The 252bhp Audi A1 Quattro and 215bhp Mini JCW GP are hot hatches with a difference: they're made in limited numbers for hardcore customers, and have a combined price high enough to make your eyes water. Ben Pulman referees this ultimate pocket rocket showdown...
We’re not living in a parallel universe, but it’s a very strange reality. The Pope’s quit his day job, Ben Affleck’s won an Oscar, people are shocked that ‘value’ beef isn’t made from the finest cuts of Aberdeen Angus, and in north Wales in late February the sun is shining. And these two hot hatches cost a combined £70k. Madness!
This isn’t valuable consumer advice then, rather a celebration, not of global warming (despite it being a balmy 12°C in the hills above Bala) but because big car companies can still sneak a couple of bonkers pocket-rocket specials past the accountants. Before we pinch ourselves, it’s the £41k Audi A1 Quattro against the £29k Mini John Cooper Works GP.
The Mini JCW GP has previous. Back in 2006, just before BMW unveiled the current Mk2 Mini, it launched the Cooper S with John Cooper Works GP Tuning Kit. A godsend for freelance journalists paid by the word, this run-out special only had an extra 8bhp, but there was uprated suspension, a downforce-producing bodykit, and 50kg carved from the kerbweight thanks to unique aluminium control arms for the rear suspension, lightweight wheels and the back seats being ditched for a strut brace. Just 2000 GPs (can you tell I’m staff?) were built and, despite being hand-finished in Italy by Bertone, each one only cost £3k more than a JCW.
Seven years on, and with BMW’s third-generation Mini hatch due to be revealed later this year, the same trick is being tried. That means the equally rare Mk2 GP has 215bhp instead of the current JCW’s 208bhp, motorsport-inspired adjustable coilover suspension, 90% more downforce than standard, and space for just two. Downsides? The only lightening is to your wallet: the GP costs an extra £6335.
Punching from the white corner is something potentially more special. Audi’s greased the engine bay of an A1 and slid in the 2.0T from the TTS, but the headline is that this über-hatch is four-wheel drive. All other A1s are front-wheel drive (the platform this littlest Audi shares with the VW Polo and Seat Ibiza was never designed to push as well as pull) so substantial work has been needed to turn it into the Quattro. The torsion beam rear suspension has been replaced by the multi-link set-up from the TTS; the rear differential sits in the space once occupied by the spare wheel; and there’s a new notched fuel tank to accommodate the longitudinal driveshaft.
With just 333 being built this low-volume work would ordinarily have been tasked to Quattro GmbH – the equivalent of Mercedes AMG or BMW’s M Division – but as it was flat-out on the RS6, RS7 and RS Q3 Audi ended up doing the engineering in-house instead. The project took 17 months from start to finish, and over 600 components have either been wholly replaced or extensively modified. Which means the result isn’t cheap – an A1 Quattro costs £41,035. Correction: the A1 Quattro cost £41,035, because despite being left-hand drive, the UK’s allocation of 19 cars sold out faster than the Lib Dems.
The claim is £11k of that (preposterous) price is accounted for by all the standard kit, including xenon lights, sat-nav, and a 465-watt/14-speaker Bose sound system – but the 252bhp A1 Quattro still costs £5k more the 268bhp TTS. And those extras, plus the bigger engine, and the rear diff, clutch pack and other four-wheel gubbins mean the A1 Quattro is 175kg heavier than an A1 2.0 TDI, 230kg more than the Mini GP, and just 40kg lighter than a Porsche 911 Carrera 4. Vorsprung durch Technik – German for little lard arse.
But given a spare £40k, wouldn’t you have an A1 Quattro? It might be a skunkworks special, but for fit, finish and engineering polish it feels like it’s rolled straight off the production line. More importantly, that chunky rally-refugee body is gorgeously aggressive and inspired by the one-off 493bhp A1 Clubsport Quattro concept, the retro detailing is achingly cool (industrial air-con fan alloys included) and you’ll never see another on the road. We hope the series-production 228bhp S1 Quattro, due in 12 months’ time, will have half as much attitude.
As for the Mini, even in this isolated corner of Snowdonia it’s embarrassing to be seen in; Steve Moody drove it up here last night to avoid passing Birmingham in the daylight. The 911 GT3 RS-aping dark grey paint is subtle, but the big carbonfibre rear wing isn’t. Ditto the enormous rear diffuser. And the ‘GP’ stickers and stripes. And the red-trimmed intakes. And although those ducts in the side sills are fake, who was ever going to believe a front-drive hatch needs extra rear brake cooling?
You forget it all the moment you’re inside. Okay, you actually forget it after you’ve pulled on your red seatbelt, prodded the Third World plastics, and wondered why the boot remains so small even after the removal of the rear seats. But then you’ll be blown away by the brilliant driving position. I can’t think of another car in which you feel lower: your legs stick straight out, you pull the speedo-sized steering wheel straight towards you, and there’s loads of headroom (even for me). And with the upright windscreen and Anne Hathaway-thin A-pillars you have an almost panoramic view out through the front and side windows. Good job, as you’ll torque steer into oncoming traffic or the nearest verge the moment you put your foot down.
What was Mini thinking giving the GP extra grunt? Pin the throttle and it’s as hyperactive as a sniffer dog with a cocaine habit hunting round the docks for its next reward. The wheel constantly tugs in your hands as the Mini GP follows every rut and bump and road imperfection. It’s edgy, and annoying when you’re not in the mood. And worse when you press the Sport button, which sharpens the throttle and adds extra weight to the steering. Steve Moody likens a B-road blast in the GP to Kermit the Frog’s arm flailing ‘Yay!’ in each episode of The Muppets. A good analogy, but alas Steve’s now outed as a fan of said frog and the continuing drama of its on/off relationship with a showbiz sow…
There’s no such wrist-wrenching in the A1 Quattro which, despite a 66lb ft advantage, charges forward without a hint from the helm that most of the drive is actually directed to the front tyres until they start spinning. Maybe we should disconnect the rear driveshafts, as a little ditch-hunting torque steer might liven things up. The A1 Quattro has been spared Audi’s Drive Select system, which we’ve long chastised for its badly calibrated, switchable steering settings, but the resultant weighting here is consistent to the point of failure. No matter what speed, or how much lock or throttle is applied, it’s as mute as Dietrich Mateschitz in an Eddie Jordan interview.
Thankfully the engine crackles with character. It’s the Volkswagen Group’s ubiquitous 2.0-litre turbo, but the act of shoehorning it into the A1 has endowed it with the same glorious induction roar and exhaust blare (the latter emitted via two bazooka-sized tailpipes) as a Renaultsport Megane. The 252bhp means it’s 16bhp down on the TTS, and its 258lb ft is spread over slightly less of the rev range, but although the A1 Quattro isn’t light per se, it’s still 85kg lighter than the part-aluminium TT and is claimed to be just as quick. And it feels quicker, thanks to that deep and angry growl. Add closely stacked gears (shifted by a ’stick taken straight out of the R8 supercar) and no wheelspin, and it’s wonderfully manic.
The Mini’s tyre-scrabbling is a different kind of manic (think green amphibian puppet with a hand up its bottom) but once underway there’s actually little to separate the GP from the A1 Quattro in a straight line. The on-paper figures put them on par – there’s nothing between the power-to-weight ratios – and after some pleasingly thorough field research Mr Moody and I can confirm similar ‘real-world’ results. But show the pair a twisty road and two very distinct characters emerge…
The Mini is alert and up for it, so hyper-quick to turn flat into corners – and not just because the torque steer is already dragging it there of its own accord. And if you switch all the safety back-ups off the Mini GP actually drives more cleanly, finding traction where the over-zealous computer chips would otherwise try to rein everything in. The only thing that tenacious front-end can’t do is tug itself out of corners like a Megane RS with a proper diff.
But there are flaws, including the on/off brakes, the usually peppy exhaust being drowned out by the gravel clatter and tyre roar from the newly bare boot, and the back-breaking ride. Mini will claim the GP is built for circuits – and proudly boasts it is 18 seconds quicker around the Nordschleife than its predecessor – but I can think of better £29k impractical track day cars. No, the GP is a hot hatch, which by definition means it should excel in north Wales, but sometimes the suspension and steering get so busy you just have to back off. The GP does have those adjustable coilovers, but would you trust your own homespun set-up?
In contrast the A1 Quattro deploys its power with ease, and the smoother and softer ride means it’s the quicker (and calmer) cross-country experience. It doesn’t have the same tenacious turn-in as the Mini, and there’s more understeer when you push hard, more roll too, but that engine is addictive, the traction impeccable (I wouldn’t trust the GP’s track-biased Kumhos in the wet) and it’s still a damned good little hot hatch. Plus its qualities extend far beyond the occasional thrashings in north Wales.
These two cars ultimately deliver their kicks in quite different ways. The GP is raw, raucous, utterly focused, and can deliver greater driving thrills than the A1 Quattro. It’ll be remembered, like its predecessor, as something quite special – but most of the time it’s just too much to take.
As for the A1, with Ford’s new Fiesta ST costing less than half as much we can’t even begin to justify that ludicrous price. But that doesn’t stop it feeling truly special, in the same way that a Ferrari, Lamborghini or even a Pagani does. It wasn’t built for homologation or racing or anything useful like that, but simply because Audi wanted to. That should be celebrated. It’s not as great to drive as the GP, but that’s not the sole deciding factor: the styling, noise, quality, exclusivity, all endure long after you’ve had quite enough of the Mini’s mad antics. If you need a verdict in this irreverent test, the A1 Quattro is our winner.
Words: Ben Pulman Photography: GF Williams