A1 adds prestige to small-car segment
Audi A1 Sport

Manufacturers of prestige cars are now entering markets they previously would not have considered.

The latest segment to be infiltrated by the premium vehicle makers is the small city car.

It is a move that was started by Volvo with the C30 and has been followed by BMW, Audi and Lexus. Mercedes-Benz has also announced its intention to re-introduce the A-Class model.

The BMW 1 Series and the Audi A1 have been instant hits, bringing new buyers to the brands, so it is not surprising they are looking at spawning more variants.

The first to react was Audi with the launch of the A1 Sport in Melbourne last week.

Until now the small, premium sports market has been left exclusively to Mini with its Cooper S Chilli, a car that has sold well worldwide.

While Audi may be the first to provide some competition for the Mini, it certainly won't be the last. BMW, which owns Mini, will release its 1 Series M sports model next month and you can bet that when Mercedes-Benz relaunches its A-Class, probably some time next year, a sports model will be part of the mix.

The A1 Sport is based on its top-spec A1 Ambition but offers more standard features, a more powerful engine, sports suspension and S-Line body kit.

At the heart of this sports model is the exceptional dual-charged 1.4-litre TFSI engine that pumps out a healthy 136kW.

It is matched to Audi's seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission (there is no manual option offered), the same combination offered in Volkwagen's Polo GTi.

While the TFSI engine will entertain most drivers it is also very efficient, consuming just 5.9L/100km, which corresponds to CO{-2} emissions of just 139g/km.

But for those who are looking for real economy I suggest you wait for the 1.6-litre turbodiesel, which Audi says will be shown at the International Motor Show in Melbourne next month and go on sale toward the end of the year.

The diesel variant, which will come with the option of a manual gearbox or seven-speed S-Tronic dual-clutch transmission, will be one of the most economical cars on the market, with a claimed a fuel consumption of 3.8L/100km for the auto variant.

And it will have the same price tag as the petrol model, giving it a starting price of about $30,000 plus on-road costs.

Audi chose Moorabbin airport in Victoria as the venue to show off the attributes of the new Sport model, setting up a slalom course, a drag strip and a racing circuit on the runway.

The organisers then pitted a group of motoring journalists against each other in competition.

So what did I learn?

That I am an average performer on the slalom track, have quick reflexes but accelerate slowly on the drag strip and proved one of the slowest around the circuit.

I also learnt that it was really easy to squeal the wheels, which at least makes it sound like you are driving fast.

Finally, I discovered that in the right circumstances the little A1 can be a lot of fun.

With a supercharger and turbocharger working in unison there was no sign of lag, even when pushing the engine somewhere toward its limit, and the dual-clutch transmission is also superb.

Even on the "racetrack" you only needed to put it in Sport mode and leave it to do its own thing.

Though the transmission has a manual option, either via the gear lever or optional steering wheel paddles, the transmission was generally more intuitive and quicker reacting left to its own devices.

The suspension on the A1 Sport is firmer than on the standard model. On the track this made the car extremely predictable but I am not sure it will provide the type of ride a prestige car buyer will enjoy driving between work and home each day.

We did have an opportunity to drive the car in an urban environment but unfortunately we spent most of that time caught in a Melbourne traffic jam, so we hardly got to test the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh gears, never mind anything else.

What it did give us was a chance to do was to admire the quality, build and finish of the interior and enjoy the comfortable leather seats and the car's features.

While it may have a starting price of $42,500 (you can lift that considerably if you start ticking the vast options list) plus on-road costs, this is a car that comes with many extras found on much more expensive Audi models.

There will be small hot hatches that can match it in performance, the $28,990 VW Polo GTi for one, but I am not sure that any others combine performance with a prestige feel as well.

The Mini now has a competitor and it is one that could cause it some pain in the sales race.

The West Australian

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