Car review: Audi A1

MOST of us would admit to watching the odd episode of Coronation Street or EastEnders. Both feature the occasional storyline which might catch your interest, acted out by a bunch of decent enough actors.

In most homes the soaps are always there, on in the background - a hum, sometimes noticeable, most of the time not. But, to quote a certain varnishing product, they do what they say on the tin. They provide half an hour’s distraction – no more no less.

But imagine if one rainy Monday, you’re flopped out on the sofa with one eye on the latest shenanigans at the Queen Vic when, bam! In walks Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson. Suddenly you’re glued to the box, listening to lines being delivered with such style and panache that you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The poor old regulars blur into insignificance while Jack steals the show and the British Soap Awards best actor gong.

You’d have to feel slightly sorry for the rest of the motley bunch because suddenly there’s a real star in the ranks – and that is exactly what the supermini crowd must be thinking after Audi muscled its way into the highly lucrative segment with its new A1.

Small hatchbacks are everywhere – but does anyone ever really give them a second glance however competent they might be to drive? So pity the poor Ford Fiesta salesman trying to flog that top of the range Titanium model or that nice lady down at your local Vauxhall dealer with her plush Corsa gathering dust in the corner of the showroom - because all those who have assumed a premium badge motor will forever be out of their reach can celebrate with unbridled joy.

The German firm has taken all those soft-touch plastics, beautifully dampened switchgear, doors which shut with just the right “thunk” and shrink-wrapped them into a concentrated version of the Audi Michelin-starred recipe most of us enviously admire – and prices start from �13,420.

This new petite machine is eye-catching too, with a large single-frame grille at the front end, while the side view cuts the mustard thanks to the distinctive roof arch. The coupe-like C-pillars give it character and there’s enough machismo about those large wheel arches which mean this is one small car that will appeal to both sexes.

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Inside, the interior of the A1 is spacious, bright and airy. The firm claims the instrument panel resembles an airplane wing – “its four round air vents are reminiscent of jet engines” – although this might not be blindingly obvious unless your job is based at Heathrow or Gatwick.

No matter - the clean, clear control layout is a classic Audi and the high level of fit and finish wouldn’t look out of place on a �30,000 plus A6 executive saloon.

If you’re feeling particularly funky when ordering, Audi lets you spice up the interior with coloured air vents, LED interior lights or seat covers in “expressive” – I think that means too bright for good taste – colours. Taking a leaf from Mini’s book, the A1 buying experience offers countless opportunities for matching the A1 to the driver’s own personal style. There are even a variety of paint finishes from which to choose for the roof arch.

But I say, why mess with such an elegant product? Stick to more neutral colours and the A1 will always look a class act.

That sentiment can be equally levelled at the driving experience. The 1.4 TFSI Sport model tested was refined, composed and informative. Turn-in was admirably sharp and the steering feel far superior to other Volkswagen products which share similar buts and bolts underneath – the Skoda Fabia and VW Polo to name but two.

Some might be shocked to learn of this link but the aforementioned cars are some of the best superminis you can buy – but the new A1 really is a class apart. It feels like an Audi and, powered by the turbocharged 1.4 litre engine, it goes like one too. With a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic S-Tronic gearboxes to choose from the 120bhp Sport packs a decent punch while ditching the hard-riding traits of some Audis - mixing up comfort and dynamism in equally welcome measures.

The S-Tronic version provides slick changes either fully automatically or by nudging the gearlever up or down or steering wheel paddles. The 1.4 litre S-Tronic sneaks into the �30 a year road tax bracket and comfortably returns over 40mpg on motorway trips.

There is only room for two in the back and they’ll probably become close friends and the 270 litre boot is smaller than either that in the Fiesta or Corsa - but the rear seats fold flat so despite its interior limitations the A1 is by no means disgraced.

With the A1, Audi has given the supermini sector a real headline maker because its smallest car is also one of its best, bringing real prestige to the class at a very sensible price. You might never look at a small hatchback in the same way. - Neil Greenfield

Audi A1 1.4 TFSI Sport S-Tronic - price from �16,475otr