Audi S1: Belting baby blitzer

Audi’s line of sports stars now start with a big-hearted small fry.

Pros: Rare fare, makes an impact that is much greater than its physical dimension.

Cons: Expensive, wearisome for everyday driving.

Our road test rating: 3.8/5

Design and engineering:

Super aggressive? What do you think? Any more testosterone the $59,990 S1 would be at risk of attacking itself.

So much about this car suggests whoever signed off on it could be safely considered to be the kind of person who might think it perfectly normal to take a stick of gelignite to a Guy Fawkes party.

So what’s the intent? Being a ‘sports’ version of the A1, the S1 monicker is an inevitable yet the happenstance of Quattro history also allows a heritage link to the legendary 1984 Sport Quattro S1 that won both the World Rally Championship and Audi’s first Pikes Peak victory in 1985.

The S1 of the ‘now’ is not a suggestion to Audi is about to go back to those days, but it does raise an interesting conjecture about why this particular project was not delivered behind a Volkswagen brand, given it’s the parent that is now collecting World Rally Championship titles.

There’s a link with the works car. Regular A1s (and Polos) have a torsion beam that, patently, does not work with four-wheel-drive. So the S1 gets a trick four-link set-up. The only other DNA-related car in the family that has the same fitout is … well, it’s on the motorsports channel.

Powertrain and performance:

It’s all very straightforward … in an utterly lunatic way. Take a granny-friendly A1 city hatch and stuff it with a 170kW/370Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine and then, just for more giggles, engineer up a four-wheel-drive system.

It’s an undeniably hands-on car and also unavoidably that way, too, because the sole transmission choice is a six-speed manual rather than the automated paddle-shift direct shift type that is found in any other Audi sports model. There’s no DSG here for the simple reason that there just isn’t room to fit one. The orthodox manual might be a turn-off, but that level of purism reflects the car’s exotic status.

Other brat pack alterations are firmer dampers, for improved cornering, 18-inch alloys, larger brake discs and special settings for the electromechanical power-steering. Standard Audi Drive Select varies the dampers and engine response

Driver appeal:

Fast? Oh yes. While the claimed 0-100kmh time of 5.9 seconds won’t threaten a supercar, with 170kW and 320Nm it definitely has an oomph at odds with the shape’s supermarket shopping trolley status.

That speed becomes more expressive when the car is chucked on the sort of roads that might just as easily be called special stages. The low-profile 225/35 tyre is one that has greater application for tarmac than gravel, of course, which is in keeping with the car’s look and trim.

However, the payoff is certainly in grip and go; it simply scampers with no small amount of ferocity between, and through, bends. The engine’s characteristic is to fire out a thick wodge of torque, topped by a power sting when the rev needles nears the red zone. There’s a point at which you simply wonder if the package is up to it, but it seems to be.

Ride, refinement and quality:

The short wheelbase makes for a rigid ride but it seems to have lots of traction and, because of the low ride height, firm springs and –quite potentially – its porky 1340kg weight, it sits quite squarely.

Something immediately obvious about the S1 is that size works for and against it. On the one hand, it feels like a total giant killer when pushed hard, yet when driving without any sense of Rohrl-play it is … well, something of a small, cramped and compromised car, actually. That’s when you might think a VW Golf GTI, which offers the same engine in a larger and similar weighted setting for much the same money, might make better sense.

Practicality and packaging:

The Vegas yellow hero paint hue and big wheels aside, the S1 on test also spelled out its special status with LED lights, beefed front and rear bumpers, side sills and exhaust system and, on this car, a ‘quattro’ side graphic sticker in old-style font. You can also buy a large roof spoiler.

The decidedly dark interior can be brightened with a quattro interior styling package that bumps the test car’s sports seats for a more rally-like type with integrated head rests. No mention about nets for hanging up helmets, an intercom system or a roll cage. But they might as well have removed the rear seats, for all the good they are; this interior is cosy.

How it compares:

There’s nothing else like it. I love the ferocity of its shove and shout, and could abide the cramped cabin, cost and choppy low-speed ride because it feels like a junior rally car and looks like it too.