It used to be one of the hottest market segments in the country. Small cars, especially hatches, scurried around cities and suburbs with the widest demographic of drivers on board, infesting nightspots and lawn bowling club carparks, surf clubs and school pick-up areas.
Not so now. Up until the virus nuked the entire market, the segment is barely lukewarm since SUVs marched across the scene, bulldozing traditional buying habits and redefining “normal.”
So after a diet of boringly similar SUVs - people movers in disguise - it was a pleasant surprise to drive the new Audi A1.
I came away thinking if you can put price aside, and look at the car purely from the viewpoint of what you like, how it feels when you drive it, and how it might make you feel when it’s in your driveway, then Audi’s new baby will climb the scale of desirability very rapidly.
It’s a new small car that is pitched as something quite different. Rather than being just the smallest Audi - read slowest and cheapest - the A1 deserves a title more ennobling and descriptive than a solitary letter and number.
For example, if you are placed in the car blindfolded, removing it will make you think you are in something far more expensive than it is. The black finish and ‘stealth’ lines of the dash, information and instrument panel reeks of high performance and a commensurate price.
Additionally, when you start the car up and move away, the response to throttle, steering and brakes, plus the wider track and longer wheelbase smacks of a medium sized premium passenger car.
All this is in contrast to the outward appearance, which is modern, but with refined rather than overt stylishness.
So as much as potential buyers with Audi history will be pleased with the offering, some people thinking of new wheels might consider the littlest Audi as being beneath their expectations.
The new A1, which has taken off like a rocket overseas, has been launched here to re-ignite interest in Audi from buyers who have been flocking to the aforementioned SUVs. I asked an Audi executive for an idea of who is still buying the A1. “The very young, and” – paused to think for a moment – “the more senior among us,” was the careful response. Read young adults and grandparents. Apparently, the broad age group in between these life phases are opting for space and a view over the traffic.
Audi’s plan is to reclaim some of that middle ground.
Three models are available in the new range - the 30 TFSI base model with a three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine, the 35 TFSI mid-range version with a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine, and the 40 TFSI with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. All the engines are turbocharged and the 1.5-litre unit has cylinder de-activation to enhance fuel efficiency.
Compared to the previous models, the new cars have substantial improvements to power and torque. In particular, the three-pot has 21 per cent and 25 per cent more power and torque respectively, while the 2.0-litre motor has a more mild four per cent increase in power, but a hefty 28 per cent boost in torque.
Performance figures are clearly stronger as a result.
Unlike the other Audi cars though, you will wait in vain for an RS version of this car. Even the S version is missing from forward estimates. Buyer history reveals that 80 per cent of customers come from mainstream brands, or are purchasing their first car.
Importantly, once having had the Audi experience in an A1, more than half buy a larger Audi rather than swap brands.
That’s why the engineers targeted improvements to key areas most popular with owners. Firstly, overall design is a big Audi buying motive. This one is more masculine, with bonnet air vents, LED headlights, a wide single Audi frame for grille and new C pillars with shorter overhangs. Futuristic rear lights and flared wheel arches spice up the road stance and the interior leapfrogs a generation or two.
The car is 56mm longer but wheelbase is up nearly double that. Wider front and rear track means Audi has pushed all the wheels further out to the corners. Interior length is up 43mm and headroom is up also, although the car’s overall height is down. The boot volume is boosted by 65-litres.
All safety systems from the previous A1 are now standard across the range, and the autonomous emergency braking will now detect cyclists and pedestrians.
Greater connectivity and infotainment brings the fully digital instrument panel, but the superb virtual cockpit is optional. Standard audio is an 80W 6-speaker system which you can option all the way to a B&O headbanger spec.
There’s a lot more equipment in the range, but Audi is still playing the usual option pack game – Style and Technik for the 35 and Premium Plus, S line and Interior package for the 40 series.
That brings us to price. A1 starts at $32,350. You can get a Civic, Clio, Camry or one of six SUVs for that money. Even a Navara cab chassis if that takes your fancy. But A1 prospects are looking for more than practicality or even value for money. In that light, none of the A1s will disappoint.
I was amazed how that little 3-cylinder engine sparkled, but the 35 TFSI has to be one of my favourite cars. Certainly my choice if I'm looking at something this size.
Models: Audi A1 Sportback 30 TFSI; 35 TFSI; 40 TFSI
Prices: $32,350; $35,290; $46,450
Engines – All Turbo Petrol: 1-litre 3-cylinder; 1.5-litre 4-cylinder; 2.0-litre 4-cylinder
Outputs: 85kW and 200Nm; 110kW and 250Nm; 147kW and 320Nm
Transmissions: 7-Speed auto; 6-speed on 40 TFSI with 2.0-litre engine
Thirst - l/100kms: 5.4; 5.8; 6.4