Upon opening its door, I was greeted by plastics which wouldn’t have felt out of place on a SsangYong, a sky-high driving position which could give its occupants a nose bleed and steering which seemingly had no relationship with the front wheels. Add the bone-shaking suspension into the equation and switchgear taken from Audis of yesteryear and I was left perplexed as to why there are so many A1s on the road - are motorists that blinkered by the allure of owning something with the famed four-ringed badge?
I saw an artist’s impression of the second-generation A1 before its release a while back, and I don’t mind admitting that I absolutely loved the way it looked. In the metal it’s even better, especially so when it’s in this test car’s ‘Python Yellow’ hue. It just looks right. There’s subtle aggression on every angle thanks to the S-Line kit, helped by the black badging when opting for the ‘Contrast Edition’, but the new head and tail lights are both key to its visual brilliance - it’s turned a somewhat girly car into something for everyone.
Let’s get Audi’s new badging system out of the way, shall we? It’s hugely confusing at first - a year or so ago I was left Googling an A6 ’50 TDI’ which I saw and hopefully thought had a big 5.0-litre. It doesn’t, of course, but the numbering is now Audi’s way of telling you how good the spec is; the higher the number, the more expensive it is, in a nutshell. With the A1, there’s the 30 TFSI, with a three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine giving 114bhp; this, the 35 TFSI, with a 148bhp 1.5-litre and the 40 TFSI, with a 197bhp 2.0-litre.
No-one does an interior quite like Audi in 2019 and the A1 - which is the cheapest car in its expansive line-up - continues the trend. There’s a fantastic steering wheel in front, an 8.8-inch infotainment screen cleverly positioned towards the driver and the overall finish feels much more premium than it ever did in its predecessor, even in the range-topping S1.
Unusually there’s no fancy push-button starting system, so put the key in traditionally, twist it and it fires up. There’s the petrol-powered turbocharged engine, coupled to a twin-clutch, seven-speed S Tronic gearbox, which in this guise is an automatic and goes without paddleshifters. It’s plenty quick enough, too. It still feels small to drive, so the 148bhp on offer is ample - 60mph takes 7.7 seconds and it has a top speed of 137mph. However, given there’s no chance of using paddles to select the gear you want, it can be found wanting if you require an immediate kick-down from say sixth gear to third.
The little A1’s party piece is undoubtedly its handling. There’s genuine capability here; it’s darty, keen to tuck its nose into a corner and never feels like it’ll come unstuck. Confidence-inspiring it most definitely is, but when you’re driving spiritedly there’s an unfortunate lack of connection simply because of the gearbox. Leave it in its default setting and it’s brilliant, but keen drivers will - like me - yearn for a manual gearbox as I think the A1 deserves it. It’s a hoot to drive, but taking away even the paddleshifters just feels mean. You can push the selector to ‘S’, for sport, and opt for manual mode but nudging the stick backwards and forwards doesn’t cut it for me.
The damping, which is switchable, is too stiff in its harshest setting but much-improved on the older car in its normal mode, so there’s no gripe on that front. However, there’s a major annoyance in the form of its lane-keep assist, a safety device fitted to just about every new car. As it cuts in far too frequently, you’re left scrabbling about on a sub-menu deep in its infotainment system, attempting to find the option in which you can simply switch the damn thing off. Try as I might, I still couldn’t find out how to do it so I resorted to Google again and found the most inconspicuous unmarked button hiding - would you believe - on the end of the indicator stalk. A simple press of that was all that was required.
What I look for when testing a car is very different to what it was several years ago, because I’m now a father to an 18-month-old boy who somehow comes with a ludicrous amount of baggage whenever you decide to go out. A reasonably-sized boot for a pram is essential, five doors are preferable and fuel economy - something I was never bothered about - is also important.
This £27,000 A1, despite its dinky dimensions, passes every test with flying colours but most notable is its exceptional fuel economy. You’ll easily see 50mpg on a decent run and you’ll struggle to get much below 40mpg with mixed driving, but you’ll still get bags of real-world pace at the same time.
The new A1 has turned an A1-hating person into a lover. Its safety systems annoyed me until I found a way of switching them off and it could do with more interaction with either paddleshifters or, better still, a manual gearbox, but what’s always there is a good-looking, pleasing-to-drive car which is not only fun but well-built and practical. Where do I sign?