Car Review

'Diminutive' Audi A1 Sportback proves bigger isn't always better on a road trip

The svelte Audi A1 35 TFSI may work well in the city, but how does it cope with a mammoth 3,500km drive from Joburg to the Cape?

02 February 2020 - 00:01
The new Audi A1 35 TFSI on the R61 between Graaff-Reinet and Beaufort West.
The new Audi A1 35 TFSI on the R61 between Graaff-Reinet and Beaufort West.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Small cars have come a long way. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that the notion of steering down the N1 en route to Cape Town in anything other than a sedan or SUV seemed like a sick exercise in self-harm. 

I can remember doing this trip in my old Opel Kadett: its low-tech 1.6-litre engine bellowing away at stratospheric revs while the cabin turned into a sauna thanks to an absence of air-conditioning. Entertainment? A clunky Griffin iTrip let me broadcast songs stored on my iPod over the aftermarket radio. And that was it - 16 hours later we'd arrive wild-eyed, battered and dreaming of a Lexus LS.

It's these memories that still see people suspicious of taking small cars on big trips. But like I said, evolution has been kind to the breed and now we have hatchbacks such as this Audi A1 35 TFSI Advanced at our disposal.

Launched towards the end of 2019, the second-generation A1 is still the most diminutive offering in the current Audi portfolio - but when you're buckled up behind the wheel it feels anything but.

Built to tackle the Mini Cooper and new BMW 1 Series, this middle-of-the-range A1 feels infinitely more grownup than its dimensions would trick you into believing, thanks to its sleek, tech-rich interior.

Highlights - albeit optional in the case of my test car - include a digital instrument cluster (aka Audi virtual cockpit) as well as the accompanying MMI Navigation Plus touchscreen infotainment system sunk into the centre of the dashboard.

The Audi A1 on Route 62 outside The Karoo Moon Motel in Barrydale.
The Audi A1 on Route 62 outside The Karoo Moon Motel in Barrydale.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

An intuitive piece of high-resolution art, the latter offers Apple CarPlay that (finally) plays nice with Waze - a must-have on road trips when you need to be alerted to speed traps and other hazards.

Personally I'm a sucker for the ambient lighting that lets you customise the hue of the cabin. Yesterday it was "Tron Blue" but now, approaching Bloemfontein in the predawn murk, it's "Vapourwave Purple".

It's on these lonely roads beneath parched Karoo skies that the A1 really proves its maturity. Refinement is top-notch: the Audi engineers managing to get road and wind noise levels impressively low for a car of this ilk. Then there's the engine.

You won't find a clue in the silly name but the 35 TFSI packs a 1.5-litre turbo motor that, bolted to a long-legged seven-speed S-Tronic gearbox, offers effortless high-speed cruising potential at relaxed rpms. Not to mention enough urge to overtake lumbering truck herds without fear of having a head-on.

Take a more leisurely pace, enjoy the stark landscapes that flank the R61 out of Graaff-Reinet, and you'll discover that it also serves up excellent fuel economy. On this roundabout trip from Joburg down to Montagu I average a miserly 5.3l/100km but for many hundreds of kilometres I get it as low as 4.8l/100km.

As you've probably noticed the A1 has grown in stature. It's 56mm longer - an increase that has done wonders for interior space. The rear seats can finally accommodate adults with legs and when they are folded flat I was able to throw in my bicycle as well as all my other holiday trappings.

The flipside is that the A1 is now - dimensionally speaking - darn close to the A3. In fact, during a four-day foray in Cape Town many car-park conversationalists (attracted to the Audi's menacing looks) are surprised to hear that it isn't. Still, this bloat hasn't done much to kerb this model's nimbleness.

The Mother City may be a space miser but the 35 TFSI has no problem squeezing into tight spaces. Kloof Road, Sea Point, the tourist-soaked main drag of Simon's Town: with fine all-round visibility plus the optional rear-view camera system, this A1 is nothing but a doddle to park.

Cape Town in January offers a lot for the holidaying Joburger. From the myriad hipster bistros that jewel the CBD to the boutique bars of Bree Street (not to mention endless outdoor activities), entertainment is guaranteed and constant. If it gets too much - and it can - you can clear your mind with a burn across some of the best driving roads in the country. Red Hill Road. Franschhoek Pass. The R44 between Gordons Bay and Rooi Els. They're all on your doorstep.

I throw the Audi at them to see how it handles. Much like its more powerful 40 TFSI sister, A1 35 TFSI is certainly not corner-shy thanks to a combination of massive mechanical grip (sticky 215/40 R18 Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres really hug the asphalt) and a firmly sprung suspension system that keeps unwanted body-roll to a minimum. Whether sashaying through fast corners or squiggly hairpins, this hatchback remains a locked down and confidence-inspiring steer.

FAST FACTS: Audi A1 Sportback 35 TFSI ADVANCED

• ENGINE: 1498cc 4-cyl turbo

• POWER: 110kW at 5,000rpm

• TORQUE: 250Nm at 1,500rpm0-100km/h: 7.7 seconds (claimed)

• TOP SPEED: 222km/h (claimed)

• FUEL: 5.7/100km (achieved)

• PRICE: From R443,900

Criticisms? Well, I've got to say that the lack of steering feel is a disappointment. No matter how much you play with the Drive Select modes, it's difficult to judge how much traction you have in reserve and how the tyres are interacting with the bitumen. This numbness is frustrating and detracts from what is an otherwise capable warm hatch. Audi needs to start injecting some more interactivity into its cars.

While the ride can get choppy on rough surfaces (I'd spec the 17-inch Sport alloys to combat this) the braking performance it far superior to that of Audi models past: even a hot day up on Franschhoek Pass did little to soften the pedal.

Small cars have come a long way. And this Audi stands out as one of the best of a new generation. An epitome of the so-called Goldilocks principle (just the right amount of everything) the 35 TFSI does well across a broad spread of motoring disciplines - something that makes this A1 an enticing proposition in a world where downsizing is becoming so prolific. From choked urban commutes to massive 3,537km road trips, it proves that bigger isn't always necessarily better.


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