From the A3 to A8, with the TT and R8 in between, every model in Audi’s range is available with four-wheel drive. Well, expect one: the A1. The platform that underpins Audi’s supermini (and is shared with the VW Polo, Skoda Fabia and Seat Ibiza) wasn’t built for four-wheel drive.
See the new 2018 Audi A1 here
And that front-wheel drive chassis is exactly the reason why Audi’s hottest A1 hatch isn’t called S1 – thankfully Audi saw sense before the car unveiled at the 2010 Paris motor show and decided not to sully a great name by attaching it to the back of front-drive supermini. Instead it's now the snappily titled 1.4 TFSI (136kW).
However, Audi is busy engineering a four-wheel drive version, which may underpin a Polo R and Cross Polo, but which will definitely form the basis of an even hotter A1. And in a rare move, the usually secretive German car company has let us behind the wheel of a prototype.
So what’s under the skin of the Audi A1 Quattro?
Just to confuse matters, the basis of the mule we tested in the colds of Canada was the front-drive 1.4 TFSI (136kW) that caused the controversy. The A1 prototype has Haldex set-up similar to the system used in the A3 and TT – rather than the Torsen-type unit on bigger Audis – with an electronically controlled but hydraulically actuated multi-plate clutch located in front of the rear axle. That means power goes to the front wheels until they lose grip, at which point the clutch transfers torque to the back axle.
What about the engine?
It’s the familiar 1.4-litre Twincharger engine from the VW Group, but in Audi oh-so-slightly-different guise. In the Polo GTI/Fabia vRS/Ibiza Cupra the super- and turbocharged four-cylinder petrol is good for 178bhp at 6200rpm and 184lb ft from 2000-4500rpm, but because Audi’s little hot hatch has to top the range it has an extra four bhp.
The supercharger toils away at low revs (it works from 1500rpm, and in most situations it’s disengaged by 2400rpm), while the turbo takes over by 3500rpm, and Audi says its high-rev usage means in can be larger and designed for efficiency.
Which all sounds very clever, and in the front-wheel drive, dual-clutch transmission-equipped production A1 1.4 TSFI equals figures of 47.9mpg and 139g/km. Audi hasn’t released any figures for this prototype, but the extra weight (around 90kg) and friction of the four-wheel drive system means those figures won’t be bettered.
What’s this A1 like to drive?
Good. We only had a brief drive, and on a snow-covered circuit in the Canadian wilderness so of course the steering was light, but the A1 was also a hoot and able to perform long, lurid slides. There aren’t many four-wheel drive superminis around, so if /when the four-wheel drive system becomes available on lesser A1s it’ll give them a USP.
But importantly, the prototype had a manual gearbox. The VW/Skoda/Seat trio all feature a DSG ‘box which robs them of vital interaction (and the S-tronic transmission in the 136kW car will no doubt do the same) but this car is different. Why? Because Audi says it’s what it thinks customers will want. Hurrah!
The six-speed unit is slick and light, and it makes the car so much more enjoyable. And the engine, which many a road tester has found a bit boring thanks to its bias towards mid-range grunt, suddenly has an interesting crescendo. It sounds good too, rorty and a big rough – I can finally see the potential of this Twincharger engine.
We can’t take too many driving impression away from our test, but we have discovered many positive things, chief of which is that Audi is trying to make more exciting cars. The production S1 won’t be a raw Clio Cup, but with its excellent interior it’ll be a formidable match for the JCW. A manual ‘box, circa-220bhp and four-wheel drive (to eliminate that Mini scrabble and torque steer)? The S1 sounds good to us.
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