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Audi S1 First Drive

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Audi’s legendary ‘S1’ nametag will reappear on our roads once again, with the arrival of the new Audi S1 and S1 Sportback. The S1 was a flame-spitting Group-B rally car from the mid-eighties. Having the S1 tag bestowed on the petite A1 carry’s a large mantle to uphold Audi’s tradition of rally dominance. They can safely relax though, the S1 has some fantastic traits that will impress any accomplished driver and make the average driver feel like Group-B Audi rally legend Stig Blomqvist.

The S1 is available in both three-door (S1) and five-door (S1 Sportback) variants, the Sportback model is our preferred choice, it’s better looking as a result of its proportions and more practical with the addition of rear doors, it’s also value for money with just €600 separating the two models. Both are identifiable as the performance variant of the compact Audi A1, with xenon plus headlights, 17” alloy wheels (18” optional) covering immense 310mm brake discs, there’s four oval tailpipes and a diffuser at the rear of the S1. There is a range of new colours available including Sepang blue, pearl effect, floret silver and Vegas yellow. Customers can specify the quattro exterior and interior styling kit to enhance their S1’s appearance further with the addition of quattro decals on the side sills and a hefty rear spoiler. The interior boasts stainless steel pedals, black trim inserts and sports seats, S sports seats are available optionally. These figure-hugging seats with integrated head restraints were fitted in our test car, they offer comfort and support for both driver and passenger.

 

At the heart of the S1 is a 2.0-litre TFSI petrol engine, this turbocharged unit features special aluminium pistons and higher-strength connecting rods to produce 231hp and 370Nm of torque. Audi’s engineers have worked extensively on the engine to optimise performance and efficiency, the crankcase has been reinforced and the cylinder head is made out of an aluminium-silicon alloy to reduce weight and increase its strength and temperature stability. The S1’s sole transmission is a six-speed manual transmission. It’s a low-ratio unit with a tall sixth gear to reduce fuel consumption. In order to accommodate Audi’s quattro permanent all-wheel drive system into the A1’s chassis the rear suspension has been completely redesigned. It’s an all-new complex four link suspension, with three wishbones per wheel and aluminium wheel carriers. The spare wheel well is now home to the rear axle differential. 

The S1 has a sporty character from the first press of the dash-mounted push button starter. The four-cylinder engine fires up with a throaty sound signalling its eagerness to rev. Its acceleration is impressive and capable with up to 50 percent of its torque sent to the rear wheels through the car’s quattro all-wheel drive system. The standard Audi drive select system allows you to select one of three driving modes, efficiency, comfort and dynamic, each altering the characteristics of the engine responsiveness, sound and comfort. Needless to say we spent almost our entire time test driving the S1 in dynamic mode. In this setting the car’s two-stage adjustable dampers are firmed up, the throttle response is more sensitive and the soundtrack is intensified courtesy of flaps that open in the exhausts and a sound actuator that boosts the engine’s intake noise. The result is a finely-honed hatch that’s engaging to drive. The six-speed manual transmission has a short throw and is a joy to use and preferable to the more frequent dual-clutch transmissions as it offers a more involved driving experience.

 

We drove the S1 on road and track, our track wasn’t the conventional asphalt surfaced proving ground, to fully experience the quattro all-wheel drive system at work, we drove on a snow-covered frozen lake in Sweden. Our test car’s standard low profile tyres were replaced with studded snow tyres. The car’s sophisticated Electronic Stabilisation Control (ESC) is a two-stage unit that can be deactivated completely, much to our delight. With the esc completely deactivated, the wheel-selective torque control and the Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) remain active enabling you to drift through the corners without losing power. After some practice laps with the esc switched off you can fully exploit the car’s incredible abilities and power slide through corners flicking the car from left to right with ease and precision. No Mini Cooper S or Volkswagen Golf GTI could ever offer this much accuracy or enjoyment. Granted any prospective S1 owner in Ireland isn’t going to have the opportunity to experience their hot hatch on frozen Killarney lakes at Christmas. Nonetheless what it proves is the complexity and capabilities of Audi’s quattro systems that they’re so very and understandably proud of.

Back on the road the ride is firm but not uncomfortable, we do look forward to driving the car on Irish roads on summer tyres to get a real feel for its everyday drivability. The throttle pedal is too far to the right making heel-and-toe down changes somewhat awkward, hopefully this won’t be an issue in right hand drive models. The S1 delivers an engaging drive, power is evident throughout the rev range, maybe it’s due to the car’s size but it feels more powerful then the 231hp produced. This is the same as a Golf GTI Performance but its additional size and front-wheel drive creates a quite different driving experience, the GTI is more of a labrador and the S1 an energetic puppy. The Mini Cooper S JCW (John Cooper Works) is closer to the S1 in terms of its kart-like handling that induces a smile on the driver’s face. Neither have all-wheel drive which gives the S1 the edge over both of these, likewise the Renaultsport Clio and Megane are agile but not as capable as the Audi.

The S1 combines some elements of the legendary rally car from which it bears its name. With a responsive engine, superb chassis control and a proper driver’s six-speed manual transmission, ESC that can be fully turned off and a traditional functional handbrake it’s a driver’s delight. The last car to thrill and offer a proper engaging drive was the Mini GP2, this S1 is considerably less expensive, more practical and better equipped. If you take pleasure in driving and want to be thrilled the S1 won’t disappointed. Sure you can have more power, but with its superb quattro system it’s a real-world fast car. 

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