Three cylinder units are certainly de rigeur right now, but there have also been some other interesting, innovative and ongoing developments in this whole field.
The VW Group probably led the way a few years ago with the 1.4 litre twin turbo engine which many scoffed at when the company announced it was going to power the Passat, but they had to eat their words when the engine proved to be remarkably capable.
Fiat has also been very active in the development of small capacity petrol units and their unique ‘TwinAir’ two cylinder turbo is another example of how this down-sizing technology can be successfully applied, particularly in the city car genre.
Of course, the recent three cylinder boom will have left many automotive engineers — not least those from companies such as Suzuki and Subaru, who have been treading this path for many years — saying ‘I told you so.’
But whatever about bragging rights, the fact remains that there are now quite a number of very decent three pot engines out there, not least of which might be that which is the primary motivational source in the fantastic BMW i8 supercar.
At a more affordable level, Ford, VW, Opel, Peugeot/Citroen, Toyota and BMW, have piled onto the bandwagon with three cylinder units, largely for their smaller car offerings, although Ford has promised their EcoBoost engine will be seen in the Mondeo.
All this has led automotive analysts to predict that by 2018 more than half the petrol engined cars sold in Europe will be equipped with engines less than 1.2 litres in size. In 2010 that figure was only one quarter.
It is also predicted that by 2018 cars with engines smaller than one litre will treble sales (from five per cent to 16%) and that two litre engines will only account for five per cent of the petrol market, as against 10% in 2010.
Thus we can see a very concerted trend with regard to the whole petrol engine scene and one that is set to, ahem, accelerate in the coming years. However, the VW Group last year threw us something of a curveball when they unveiled a new three cylinder turbodiesel, an engine seen to very good effect in this week’s test car, the newly revamped Audi A1 Sportback.
Although VW has made many three cylinder diesels down the years, we have not seen many of them in these parts and certainly not in a premium brand product.
They’ve been fitted to ‘lesser’ VWs such as the Fox and the Lupo, but never in anything as fancy as the smallest Audi and the very fact this engine is in the A1 (and will also be seen in the Polo and Skoda’s Roomster and Fabia) is a sign of how good they think it is.
And, having driven it recently I can confirm that the VW Group has got this one right and they have built a really excellent unit which is surprisingly enjoyable to drive and to live with.
While not being wildly potent, it is nevertheless tremendously quiet and smooth — to the point where you could easily confuse it for a petrol engine.
It replaces the 1.6 litre turbodiesel that was previously utilised here and despite being shy a cylinder is a lot better than the figures might suggest. Although there is only 90 bhp on tap and a modest enough 230 Nm of torque, it is still possible to make brisk enough progress.
The 11.6 seconds needed for the 0-100 kph dash might not indicate as much — or even the top speed of 182 kph — but when you work this thing through the five gears, it is surprisingly fleet. It is also very economic too and claims to return a figure of 3.4 l/100 km (83.1 mpg).
On top of that, as it is a lot lighter than its predecessor, the new engine makes the chassis a lot more nimble and this A1 really is fun to drive; it is very grippy and the handling is pin sharp. Ride might be a touch on the hard side for some tastes, but the pay-off is worth it.
In Sportback format, the A1 has five doors and while rear passenger space is modest enough — for adults anyway — the car still demonstrates all the credentials necessary for something which will either be used as a second family car or even something for Gran and Grandad to whiz them and the grandkids around.
In S Line spec. as tested, stuff like air con, 17” alloys, sports suspension, sports seats and a raft of connectivity options are all standard and will help the car appeal to a younger audience and broaden its’ potential demographic.
Add in the top drawer quality of the materials used to construct the interior and you have a package that will indeed have broad appeal and while the price is a premium one too — edging the A1’s pricing towards that of bigger cars, potential owners will at least be assured that this thing will have a very strong residual when the time comes to move it on.
So what we have here is a very premium small car, but one with a great new engine which while not the most powerful in the world is nevertheless excellent to live with and use and hugely economic to boot. That can’t be a bad combination whichever way you look at it.
€26,340— €30,265 as tested.
Excellent new three pot turbodiesel.
Very good standard spec, but extras come at a premium price.
A truly good car, but it is on the pricy side.