Paul Horrell14 March 2014

First drive: the new Audi S1

A legendary name from the Group B era returns as a sensible four-wheel-drive hot hatch. Paul Horrell reports

Hello. Haven't we met before?

Well, there was an Audi S1 before. It stalked the WRC stages in the early 1980s, a Group B car in the era when rally cars really were from planet crazy. This isn't. It's a four-wheel-drive hot hatch. It's an Audi A1, its bonnet stuffed with an uprated version of the Golf GTI's two-litre turbo engine, revised front steering and suspension, and new rear suspension to accommodate the 4WD system.

But what about the A1 Quattro?

My what an Audi obsessive you are. Yes, there was a limited-run A1 Quattro two years ago. They made just 333 of the wonderfully crazy cars in LHD-only. But there were differences from this S1. It used the slightly more powerful old EA113 engine, not the new, torquier, EA888. Since you're an obsessive you'll already know that the EA888 has chain-driven camshafts and variable valve lift.

Of course I did. How does it work in such a small car?

As a means of kicking you down the road in any of the six gears, it's mightily effective. Thank the towering mid-range torque. You've got 273lb ft, and 231bhp at the top end. That's slightly more than even the Golf GTI Performance Pack. The exhaust noise is a bit subdued, but with that muscle bursting out of a supermini you won't be left short of excitement. The good old 0-62 measure comes out at 5.8 seconds. Yet because the traction is so strong, you don't have to cope with tyre-melting power-understeer or a hidden lunatic tugging at the front wheels. It's civilised, but mighty brisk.

Is it really manual only?

Indeed, and the shift has a nice sense of mechanical precision. The clutch and throttle actions are well-judged. That means it's easy to make smooth shifts. Plus, because the torque is spread so wide, you don't have to do them when you're too busy with other things like sawing at the wheel.

Lots of grip as well as traction?

Most likely. We can't be definitive because we drove it on studded tyres. Those arctic shoes did give it a bit of uncertainty on small steering inputs. But once into a corner we enjoyed it hugely, both on slush and on dry tarmac. The steering offers up more feel than a standard A1, so the small initial understeer is easily gauged. Then you get on the throttle and up to half the torque gets sent to the back wheels. You can feel the car take on a new attitude and catapult out of a bend. When it's really slippery, you can kick up a proper slide.

So they called it S1. Does it feel it a raucous bad boy semi-tamed rally car in any way?

Nope. They called it S1 because it's a S version on the A1, following the straightforward convention of the S3, S4, S5, S6, S7 and S8.

So it's actually a bit too civilised and remote-feeling then…

No, not really. It has adaptive dampers and torque vectoring by brakes, but they're subtle. In other ways it's a natural-feeling and simple car to get to know. And the range of driver aids is strictly limited. Of course being an Audi S-car it has an immaculately appointed cabin. The best-made of any supermini, even if it's looking a bit dated these days. The ride isn't too harsh, and it cruises at motorway speed without bashing your ears.

And being an Audi S-car, presumably it's not cheap?

Not too bad. The three-door is £24,900, the Sportback £730 more. The equipment isn't madly generous, but think of the performance and the drive-line and the quality…

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