By Jonathan Crouch
Choosing your Audi A1 in Sportback form gets you an extra couple of doors and adds an even more premium feel to this, the market's classiest small car. Luxury makers often cut corners to drive down the cost of their smaller models and it shows. Not Audi. In any form you choose, this A1 Sportback will always feel reassuringly expensive. The price tag might seem that way too - until you balance it against class-leading running costs that make this car surprisingly affordable to run. This was a model that brought big car standards to the small car marketplace, particularly in this post-2015-era improved form, in which it was smarter, more efficient and better-equipped. Let's check it out as a used buy.
When it comes to building aspirational cars, there aren't too many companies that Audi can learn from, particularly when it comes to less expensive models. There's something very special in the way this German brand can turn what are sometimes fairly proletarian ingredients into something beautifully presented. Something like this - the much improved post-2015-era first generation A1 Sportback.
This is the five-door version of an A1 model that, following an original launch at the end of 2010, brought a whole range of new attributes to the small car segment - many of them things the sector had never seen before. Standard Volkswagen Polo underpinnings were here finessed into something altogether more hi-tech and sophisticated, the kind of result that's possible when, as a brand, you're prepared to spend over 2.5 billion euros a year in product development.
The A1 was something of a trailblazer. This, after all, was the very first premium brand five-door supermini and creator of a little market niche that satisfied people who required a Fiesta or Corsa-class car, but wanted a much nicer one. Customers who either weren't able or simply didn't need to stretch up to larger Focus-sized premium compact hatches like the BMW 1 Series, the Mercedes A-Class and Audi's own A3. The A1 Sportback we're looking at here was updated in 2015 with more efficient engineering and extra technology to create the model we're going to look at in this guide. In its era, it remained the least expensive way of bringing a premium badge onto your driveway, while still preserving a modicum of practicality.
In this form, the car sold until mid-2018, when a second generation design (offered only in five-door Sportback form) was announced.
What You Get
This is exactly as you'd expect a miniature Audi to look, yet the styling of this car also gives the A1 a bit of its own personality: it's more than merely a scaled-down version of the larger A3. Forget all the retro stuff you'd find on a MINI or Fiat 500: the Ingolstadt brand has no patience with any of that. This is all far more sophisticated, with a continuous, pronounced shoulder line that runs from the trademark single frame front grille, then along the flanks before wrapping around the rear. The Polo parentage certainly isn't obvious, the wheels set more widely apart, the body riding a little lower. It's all neat, confident and very classy, with the finished effect being especially smart if you get a car whose original owner specified the contrasting roof that's unique to the more versatile Sportback body style.
In creating the Sportback shape, it would have been easiest simply to cut a couple of rear doors into the existing three-door bodystyle - but that wouldn't have been very Audi. So instead, the original A1 five-door design was revisited from scratch, resulting in 6mm more width and height for this Sportback model, plus a B-pillar located 23cm further back and a roofline that's 80mm longer to facilitate headroom in the rear.
As for the changes made to this improved post-2015-era version, well you'd need to be very familiar indeed with the first generation A1 model range to notice them. The enhancements mostly centred upon a front end featuring revisions to the air intakes and the fog lights, as well as revised bumpers with more powerful contours that made this updated car 19mm longer than the original design. More overt were the updates made to the wider, more distinctive Singleframe front grille that's flanked by restyled headlights that were in this form able to incorporate hi-tech xenon plus technology.
The subtly restyled tailgate lamps are another beautifully crafted part of this car. If Xenon headlights have been fitted, the tail lamps are made up of 54 SuperRed LEDs, emitting an intense, deep red colour. But of course, other drivers won't be able to see them at night when the hatch is raised, so when that's up, these extra lights on the backs of the C-pillars illuminate for improved roadside safety. The loading lip is a comfortably low 66cm and once you get your stuff above it, you'll find a 270-litre boot that, a little disappointingly, is the same size as it would be with the three-door A1 bodyshape.
That means it's not huge but the space provided is par for the course in the five-door supermini segment - and about the same as you'd get from a five-door MINI Hatch. Plus you can make very good use of the room on offer if you get a car whose original owner paid extra for an optional luggage package which features divided storage compartments under the loading floor to prevent your bottles of Coke scrambling your eggs on the way home. If you do need extra room and can fold down the back split-folding back seat (a process that doesn't require removal of the headrests), then up to 920-litres of space is available, again, the same as you'd get in a three-door A1.
Enter in through the long doors and you'll discover what you probably will have expected to find: the smartest cabin in the class, enhanced on most versions of this improved model with extra chrome and high-glass black detailing. There's a centre console that's supposed to be styled like a ship's stern and a dash apparently modelled on the shape of an aircraft wing, the fascia section decorated with large circular air vents designed to resemble jet engines and which original buyers could trim in personalisable colours.
The knurled metal heater controls are particularly smart and above these, you might expect to find the kind of centre-dash colour infotainment display that's becoming increasingly common in modern superminis but instead, in an up-market touch, this is secreted away in a fold-out panel on top of the fascia. It doesn't glide up electrically as it would on one of Audi's larger models but it's still one of the features that makes this cabin feel like that of a much more luxurious car. Access to the rear in the Sportback variant is obviously aided by a longer roofline, but you shouldn't get your hopes up too high with regard to the potential space inside. This is after all, still a supermini measuring under 4m in length and the wheelbase of the five-door body style remains unchanged from that of the alternative three-door model.
What to Look For
Most A1 Sportback owners we came across in our survey seemed very satisfied, but inevitably there were a few issues with some cars. One owner found that his 1.4 TFSI model kept losing power through the battery due to poor grounding. He mentioned also that the stop start system was very unreliable (a new fuel pump had to be fitted). And struggled with a horrible creaking sound through the forward bulkhead (which required a new engine mount). This car also had a constant rattling from underside, a power steering failure and an undue appetite for engine oil. Other owners we found reported issues with the Bluetooth connection, the emissions sensor, the EGR valve, horn failure, sliding seat failure, power steering pump failure, airbag failure, number plates falling apart and funny smells from the air con. Look out for all these things on your test drive. In one instance, an owner lost all drive in his S tronic TFSI model. The dealership found the fault code and diagnosed that the "mechatronic" gear selector had gone, which required a new £6K auto gearbox.
(approx based on a 2015 A1 1.6 TDI Sportback - Ex Vat) An air filter costs in the £12 to £13 bracket and a fuel filter costs in the £16 to £25 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £18 to £64 bracket for a set'; for a rear set, it's £12-£45. Front brake discs sit in the £37 to £68; for a rear pair, you're looking in the £21 to £45 bracket. A front brake calliper costs in the £117 to £150 bracket. A rear brake calliper costs about £120. A Rear shock absorber costs around £48-£75 (fronts around £100), a timing belt costs in the £20 to £40 bracket. Wiper blades cost in the £10 to £14 bracket.
On the Road
You may, like us, have certain expectations when it comes to driving this car. After all, it's based on a Volkswagen Polo isn't it? Which means it'll ride well and feel very competent but really lack a bit of fizz. Not the sort of supermini you'd take out for a drive just for the fun of it. Sometimes though, it's refreshing to be proven wrong. No, there isn't the go-kart chuckability you get from the start in a MINI but it's a genuine surprise just how talented the chassis is once you start to press on a bit. And unlike a MINI, this Audi doesn't force its sporty pretensions on you when you simply aren't in the mood: when it's pouring down with rain, the road ahead's festooned with speed humps and you just wish you were in something bigger and more comfortable. In an A1, you'll feel as if you are, this car offering an air of refinement and sophistication that's still unmatched in this class.
There's no magic formula here; just sound basics from the very well developed Polo platform. That's been matched to a sophisticated range of engines. The facelifted line-up kicked off with a 95PS 1.0 TFSI petrol variant (which replaced the previous 1.2 TFSI unit). A good all-rounder in the range is the 1.6-litre TDI diesel, which in this facelifted guise had its power raised from 105 to 116PS. For much the same sort of money that you'd pay for a top S line-spec 1.6 TDI model, you could also get yourself the cleverest petrol version of this car, a 125PS 1.4 TFSI variant with 'COD' or 'Cylinder on Demand' technology. At the top of the range sat the potent 2.0 TFSI S1 hot hatch.
Whichever version you choose, in an urban environment, the light controls, well-assisted steering, dinky dimensions, tight turning circle and decent all-round visibility mean that an A1 is simple to drive, simple to use and simple to park. The perfect shopping car indeed for someone who wants to leave something larger and more expensive tucked safely away at home in the garage.
If the three-door A1 offers all the essence of Audi in smaller form - and it does - then what of this A1 Sportback? In this post-2015-era first generation form, it's certainly small, but usefully versatile, a little urban jewel, trendy if you want it to be, restrained and low key if you don't. It can come power-packed or frugally-focused. It can break hi-tech boundaries. Or be found in a form that won't break the bank. Inevitably though, to experience much of what this car has to offer, you've to spend more than you might ever have expected to on a car of this size. So is it worth it? Well that's a question which for us is easier to answer with this A1 in Sportback guise. It's a beautifully balanced design that from first glance, seems immediately more comfortable with a premium price tag.
In fact, we'd go as far as to say that it's a car that makes more sense the more you spend on it - providing you know what you're buying. That's key to the whole different mind set you need in approaching the purchase of this A1. After all, on paper, you could get much of the same technology in a cheaper Volkswagen Polo. Or indeed an even less expensive Skoda Fabia. Fortunately though for Audi, cars of this kind aren't solely bought on paper. No, you'll be considering this, the most expensive supermini on the used market, because you've been just that little bit seduced by Audi's branding and image. Nothing wrong with that of course. A Casio tells the time just as well as a Rolex but sometimes, let's be honest, we just want nice things.
Particularly if long term running cost savings are likely to repay the premium paid up-front. This car does, after all, deliver best-in-class figures for Benefit-in-Kind taxation, overall running costs and residual value, helped by the fact that thanks to the engine revisions made to this post-2015-era car, its economy and CO2 emission figures are right up with the supermini segment leaders from this era. So it seems that small can be beautiful, to head as well as heart. Five does indeed go into one. Audi fans would never have doubted it.