Audi A1 Sportback review
by David Finlay (25 March 2012)
I must admit to being slightly confused by Audi's use of the word Sportback. It doesn't seem to mean the same thing in different ranges. The A3 Sportback is close enough to an estate car that it might otherwise have been called an Avant, but the A5 Sportback is without question a hatchback. As for the A7, there is no version of that car which is not a Sportback, which leads me to wonder why the name was used at all.
The latest Sportback is a new form of the A1, and if one were being uncharitable one might say that this car is an over-expensive, Audi-badged Volkswagen Polo five-door rather than, as previous A1s have been, an over-expensive, Audi-badged Polo three-door.
There is slightly more to it than that. The body changes extend slightly further than simply adding two extra doors. This in itself required the central pillars to be moved forward by just under an inch, and other changes include an extra 6mm in both width and height plus an 80mm increase in roof length.
None of this in any way affects the luggage capacity, which - as with the regular A1 - stands at 270 litres with the rear seats in place and 920 litres when they're folded down. Audi claims that there is more room for rear passengers than in the three-door, but the difference is tiny; regardless of how many doors it has, no A1 offers much space back there.
The major difference, then, is access to the rear, and according to Audi projections this will be enough to ensure that the Sportback will outsell the three-door two-to-one, presumably because it will be easier to put young children and/or excess shopping in the back seat.
The range is very similar to that of the three-door, with an initial choice of 85bhp 1.2-litre and 120bhp and 183bhp 1.4-litre TFSI turbo petrol engines and a 104bhp 1.6-litre TDI turbo diesel. The first and last of these have five-speed manual transmission, the 183bhp car a seven-speed semi-automatic S tronic and the 120bhp version a choice of S tronic or a six-speed manual.
Later this year Audi will introduce a 141bhp 2.0 TDI and - quite excitingly, if you're interested in this sort of thing - a 138bhp 1.4 TFSI with "cylinder on demand" technology, in which two of the cylinders will shut down if the car requires less than a certain amount of power to do what it's doing.
That's quite something, but while fuel economy and CO2 emissions will be the best among the petrol-fuelled cars the real "green" winner is the 1.6 TDI, which like its three-door equivalent has 74.3mpg combined fuel economy and a CO2 rating of 99g/km which makes it exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty and the London congestion charge.
The trim and equipment levels are the same as in the three-door range too. Base models are called SE, Sports have larger (16") wheels, sports suspension, a Driver's Information System and smarter interior and exterior trim, while the range-topping S lines have 17" wheels, cloth/leather upholstery, a three-spoke multifunction steering wheel and yet more styling upgrades. In typical Audi fashion, there are also many, many options.
All the cars at the media launch were Sports, and all had the 17" wheels which are available as extra-cost options. My colleague Tom Stewart, with whom I shared three examples, describes these as "the wheels that make life horrid", a reference to the fact that the low-profile tyres fitted to them utterly destroy the ride quality.
The situation is so bad that, when he was a passenger, Tom was reluctant to put his arm on the armrest. "It might get bruised," he said. The tyres dominate the ride to such an extent that, apart from some extra body movement, there was no noticeable difference between a standard Sport and one fitted with the optional (at no cost) softer Dynamic suspension settings.
None of this affects the handling, which remains quite composed even on bumpy roads. The low-profile rubber doesn't seem to upset the chassis at all, regardless of how unpleasant it makes life for the driver and passengers.
Sportbacks are inevitably more expensive than three-doors, but the premium is fairly modest at around £600 (the exact figure varying on which model you're talking about). Prices for the models available from launch range from £13,980 for the 1.2 TFSI SE to £21,270 for the 183bhp 1.4 TFSI S tronic, which is available only in S line form.
(Note: Audi employed photographer Charlie Magee to provide images for journalists who didn't want to restrict themselves to what was available in the press pack. Charlie asked me if I needed anything specific, and I said I didn't, but asked him to take whatever picture he wanted. As I left the event he was still pondering over this, and soon afterwards he e-mailed me the photo you see at the top of this page. I love it and I hope you do too. For more of Charlie's work, please visit www.charliemagee.com.)