have all niches covered; young moms and dads that needed extra doors for small kids or easy access to baby seats, or petrolheads that live their lives a quarter-mile at a time...there was an A1 for everyone. Heck, let’s not forget the limited edition Quattro model that wasn’t sold here.

For 2019, though, the second-generation A1 is going to do things slightly differently. Globally, there will only be a five-door model, the Sportback, and there won’t be an S1 or Quattro.

I sampled two of the three Audi A1 derivatives that are coming to South Africa at the world launch in Spain last week:

ENGINES AND DRIVE

The new Audi A1 will be made available with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine (85kW, 200Nm), a 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with cylinder deactivation capability (110kW, 250Nm), and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (147kW, 320Nm). All motors are turbocharged with direct-injection and depending on which propulsion unit you go for, you’ll be able to choose manual or dual-clutch auto gearboxes.

First, I jumped into the model that’s probably going to appeal to most buyers, arguably because it’s going to be the cheapest way to jump into a new Audi, the 1.0-litre manual. I drove from the Malaga airport to the Ascari Resort and Circuit on the outskirts of Ronda (famous for its cliff-side architecture and bull fighting ring).

With around 100km behind the wheel of the 1.0TSI manual, I came away pleasantly surprised at the unit’s pulling-power and overtaking ability. Sure, you’ve got to rev the engine to make haste, but overall it’s not as laggy as I expected it to be, and the manual transmission’s ratios aren’t super eco-biased, which makes for decent (confident) acceleration from a standstill or while on the move. It’s not a very sporty drive, although you can option it up with an S-Line kit when ordering to give you a firmer ride and sportier stance.

I then went for a 90km loop in the range-topping 2.0-litre TFSI, fitted with 17-inch alloys and an S-Line kit. This car was also fitted with a six-speed S-tronic transmission, which ensured slick-shifting and fewer missed gears (we were driving left hand drive cars). The 2.0 TFSI will serve as the A1 range-topper.

Left in its standard settings (you can choose from a variety of sporty or eco driving modes through the Drive Select button on the dashboard), the 2.0-litre is responsive in the same vein as VW’s Polo GTI; fast and comfy, but a little dull in terms of feedback and grin factor. It ought to feel like the Polo GTI after all, as it’s based on the same MQB platform as the Polo, albeit with Audi engineers having a go at the final setup in this instance. It’s brisk, to put it mildy, and the way it goes about accelerating is so smooth and finessed that you don’t realise how fast you’re travelling. In fact, the car is so well-damped and so well insulated from the elements that you’ll think you’re in an A4 or something more expensive.

STYLING (INSIDE AND OUT)

You’ll immediately notice the new A1 compared to the old one because it is much more aggressive in its execution. Audi’s spokesmen call it a more masculine looking car, and they’re spot on; kind of like an A1 that went to fitness training at an MMA dojo in the Northern Suburbs of Jozi.

Nostrils under the bonnet hark to the original rally-dominating Audi Quattro, mildly flared wheels arches hint at its sporty intent, and an extra fat C-pillar makes it look more purposeful and racy when viewed from the side or the rear.

Audi’s also gone to the extent of making the new A1 available in striking new colours, including the Python Yellow you see in the pictures, and Turbo Blue, if you’d like something more Smurf-like.

Arrow-head inspired front and rear lights, with LED lamp technology give it a distinct look as a ‘new’ Audi, too.

On the inside, I particularly liked the driver-focused dashboard, with the centre console angled toward the driver for ease of access to multimedia controls. A full-colour touch-screen system (similar to the units fitted to the new A8 and A6) will be available for all models and you can even choose to upgrade to the full Audi Virtual Cockpit experience, complete with digital instrument cluster.

The nicest part of the new A1 on the inside, though, has to be its fit and finish. Quality materials, whether it’s the cloth or the plastic, and two-tone accents on the press units showed a more youthful charisma, unlike the old car with its slabs of black plastic.

SPACE AND PRACTICALITY

Measuring in at 4003mm metres in length, 1740 metres in width, and 1400 metres in height, with the boot coming in at around 335 litres with the rear seats in place, the new A1 is more roomy than its predecessor. It’s also around 50kg heavier, depending on the model, but you can’t really feel this extra weight in the car when driving it. As a compact family runabout, it can work well, and because it’s only available with rear doors now, there’s no cramping and straining to get in out of the back seat. Rear legroom and knee room has improved too, so you can actually transport adults in the back.

VERDICT

I’m reserving final judgment on the new A1 until it arrives in South Africa, in trims that are tailored to our market. 

The left-hand drive units I sampled in Spain drove well, and certainly showed of the car’s cruising capabilities, but I’d like to negotiate more city traffic in an A1, to gauge what it’s like to pilot the manual 1.0-litre version in stop-start city traffic. The 2.0-litre turbo? Well, it lacked the kind of fizz I was expecting of a ‘hot’ Audi, and to be perfectly honest it might not be the one to go for when the cars eventually arrive in SA next year.

If it were my cash, I’d seriously consider a 1.0-litre, though, with a few options, such as the S-Line kit and maybe 18-inch alloy wheels.

Local pricing of the new A1 will be confirmed towards the middle of 2019, but you can expect a slight increase in retail compared to the outgoing model, according to Audi SA.

PS: Wondering why the Ascari Circuit was part of this launch, and there’s no mention of the A1 on track? It’s because the new R8 facelift was there to drive, which you’ll read about next week.

Drive360