Audi A1 (photo by Marc Waller)Usually a car manufacturer will supply a car for the media to test and give their opinions on.

Although the car they supply should be representative of one you’d buy at the dealers, there’s no way of being certain. Obviously they will try and make sure the car is at its best and any possible faults will be corrected. Even on a long term test the car will come from an allocated press fleet.

A way round this would be to test cars by buying them from a dealer but this would be very expensive. Another way is to test a car supplied by a hire car company. This will just be a normal car from the production line and may have already done a reasonable mileage so any faults will have had a chance to appear. A recent trip to Scotland for the BTCC provided a chance to do just this and an Audi A1 was selected to try out.

Audi launched the A1 at the end of 2011 with sales starting in 2012. It’s a super mini aimed at the fashion end of the market and so its rivals are cars like the MINI, the Alfa Romeo Mito and the Citroen DS3. Our car was the 1.6TDI S line, a car that’s relatively high up the range, priced at £18,235 before options. Our car had various options, including a Bluetooth phone taking the price to £20,400.

Audi A1 (photo by Marc Waller)On picking it up at Edinburgh airport, the first thing I did was to put my luggage in the boot. It’s a small car so it was never going to be a massive boot but my small case and my camera bag filled the boot to about 60% of its capacity.

Getting in I found I had enough room despite being nearly 6 foot 4” in height! I didn’t have room to spare but I could certainly get comfortable. The cabin seems well built and well designed. There is a pop up screen on the dashboard which displays information on the stereo, the phone system and other settings on the car. It’s also used for the Sat nav which is an additional option. The sat nav software is actually present but disabled. When you opt for sat Nav the dealer enables the software and fits the DVD drive which loads the maps. I found all the car’s systems easy to use and successfully put my mobile onto the Bluetooth system without having to see any instructions. The bluetooh system can access your phonebook and call lists, meaning it’s very easy to call any of your contacts straight away. You can also customise ringtones etc, to suit. The mirrors were also easy to adjust and within a very short time I was ready to start the drive up to Knockhill. The key information from the central screen is then repeated in a small display inside the dials on the main instrument panel. The steering wheel has all the usual stereo and other controls to adjust settings and control the phone system.
The cockpit itself does initially feel small if you are used to a bigger car with the roof seemingly not far above you but I found within a few hours I’d adjusted and things felt normal after that. The view out the window is a little like the one you get in an Audi TT, well as close as you can get in a small hatchback!

Once out the hire car centre I found the 1.6 turbo diesel engine to have huge amounts of torque. It pulls very well throughout the rev range and the acceleration feels better than the quoted 0-60 time of 10.2 seconds suggests. It felt great on the motorway heading past Dunfermline to Knockhill circuit and it overtook with ease. I found it had so Audi A1 (photo by Marc Waller)much torque that it’d wheel spin if I gave it a bit too much throttle even once it had pulled away! The power seemingly overpowering the traction control system. After checking out the paddock at Knockhill including the Audi’s bigger brothers, the NGTC AuDi A4’s of Wix Racing I signed in for the weekend at the media office. It was time to head back to the hotel. I used a back lanes route to head down to Dunfermline, perfect for testing the handling!

The car certainly didn’t disappoint with a surprising amount of grip from it’s small wheels. It cornered with ease and was so much fun on the journey to the hotel that I took a bit of a detour for an hour or so!

The lanes did provide the first down point in that I found the gear change to be not quite as smooth as I’d like. The gears would go in easily enough but it felt a touch notchy and it wasn’t a totally smooth action. It wasn’t a huge issue though and you’d soon get used to it.

Finally back in the hotel, I reversed into the space. Reverse is selected by pushing the entire gear stick downwards before pushing it into gear. Suprisingly there doesn’t appear to be any safeguards to prevent someone doing this accidentally during normal driving. While admittedly it would be a particularly dumb piece of driving, most cars these days usually have some kind of safeguard to prevent this happening.

The optional reversing sensor system fitted as an optional extra on this car worked well providing the usual beeps letting you know when you are close to the wall or other obstacle. The volume and tone of the beeps can be customised via the control system spoken about earlier.

A trip to Asda for supplies for the weekend proved the car was very easy to park, shooting in and out the tightest of spaces with ease. Over the next couple of days I drove the car backwards and forwards to Knockhill as I covered the BTCC. Wix Racing’s lead driver, Rob Austin, was having a great weekend in “Sherman” (The team’s nickname for the car) perhaps having “Baby Sherman” around was bringing them luck!

While driving back to the hotel on Saturday night, a teenager in an old Renault Clio pulled across in front of me as I headed down a lane. To avoid an accident I had to push the brakes hard as well as steering around the Clio which was now in front of me. The cars systems, including ABS and stability control responded perfectly and allowed me to avoid the Clio without a problem. It’s not something you want to have the opportunity to test but the car had proved it’s abilities to avoid an accident.

Audi A1 (photo by Marc Waller)Audi A1 (photo by Marc Waller)To settle my nerves I put the stereo on. It’s particularly good for a small car with very powerful bass and clear treble. It effortlessly pumps out the music without distortion. The radio has excellent reception picking up the circuit radio station even miles away from Knockhill. It even has a facility to play from your phone or an SD card as well as an Mp3 player and the usual CD’s.

A late night trip to a bowling alley allowed the lights to be tried out, they are as good as you’d expect from an Audi, lighting the road well ahead of you. They can be set to auto operation, as can the Windscreen wipers.

The car parks at Knockhill are all non-tarmac areas. Some of them are covered with large stones but the little A1 coped with ease and most of the bumps driving across the uneven ground were smoothed out. Big Sherman never did manage to win a race but the team did have their best BTCC weekend to date. Baby Sherman (as I’d now named the car!) was performing in an equally impressive manner. I’d be sad to give the car back on Monday.

Track action (photo by Marc Waller)The drive back to the airport on Monday morning was in thick fog. At least this allowed the cars fog lights to be tested! As I’d come to expect from the little car they performed faultlessly. There really is little to fault with the car, the gear change was probably my biggest dislike but in reality this was a tiny issue, it’s only getting the prominence I’m giving it because I’m struggling to find anything else to fault on the car at all!

The VAG group use the same basic platform to produce the Seat Ibiza, the Skoda Fabia and the VW Polo. These are all similarly competent cars and this leads us to the only other issue with the car, the price. At over £20,000 on our tested model, it’s very expensive for a small car, even one as great as this and the other cars based on the same platform in the VAG group are all £1000’s less.

Of course part of Audi’s brand is its prestige and you are paying a premium to say you own an Audi rather than a Skoda or a Seat. Some of the materials used in the interior of the Audi are also better quality then its VAG cousins but are they worth thousands more?

I certainly felt sad to hand the car over and head to the plane home and if I was in the market for a prestige small car, it would be an extremely strong contender. Is it worth more than the other VAG cars? For the same money as a mid-range 1.4 petrol Audi A1, you can buy the hot Skoda Fabia Vrs. But you’d own a Skoda rather than an Audi and some people prefer the prestige of a name like Audi. Since launch Audi have sold a huge amount of A1’s, they passed the 100,000 mark back in 2011 so they can certainly find plenty of buyers despite the premium.

It certainly is a great little car and I’d recommend it but only the buyer can decide what is more important to them, price or prestige. By Marc Waller

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