You never know in this business, You just never know.
Preconceptions are a very dangerous thing in any form of endeavour and in the motor industry, expectations — both good and bad — very often fail to match up to what reality presents. That was very much the case with the Audi S1 that arrived in the driveway recently.
Audi’s ‘S’ models - much like BMW’s ‘M’ department or Mercedes’ AMG division — are high-class sports derivations of the company’s regular products. Beefed up engines, suspensions, aerodynamics and electronics technologies are generally the order of the day.
There have been times, however, when such bumper-to-bumper make-overs produce wickedly quick cars with prodigious abilities, but they are simply dreadful to drive. Audi — no more than the rest of its’ opponents — has been guilty of this mortal sin on more than one occasion and I have found the smaller ‘S’ models are often far too brutish for their own good.
It was, therefore, with a degree of trepidation that I saw the S1 wheeling into my driveway. Would it be a rip-snorting monster bedevilled by appalling torque steer, angry acceleration, rock hard suspension and an in-bred dislike for anything other than billiard table road surfaces?
I pondered these questions as I strolled around this diminutive pocket rocket, wondering whether its admittedly stunning good looks were simply a cunning Trojan horse stunt to con prospective punters. Clad in a gorgeous Sepang pearl blue colourscheme, touched off by matt black styling cues such as the front air intakes, roof spoiler and rear diffuser, as well as 17in cast aluminium wheels and the signature four exhausts, the S1 gave off an immediate air of refined aggression.
But would that look be topped off by the driving experience? This was the million dollar question.
First, though, an examination of the mechanics of the thing would tend to suggest all was in order. A four-pot 1984 cc engine with a single turbocharger, outputting 231bhp (at 6,000 rpm) and 320 Nm of torque (from 1,600 to 3,000rpm), is allied to a really slick six speed ‘box and all four wheels are driven via Audi’s legendary quattro system. That’s not a bad start.
The noise it makes is worth noting too as Audi has tweaked a few things to make the S1 sound menacing. An engine bay sound enhancer feeds intake noise into the cabin, while bypass flaps in the exhaust open at higher engine loads to deliver a very satisfying aural accompaniment.
Sit into the car and you are surrounded by wonderful detailing — the chunky four-spoke flat-bottomed leather steering wheel and the aluminium pedals stand out. The supportive front seats are excellent and, despite the car’s diminutive size, it is actually possible to get adults into the rear seats of the five-door version we tested.
So, before you’ve even fired it up, you’d have to admit the right ingredients are there for a performance car. But how does it perform? Brilliantly, is the answer.
The engine is a cracker. The same unit as powers the Golf GTi, although with a slightly greater power output, this thing really cranks this pocket rocket up. A sub six second 0-100kph time and a top speed limited to 155kph gives you an idea of the potential and it has to be said that the S1 delivers in spades.
All too often well-intentioned sports hatchbacks are ruined by nasty on-road traits such as excessive torque steer and dreadful understeer, but the Audi engineers have done their homework and neither of those unwanted characteristics are on show here. Features such as electrically controlled dampers also take much of the expected crashiness out of the suspension and while it is obviously one very stiffly suspended car, that fact does not detract from either ride or handling.
Nicely weighted steering gives the feeling of a car which is both light and agile, but is also seriously well planted. Indeed, it brought to mind the old story about former World Champion Mario Andretti when asked about the on-track performance of the revolutionary ground-effect Lotus 78, he responded: “Man, it’s like it is painted to the damn road.” You get something of the same feeling here.
The quattro system too gives you a sense of security that is rare on a beast such as this. Power is automatically transmitted to those wheels which need it most — front or rear — depending on how heavy your foot is on the loud pedal and what the prevailing road conditions are like.
Thankfully, because of space restrictions, the six- speed manual is the only gearbox option and its oily smoothness is a thing of joy to live with and from which to extract the max. It is really just another part of a jigsaw puzzle which, when pieced together, end up making a masterpiece.
It is not often you come across a truly fast car which is easy to drive, but this one is and what is impressive is that it can be as hair-raising as you’d like — it is eminently possible to induce oversteer, for example — but very easy to control once you know how.
That does make it more of a car for the experienced hand rather than an enthusiastic rookie, but does not in any way lessen its’ stature as being one of the best in its’ class.
I admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the prospect of driving this thing, but having driven it, I’m surprised to report it successfully navigated any doubts I may have preconceived about it.
That makes it a truly welcome addition to the Audi line-up and a car very deserving of its ‘S’ status. It might not be cheap, but it’s bloody good.
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