Audi brings back the S1 – to thrilling effect
It’s risky to call the hot-hatch version of the A1 after the company’s renowned Group B rally car. But against the odds Audi has come up with a fiery new model worthy of the name
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2014
Audi is putting an S1 back on our roads. In the mid 1980s, if you don’t know, the S1 was a flame-spitting Group B rally car. Even though it only really featured on the rally circuits of the world and on the bedroom walls of petrolhead children, it sat at the prestigious end of the range.
Taking on its name gives the petite new Audi some seriously hard-core treads to fill. Other marques have linked a road car with rally heritage only to see it become a marketing disaster. It’s a high-risk strategy that can damage both the new model and its predecessor.
Audi can relax, though, for the new S1 will impress any accomplished driver – and make the average driver feel like Stig Blomqvist, the renowned Group B Audi rally driver.
The S1 is available with three doors (the plain S1) or five (the S1 Sportback). The Sportback model is our choice: its proportions make it better looking, and its rear doors make it more practical. It’s also value for money, with just €600 separating the two.
Both are the performance versions of the compact Audi A1, with xenon plus headlights, 17in alloy wheels (18in optional), immense 310mm brake discs, four oval tailpipes and a rear diffuser.
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 has stainless-steel pedals and sports seats. Figure-hugging S sports seats with integrated head restraints, available as an option, 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 aluminium pistons and stronger connecting rods to produce 231hp and 370Nm of torque. Audi says its engineers have worked on the engine to optimise performance and efficiency, reinforced the crankcase and made the cylinder head from an aluminium-silicon alloy to reduce its weight and to increase its strength and temperature stability.
To accommodate Audi’s Quattro permanent all-wheel- drive system the S1 has four-link rear suspension, with three wishbones per wheel and aluminium wheel carriers. The spare-wheel well is now home to the rear-axle differential.
The S1 signals its sporty character the moment you press the dash-mounted starter button. The four-cylinder engine fires up with a throaty rasp. Its acceleration is impressive; up to 50 per cent of the torque is sent to the rear wheels.
The standard Audi Drive Select system allows you to pick one of three driving modes: efficiency, comfort and dynamic. We spent almost the entire test drive in the last of those three. In this setting the S1’s two-stage adjustable dampers firm up, the throttle is more sensitive and, courtesy of exhaust flaps that open and an actuator that boosts the engine’s intake noise, the car gets louder. The result is a finely honed hatch that’s engaging to drive.
The enjoyable short-throw six-speed manual transmission offers a more involved driving experience than the more common dual-clutch transmission.
We drove the S1 on the road and on a snow-covered frozen lake in Sweden, in a test car whose standard low-profile tyres were replaced with studded snow tyres.
The S1’s electronic stability control is a two-stage unit that you can also turn off, much to our delight. The wheel-selective torque control and electronic differential lock remain active, enabling you to drift through corners without losing power. After some practice laps you can fully exploit the car’s incredible abilities and power-slide through corners, easily and precisely flicking the car from left to right.
No Mini Cooper S or Volkswagen Golf GTI could offer this much accuracy or enjoyment. Granted, no prospective S1 owner in Ireland is going to get a chance to experience their hot hatch on frozen Killarney lakes. But it shows the capabilities of Audi’s Quattro systems.
Back on the road the ride is firm but not uncomfortable. We look forward to driving the S1 on Irish roads on summer tyres to get a real feel for its everyday drivability. The throttle pedal is so far to the right that heel-and-toe down-changes are somewhat awkward. With luck this won’t be an issue in right-hand-drive models.
The S1 delivers an engaging drive, with power evident throughout the rev range. Maybe it’s down to the car’s size, but it feels more powerful than the 231hp produced. This is the same as a Golf GTI Performance, but the Volkswagen’s extra size and front-wheel drive create a quite different experience. The GTI is more of a Labrador, the S1 an energetic puppy. The Mini Cooper S JCW (John Cooper Works) is closer to the S1 in terms of its fun, kart-like handling. Neither has all-wheel drive, which gives the S1 the edge over both. Likewise, the Renaultsport Clio and Megane are agile but not as capable.
The S1 combines some elements of the renowned rally car from which it takes its name. With its responsive engine, superb chassis control, proper driver’s six-speed manual transmission, stability control that can be fully turned off and a traditional handbrake, it’s a driver’s delight.
The last thrilling ride came from the Mini GP2. The Audi is considerably cheaper, more practical and better equipped. It won’t disappoint. Sure, you can have more power, but with its superb Quattro system it’s a real-world fast car.