Audi S1 Sportback First Drive

PERFORMANCE enthusiasts patiently waiting for S-badged Audis to creep ever-lower towards their price brackets now have a champion. The S1 Sportback is officially the cheapest car in the S range, at $49,990 in base spec. Its performance, though, is anything but cheap.

Everything in the S range is expected to perform, and it was always going to take more than just a boost increase over the base Audi A1 to make the grade. Audi has turned this mild-mannered five-door into a genuinely quick road rocket, as we discovered at the national launch in Tasmania.

Our drive included some typically awesome Tasmanian roads, followed by a skirmish at Baskerville Raceway.

Similar to other cars wearing the half-step performance badge, the S1 is all-wheel-drive – no small task to convert from the front wheel drive A1 platform - and runs the superb 2.0 TFSI engine. The 0-100km/h benchmark is a 5.9 second journey according to Audi, but importantly the solid 370Nm of torque (claimed) is delivered between 1600-3000rpm, making for performance that doesn’t need an airport runway to appreciate. It’s truly accessible power that can be used to punch into a gap in traffic, or pass a Porsche on your favourite driver’s road; that is unless you can’t drive a manual.

There’s only one option to select gears and that’s with a clutch pedal – the S1 is a manual-only proposition. Enthusiasts will rejoice at this news, but there’s no doubt the lack of an auto 'box will damage potential sales – Australians love a self-swapper.

Audi’s take is that the car stays true to the company’s heritage with its manual shift and it’s prepared to take the sales repercussions. Perhaps the final price tag target of less than 50 large also has something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, it’s a sublime gearbox: short throws and liquid precision make swapping cogs something to look forward to, with heel-toe downshifts made easier by the pedal’s spacing and sure grip. The early gears are low and while sixth cog is longer-legged, it still makes for a 2500rpm cruise at 110-odd km/h – most six speeders are idling at 2000rpm here.

You expect astounding grip from an S-spec quattro (all-wheel-drive) platform and that’s exactly what you get. The four-link rear end, one of many features separating this car from the base A1 range, makes for a firmer, tighter butt and yields direct results in terms of drive and grip. The knife-edge compromise between high-end handling and compliant ride quality has been well judged, particularly with the two-stage variable shocks.

The suspension’s tractability hasn’t been lost in the translation from Europe to Australia. The S1’s ride allows flat-stick cornering, but won’t separate your spine from your skull at every bump. Audi was obviously confident of this, as Baskerville Raceway has some serious bumps of its own, and even at accelerated pace, the balanced ride quality was within expectations of such a car. It’s no Silver Shadow, but its lack of body roll and flatter-than-the-Nullarbor cornering belies its comfort in cruise-mode touring.

The dynamic performance of this car is astounding. Run out of grip and exceed Audi’s performance-honed electronic safety net, and more than likely it’s because you’ve done something spectacularly stupid.

Other fruit on the bulging S vine include the Audi Drive Select system that switches between “Dynamic” (that adds a fruitier exhaust note, those firmer dampers and a sharper throttle response); “Efficiency” to help drivers eke out  Audi’s claim of an impressive 7.0L/100km fuel use figure; and “Auto”, which makes the choice for fence-sitters.

Standard options include an idle-stop system, wheel-selective torque control and an electronic differential lock.

The Sportback is not an easy car for taller people to enter and exit –it is a small car, after all – but headroom is good once you’re in, even if the upper window frame protrudes uncomfortably close.

The flat-bottomed steering wheel’s height adjustment means getting long legs under it is simple, though the cargo bin/console does push into the clutch leg in hard cornering. Interestingly, there’s no clutch-footrest, which I missed when being molested by the cornering G-forces this car generates.

Passenger legroom in the rear is minimal – lanky teenagers are likely to whine the entire trip – but it does not pretend to be a big car. The excellent Bose sound system will cheer them up, though, even if the road noise from the Pirelli P Zeros fitted to our test car was equipped with was more intrusive than we expected it to be.

That’s a short list of minuses, though. Once you’ve felt the quattro platform scrabble its way through an uphill sweeper, the lag-free torque-monster engine doing its best to flatten the hill, they are quickly forgotten.

Besides, the cheapest S car is now here, and a whole new raft of buyers will get the chance to experience the sharper end of Audi performance.

Click here to read the full range review of the Audi A3 and S3 

Model: Audi S1 Sportback
Engine: 1984cc in-line 4cyl, dohc, 24v, turbo
Max power: 170kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 370Nm @ 1600-3000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1308kg
0-100km/h: 5.8sec (claimed)
Price: $49,990
On sale: now

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