Audi S1 Sportback (2015) long-term test review

Published: 01 June 2015

► CAR lives with Audi's pocket rocket
► Two litres, 228bhp and four-wheel drive
► Is the S1 fun enough to justify its price?

Month 8 running an Audi S1 Sportback: the conclusion of our long-term test

What a revelation the S1 turned out to be. Not just a jumped-up, go-faster version of Audi’s Polo for badge snobs, but a genuinely brilliant hot hatch. I miss it already, and not only for its performance. That’s as good a place as any to start, though: for a very small car, the S1 has incongruously big pace. Usually over time in a fast car you become immune to its acceleration but the S1 never felt anything less than hilariously quick in full cry.  

Maybe the speed’s the more surprising given how refined and, well, normal the S1 feels when it’s not delivering its haymaker mid-range punch. Firm ride and noisy fat tyres aside (both of which seem a fair trade for the S1’s agility), it’s a refined, easygoing car to cover miles in. And there are far worse places to be than the S1’s reassuringly expensive-feeling interior. That said, I never quite gelled with the driving position, or the optional ‘super sports’ seats, a bit high and a bit oddly shaped, respectively.

On paper the S1 seems like a car bound by the law of diminishing returns: too heavy, too complicated and too expensive for its own good. But its 2.0-litre turbo engine is as charismatic and drivable as it is powerful, and the four-wheel-drive system brings just enough of an extra dimension to the driving experience to qualify as more than a quattro brand cash-in. There’s the kind of grip and traction to rival chewing gum stuck to a bus seat but it’s to the S1’s credit that it’s still involving to drive. A largely neutral balance makes it feel gleefully chuckable, and there’s just enough pliancy in the suspension to prevent the worst of mid-corner bumps throwing it off line. On a gnarly B-road there aren’t many cars you wouldn’t take on. 

A side effect of four-wheel-drive is that there’s no room to fit a dual-clutch auto ’box. Audi’s probably quite annoyed about that, but I’m glad. No doubt an S-tronic paddleshift S1 would be an easier sell, but the old-school stick-shift makes for a far more immersive driving experience and puts you right in control of all that torque.

There is a Fiesta ST-shaped elephant in the room, of course. Even though the S1’s badge and billing mean prospective buyers are more likely to compare it against the likes of the JCW Mini or even the larger Golf GTI, the blue-collar Ford’s not only the thick end of eight grand cheaper but its super-pointy front end makes it the sharper drive, too. Still, the S1 has its own charm, and the fact that it’s nine tenths as much fun as the ST is praise in itself.

There’s no ignoring that price tag, though. List prices start from a bit over £25k, and after being clubbed half to death with the options list our five-door Sportback weighed in at £33k. And still went without DAB radio or a USB port. The full running costs are:

  • Cost new £33,480 (including £7850 of options) 
  • Dealer sale price £25,590 
  • Private sale price £24,300 
  • Part-exchange price £22,845  
  • Cost per mile 20.3p 
  • Cost per mile including depreciation £1.62

Such are the S1’s charms, though, that its lofty price almost feels justified. You wouldn’t pay much less for a top S-line version of an ordinary A1 Sportback, but the S1 is an immeasurably better car. Despite all that power it averaged 29.7mpg over its time with us (helped by plenty of motorway miles) and according to the residuals it’s hung on to a decent percentage of its value. A quick browse of the classifieds confirms secondhand values are sky-high for now. I’d best keep saving, then.

By James Taylor

Quattro styling pack on the right. Many £ difference

Month 7 running an Audi S1 Sportback: is the Quattro styling pack worth it?

After rubbing shoulders with the rare and raw A1 Quattro in the February issue, the S1’s met another quattro-badged cousin: an all-but-identical S1 kitted out with the optional ‘quattro styling’ packs. Audi offers two of these, one for the interior, one for the exterior. Why? Well, apart from those tell-tale quad exhausts the S1 is something of a Q-car, easily mistaken at a glance for a regular A1. I like its inherent stealthiness but Audi reasons some buyers might like their car to shout a bit louder. And shout the quattro packs do.

The interior one in particular. Among other bits and pieces, there’s glossy plastic cladding for the lower part of the centre console (in black, yellow or red – our test car had the latter, making it look like a Ducati’s fuel tank) and leather seats with the same high-gloss treatment across their backs. They don’t half look a bit sudden in red. Our long-termer actually has the same seats fitted as part of a separate option, but with a slightly less alarming gloss black finish.

Exterior highlights: red slivers of plastic inside the headlights (quite neat, like the flick of a red marker pen on a design sketch), ’80s-style quattro stickers along the car’s flanks, a slightly more extravagant roof spoiler and 18-inch wheels – again, the same ones coincidentally fitted to our S1.

Audi being Audi, both packages are hilariously expensive. The interior pack will set you back £1695 and the exterior £1245. Adding a bit of extra show to match the S1’s go doesn’t come cheap. Stickers must be getting more expensive to manufacture.

By James Taylor

Month 6 running an Audi S1 Sportback: rubbish hotel, great hot hatch

It’s easy to forget just how small the S1 is sometimes. Attempting to catch 40 winks in it jogged my memory, though. Racing in a 24-hour charity karting marathon (it seemed like a good idea at the time) at Leeds indoor circuit PPiK meant kipping in the S1 trackside between stints. 

With the passenger seat reclined as far as it could go (not all that far, given the proximity of the back seats), its buckety, bolstered shape turned out to be a bit too lumpy for comfort, so I ended up folding the rear seats down and folding myself into an misshapen huddle of duvet and sleeping bag, partly in the boot and partly on the not-quite-flat seat backs. I managed a few hours of fitful shuteye before deciding I’d take petrol fumes over a ruined back and stumbled off to sleep in the building instead.

So the S1 makes a rubbish hotel but it’s still a brilliant hot hatch. The only dynamic gripe recently is the slightly muddy throttle response, which can be perked up by selecting Dynamic mode via the centre console’s drive select switch. The problem is that it also switches the dampers to a setting so firm that ride quality is on par with a kart. Shame you can’t mix and match modes as in some other VW Group hatches.

By James Taylor

Audi S1 boot

Audi S1 Sportback diary notes: is the S1’s boot too small?

In the process of gaining four-wheel drive, the S1 has lost some of the ordinary A1’s bootspace. To make room for the extra diff and driveshafts the ordinary car’s torsion beam rear suspension has been swapped for a multi-link arrangement and the boot floor’s gone up in the world slightly.

That means about 60 litres less luggage-squashing space in total but it hasn’t posed any major problems so far. There’s still enough room for most shopping sprees and trips away, and I’ve only occasionally had to stow baggage overflow behind the front seats. This is still very much a usable car.

By James Taylor

Month 5 running an Audi S1 Sportback: the S1 meets the crazy A1 Quattro

Memories are short in the car world. It’s easy to forget the S1 is a direct descendant of the madcap A1 Quattro, a home-brewed skunkworks special that helped Audi’s engineers work out how on earth to make the A1’s Polo/Fabia/Ibiza platform drive the rear wheels as well as the fronts.

Available in any colour you liked as long as it was Glacier White and limited to a production run of 333 cars, all in left-hand drive (19 found homes in the UK), it cost a mildly terrifying £41,035.

Time for a family reunion, as low-volume father meets economies-of-scale son. No question which one looks more special. The S1 may share a name with a Group B rally car, but the extravagantly spoilered A1 Quattro looks like it shares some of its bodywork. Against the monochrome backdrop of wintry east-England countryside the Quattro’s hungry air intakes and Colgate-white turbine wheels make it look like it took a wrong turn on the way to a WRC stage. The standard A1 owner’s manual in the glovebox seems just a little misplaced.

It feels more of an event to drive, too. There’s more heft to the steering, the suspension’s less yielding and whenever the throttle’s opened with intent the turbo system shrieks like a demented penny whistle. Like the S1 a 2.0-litre four-pot supplies the power, but it’s Audi’s older EA113 unit with the wick turned up to a heady 252bhp. The cleaner-breathing EA888 lump in the S1 (and also found in the Golf GTI, among various other VW Group cousins) churns out 228bhp yet summons more torque (273 lb ft versus 258) and although we didn’t line the two cars up for a drag race, subjectively the Quattro never felt markedly quicker in a straight line.

Regardless, it’s more intimidating to drive and not just because the steering wheel’s on the left (though the no. 1 of 333 plaque on its base may be a contributory factor). There’s the occasional tug of torque-steer under power where there’s none in the S1 and the transition from under- to oversteer is a bit more spiky. Above all, there’s the sense that you’re driving something altogether more serious and uncompromising, and not only because of that wild exterior.

A mechanical hotch-potch it may be, but the Quattro doesn’t feel like it. Although less friendly and chuckable than the S1 it still feels like a very together product. The ride’s firm but well controlled and the interior feels a cut above with a metal gearlever swiped from the R8 and claret-coloured dials.

This automotive episode of Who Do You Think You Are? poses a nagging question – would you feel just a little bit annoyed if you’d paid 41 grand for an A1 Quattro only for a £26k car that’s sort of the same thing to pop up a year or so later? I think I would. Brilliant toy though the A1 Q is, an extra dose of sense of occasion aside it doesn’t do much that the S1 can’t, even if it did teach it more or less everything it knows.

Time to head back to the office. Clutching the keys to both cars, I realise I honestly don’t mind which one I take. Given the £15k price difference, I guess that makes the S1 the winner.

By James Taylor

Audi S1 meets Audi A1 Quattro

Vital statistics:

Audi A1 Quattro
Price when new £41,035
Engine 1998cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 252bhp @ 6000rpm, 258 lb ft @ 2500-4500rpm
Gearbox Six-speed manual, 
four-wheel drive
Performance 5.7sec 0-62mph, 152mph, 32.8mpg, 199g/km CO2

Audi S1 Sportback
Price £25,630
Engine 1984cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 228bhp @ 6000rpm, 273lb ft @1600-3000rpm
Gearbox Six-speed manual, 
four-wheel drive
Performance 5.9sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 39.8mpg, 166g/km CO2

Month 4 running an Audi S1 Sportback: how good is the S1 at long-distance running?

A colleague borrowed the Audi recently and returned to the office clutching his lower back, muttering darkly that the S1’s driving position had ‘done something’ to it. I sympathise; the S1’s figure-hugging seats do a great job of supporting your shoulders, perfect for attacking twisty roads, but do so at the expense of your lower back.

I’ve spent plenty of time perched in the S1’s driving seat recently as the miles pile on, lots of them on the motorway. It’s actually not a bad long-distance car, barring the noisy wide tyres. It wasn’t until driving with a passenger recently that I realised how much you need to raise your voice to continue a conversation at dual-carriageway speeds.

It’s a stress-free drive in other ways, though. One recent big trip was a cross-country thrash from Peterborough to Liverpool in driving rain and the S1 swatted away the non-motorway bits with laughable ease. The safety net of four-wheel drive makes it a great foul-weather friend. In many ways it feels like a scaled-down version of VW’s Golf R, a giant-killer in our Sports Car Giant Test on p110. It’s a fast, flattering car that can make you feel a bit of a hero.

Problem with attempting a journey of any length is that it almost certainly has to include a filling station. On a run it’ll average mid to high 30s according to the mpg readout on the dash, which I don’t think is bad for a 4wd performance car. With a tank size of 45 litres, though, it empties quicker than you can say quattro.

By James Taylor

Audi S1 Sportback diary notes: auto wipers that actually work and an auto box that doesn’t exist

It’s not only four-wheel drive and plentiful low-down torque that make the S1 such great winter wheels. Here’s another tiny, but helpful, string to its bow: it has automatic wipers that actually work.

In so many cars (even German ones), when the wipers are left to their own devices they’ll scrape their way painfully across the screen at the merest hint of moisture, yet dozily sit put even when your view ahead resembles that of a submarine pilot. Not so the S1. It’s set and forget stuff.

Speaking of automatic things, I’m secretly glad Audi’s engineers were thwarted by packaging issues in their efforts to fit a dual-clutch S-tronic gearbox to the S1. No doubt had they succeeded the auto would have vastly outsold the manual, but the stick-shift makes the S1 far more involving to drive and puts you more firmly in control of its bountiful torque reserves. And I’ve gone back on my earlier criticism of the gear change for feeling slack; the more fun-filled miles travel under the S1’s wheels, the better it feels.

By James Taylor

Month 3 running an Audi S1: second impressions impress

Being in the happy position of taking over CAR’s S1 gives me a second chance to get a first impression of it. I’ve driven an S1 once before, on the car’s international launch in Sweden, but circumstances (lots of snow) meant it was difficult to get much of an idea of what it was actually like to drive.

Now I’ve driven it on more grippy roads I feel a bit more qualified to make some concrete observations. Firstly, it doesn’t half feel fast. That turbo’d 1984cc four is utterly lovely – smooth, flexible and blessed with a huge amount of torque. I don’t remember the gearchange feeling quite so slack, though. A more pleasant surprise is the ride, which isn’t the chiropractic nightmare I thought it might be. It’s certainly firm but the S1 bobbles along broken backroads relatively sweetly.

I was a bit worried about the potential waywardness of a short-wheelbase car with so much power – after all, lesser A1s aren’t the last word in handling finesse. The S1 never feels anything short of confidence-inspiring, though. In fact it’s downright chuckable. You can’t help but love the gleeful ridiculousness of such a big engine squeezed into such a titchy car. Nobody needs a supermini with 228bhp, but I’m glad someone made one. Second impressions, then, are everything.

By James Taylor 

Audi S1

Audi S1 Sportback diary notes: it’s the perfect winter GTI

My first proper outing in our S1 Sportback: an overnight December dash to a work function near Taplow, Berkshire. Maps suggested an hour-and-three-quarters drive and 97 miles, so I asked new keeper James Taylor if I could borrow Audi’s high-performance A1 yesterday.

I came away quite charmed. The S1 feels like the perfect winter hot hatch; you won’t find another pocket rocket in this price bracket with the security of four-wheel drive to deploy all that grunt (228bhp and 273lb ft) in all weathers. The Mercedes A45 AMG (£38k, 355bhp) and VW Golf R (£31k, 296bhp) are bigger, punchier and pricier.

With the so-called ‘weather bomb’ leaving roads greasy, slippery and leaf-strewn, I appreciated the extra traction of the S1. The performance on offer - 0-62mph in 5.9sec - is available so much of the time, thanks to peak torque landing at just 1600rpm, and the S1 responds well when you hustle it down cross-country B-roads, blip-blipping the throttle on downchanges and gripping the pleasingly chunky steering wheel. Yet the S1 is a mature kind of hot hatch, and is just as happy to trickle along at a cruise. It’s here that you appreciate the solid cabin, the generous equipment levels (to be expected on a £26k treat) and the well judged, oiled gearchange.

It’s a remarkably rounded hatchback, then. But it’s not quite perfect. Audi’s grippy sports seats weren’t as supportive as I’d hoped, especially when traffic conspired to turn each leg of the journey into a two-and-a-half hour drive. The driver’s seat feels set a notch or two too high - a bit like on our Ford Fiesta ST - the central instrument read-out has outmoded, old-school dot-matrix graphics and the ride is too busy - an old Audi foible - for class brilliance.

Still, the Audi S1 Sportback has suddenly shot up in my estimation. It’s one of my favourite long-termers at this wintry time of year.

By Tim Pollard 

Month 2 running an Audi S1: winding up BMW drivers

The bloke in the E46 3-series Coupe (couldn’t tell you what engine – debadged, obviously) who came hooning up my chuff at the A43 Brackley roundabout really didn’t like the S1. He was driving like a tool, forcing other drivers to get out of his way by tailgating them and doing that annoying dip onto the central reservation rumble strip in order to look past them at the 36 metres of spare Tarmac he wanted to invade before his next victim.

He tried the same thing with me, no doubt annoyed that some big girl’s blouse in a poser’s Volkswagen Polo was in his way. I entered the roundabout, and promptly buggered off.

Flooring the thottle, the S1 catapulted round and then shot off at great velocity towards the next roundabout, the A422 towards Buckingham. Because I was adhering to the speed limit like the good boy I am, he caught me as I was slowing for it, whereupon I buggered off again.

By the time I came tootling up to the one with the big BP garage on it, he was clearly agitated that this little supermini easily kept ahead of his Ultimate Driving Machine. So I gave it one more scoot-and-shoot and then let him past (when he eventually caught up), not wanting to get into a race.

This is what I really like about the S1. It is quick, the steering is precise, it sounds pretty good, has the sticky traction of peanut butter being spread on hot toast and actually handles more cohesively than longer-wheelbased Quattro Audis, which feel as though the fronts do their job first (or not) and rears later. And of course, apart from those four exhausts, it is a cracking little Q-car, as our chum in the BMW found out at some cost to his ego.

But, the boot is comically small, even the five-door version doesn’t have much room in the back, and there is the not-at-all-compact issue of it costing a barely believable £27,000 without any options, and a not-believable-at-all £33,000 for our long-termer, which is a ludicrous amount of money for a car of this size, especially as the same effect would have been had from my £14,000 cheaper Fiesta ST, albeit without the very grown-up, classy cabin. The thought occurred to me as he passed, revving the nuts off his 3-series, ‘actually, who has had the last laugh here?’

By Steve Moody

Audi A1 S1

Month 1 running an Audi S1: long-term test review

I was still crawling and filling nappies (often simultaneously) when the Group B era of rallying was coming to a tragic end, but I know enough that the original Audi S1 was a fire-spitting, near-600bhp monster. This new S1? Not so much.

Still, despite marketing sorts plundering Audi’s back catalogue to create tenuous links to a Quattro icon that still holds a record at the infamous Pikes Peak hillclimb, there’s much promise in the S1 Mk2. No, it’s not a WRC refugee, but two years ago the skunkworks, left-hand-drive only £41k A1 Quattro showed us what brilliance 252bhp and 4wd could achieve in the shell of Audi’s little supermini – and the S1 is now that car in full-production guise.

That means right-hand drive for the UK market, and although there’s now a little less power (228bhp) you also need to part with a lot less money to get one. Granted, at £25,630 it’s hardly cheap, but it’s much cheaper than before, plus it’s got 1bhp and 15bhp more than our Golf GTI ‘Performance’, as many doors, twice as many driven wheels, and hits 62mph half a second quicker. Yet the GTI is £2k more expensive. Look at it like that…

…And you won’t feel so bad when you peruse the extensive options list splurge. Our S1 was specced by Audi, which means we’re not to blame for the £8k spent on extras – and yet it still doesn’t have a DAB radio. What is does have is Misano red paint (£340) and a contrast black roof (£400) along with 18in wheels (£650, up from the standard 17s) and red brake calipers with the ‘S1’ logo (£315). Add in the four (!) exhausts that are a trademark of every S-model Audi, and it looks small but suitably mean. Like a mouse with a flick knife.

After that, all the extras are convenience niceties like keyless entry and start (£390), folding door mirrors (£125), an auto-dimming rear-view mirror (£120), hill-hold assist (£65), plus £250 on a flat-bottomed steering wheel, £690 for a Bose stereo, and a silly £1375 on sat-nav.

Grey nappa leather trim, including an upgrade to ‘super sports’ bucket-style seats up front, is another crazy £1250, which somehow makes the £60 rear floor mats seem like reasonable value. However, I will /never/ use the high-beam assist function (£220), the front armrest (£125) just gets in the way when you attempt to change gear, and £100 seems like a lot to wrap the air vents in faux aluminium trim.

Enough numbers! First impressions are of a refined rather than raw hot hatch, one with enough power to easily keep Mark Walton’s GTI honest. Yet it’s in a much dinkier package, more akin in size to the original hot hatches of the late ‘80s (I was walking by then) than today’s bloated Golfs et al.

Ultimately it’ll be run by our new staff writer, James Taylor, but before I hand over the keys, born-again juvenile Steve Moody and his Fiesta ST are skulking about in a nearby supermarket car park and dusting for a little head-to-head scrap to see which of CAR’s two tiny hot hatches is best. Don’t worry, it won’t be a particularly violent affair – I hear, despite the ST’s Essex pretensions, Mr Moody shops at Waitrose.

By Ben Pulman

CAR magazine's long-term Audi S1 Sportback

By CAR's road test team

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