Review and road test of the Audi S1 (2013 - 2018)
THE ONE TO HAVE?
By Jonathan Crouch
The smallest of Audi's S-cars from the 2013-2018 period was the desirable little S1, a premium priced supermini shopping rocket that offered a concentrated dose of quattro. There's more to this model than just all-wheel drive traction too. Other features unique amongst really compact hot hatches include adaptive damping and a properly potent 231PS output, enough to power you to 62mph in under 6s. In other words, though certainly an S1 may be small, it's definitely made of the right stuff.
3dr/5dr Hatch (2.0 TFSI petrol)
Four-wheel drive in a potent little hatchback offering around 230PS beneath the bonnet is a formula that has worked well for Audi in the past. That's pretty much what their original S3 hot hatch offered when we first saw it back in 1999, a car these days much more powerful - but also far pricier. Beneath it back in 2013, there was space for an entry-level Audi S model to offer a more grown-up option in the smallest segment of a shopping rocket sector that in supermini size, had never before offered 4WD. Welcome to the S1.
Yes, it values the same as a bigger family hatchback-sized quick compact like a Golf GTI or a Ford Focus ST. No, you may not care about that because an S1 is slightly lighter, slightly quicker and comes with the added bonus of 4WD. It's another example of the way that it can often make sense to downsize your fast hatchback by a class in order to get yourself something really special. Something like this.
This S1 represented almost the first time Audi had offered quattro traction on something this small. We say 'almost' because those of you who don't miss a trick might remember the brand's rather special A1 Quattro model from 2012, a low volume 255PS special ambitiously priced at Porsche Cayman money and only offered in left hand drive. Call that a toe in the water. While this S1 wasn't quite as potent as the A1 Quattro, it had more torque, more class, had the steering wheel on the right side for our market and cost 40% less. As a result, just like its namesake, the World Rally Championship-winning Audi S1 of the 1980s, this car, launched here in late 2013, promised to be a game-changer for its maker. It sold until 2018.
What You Get
If you were expecting bulging quattro-style wheel arches and big spoilers, then you might at first be a little disappointed by this S1. Many original buyers chose the extra cost 'quattro exterior styling pack', with its bigger rear spoiler, larger wheels and gloss black roof. Without that, you might struggle to tell it apart from a more ordinary sportily-trimmed A1 model. Unless of course you were able to park an A1 and an S1 side by side. It's then that you'll really appreciate the differences.
Yes, all the sheet metalwork on the S1 is the same, but the front end benefits from a deeper front bumper with larger air intakes, a unique 'S design' grille and these lovely Xenon plus headlights that make such a difference when driving at night on unfamiliar country roads. This car sits lower to the road too, hunkered down over its larger alloys in a really aggressive stance, an effect further aided by the S side skirts which reinforce the impression of the car being sucked into the tarmac. Other S1 identifiers include the bespoke branded brake calipers and trademark Audi S-car aluminium-effect mirror caps.
Moving round to the back, you'll spot the dynamic roof spoiler and this purposeful rear diffuser that incorporates no fewer than four oval tail pipes. Plus you get jewel-like rear lamps that emit an intense, deep red colour thanks to no fewer than 54 SuperRed LEDs. There's a choice of either a five-door Sportback body style or a three-door version. With the Sportback, original buyers got the option of a contrasting roof and, more importantly, this body style has a differently-angled C-pillar and a more upright tailgate that together, make a significant difference to rear seat space.
In the Sportback version, there's certainly more headroom than you might be expecting: scalloped cut-outs indented into the head lining also play their part in delivering 11mm more cranium space than you'd get in the three-door variant, plus there's 13mm more shoulder room too. With all that said though, we don't want to mislead you. For rear seat occupants, this isn't a spacious cabin. Because there's the same wheelbase whichever A1 shape you choose, you'll find both leg and elbow room restricted and there's the awkwardness of a bulky central transmission tunnel that seems a bit superfluous in a front-wheel drive car. Further bad news comes with Audi's annoying decision not to offer S1 buyers the three-person, three-seat-belted rear bench you can get on all other A1 Sportback models. So this rear section can only take two, a major problem for a family buyer.
And up front? Well, it's an Audi isn't it, which inevitably means a look and feel much nicer than you'd find in a rival Ford, Peugeot or Renault. There are a few irritations - enthusiasts will rue the poor placement of brake and throttle pedal for race-style 'heel-and-toe' gearchanges and everyone will question the need for such tiny door pockets. The overall cabin concept doesn't feel quite so far ahead of its rivals either, with trim quality you might even suggest to be slightly lacking in areas like the base of the doors and the handbrake shrouding. It's still a beautifully designed interior though, with a dash section apparently modelled on aircraft wings and large, circular air vents that are finished in high glass black and styled to resemble jet engines. The centre console meanwhile, is supposed to be based on the rear of a sailing ship.
It all sounds very daring and avant garde but in reality, the finished result is actually quite conservative. You could be in any of Audi's larger models, with exemplary build quality and a delightful finish to everything you see and touch that's a world away from what you'd find even on a MINI or a cheaper BMW. Take the lovely knurled metal heater controls. Or the neat 6.5-inch retractable MMI infotainment screen - though here it doesn't automatically glide silkily out of the top of the dash as it would on an S3.
The question though, with this car's high price tag in mind, is whether it all feels enough of a cut above any ordinary A1 model. The answer is that it depends what you're looking for. You'll certainly search in vain for g-meters, boost gauges, lairy-coloured seatbelts or fake carbon-fibre nonsense. Audi leaves all that sort of thing to cheaper, try-had rivals and instead offers up a package of subtler touches. S1 logos on the floor mats, the door sills, the seats and the infotainment screen. Then there are the aluminium inserts, the LED interior lighting package and the pedal caps fashioned from brushed stainless steel. Oh and a purposeful set of white-needled grey instrument dials viewed through a leather-trimmed three-spoke sports steering wheel with contrast stitching.
There's more contrast stitching on the cloth and leather-trimmed seats, though in standard form, these could offer a little more support, one reason why we'd suggest you consider finding an S1 fitted with the optional 'S sports' seats with their integrated head restraints and fine Nappa leather upholstery. These feature much deeper bolsters and grip you a lot better, plus they look fantastic and will probably be a key feature that potential S1 buyers will be looking for when shopping for a used example of this car.
And luggage space? Well the bespoke mechanicals needed to engineer in this car's quattro system have certainly slightly compromised things here. Whereas a standard A1 would give you a 270-litre boot, an S1 offers just 210-litres, regardless of the body style you choose. In the compact hot hatch segment, only Fiat's Abarth 595 delivers less and even the basic boot of a MINI Cooper S is 30% bigger. It'll certainly be enough to make some potential buyers wonder whether it might be worth trading up to an Audi S3 model with cargo bay 60% larger.
Fold down the split-folding rear bench and this S1 fares a little better. Again, the total capacity falls over that of a standard A1 (down from 920 to 860-litres) but that figure is at least a lot more class competitive, 20% bigger than you'd get in that MINI and not much different from the capacity you'd expect this configuration to provide in a Fiesta or Clio-class car. It all really depends where your priorities lie.
What to Look For
Most S1 owners we came across in our survey seemed very satisfied, but inevitably there were a few issues with some cars. The type of owner choosing an S1 probably won't have thrashed the car too much - which is a plus. One owner found his model kept losing power through the battery due to poor grounding. He mentioned also that the stop start system was very unreliable (a new fuel pump had to be fitted). And struggled with a horrible creaking sound through the forward bulkhead (which required a new engine mount). This car also had a constant rattling from underside, a power steering failure and an undue appetite for engine oil. Other owners we found reported issues with the Bluetooth connection, the emissions sensor, the EGR valve, horn failure, sliding seat failure, power steering pump failure, airbag failure, number plates falling apart and funny smells from the air con. Look out for all these things on your test drive. In one instance, an owner lost all drive in his car. The dealership found the fault code and diagnosed that the "mechatronic" gear selector had gone, which required a new £6K auto gearbox.
(approx based on a 2016 S1 - Ex Vat) An oil filter is in the £8-£13 bracket. An air filter is in the £13-£18 bracket and a pollen filter costs typically between £7 and £20. A thermostat is around £12. A fuel filter is round £15-£23. Front brake pads sit in the £22-£73 bracket; rears will sit in the £13-£35 bracket. Front brake discs sit in the £59-£113 bracket; rear discs are about £27-£78.
On the Road
So. What's it like? Well, as with all Audi S-cars, pretty subtle to begin with. Fire the ignition and the engine spins into a fairly unassuming idle. Yes, there's the hint of a bit of extra bass from the exhaust, but nothing that's going to have your neighbours calling the Environmental Health out on you if you need to make an early start. The engine in question might even be familiar, the clean, crisp, purposeful 2.0 TFSI unit found from this period right across the Volkswagen Group in products as diverse as the SEAT Leon Cupra and the Porsche Macan SUV.
It's also the powerplant that in the 2013-2018 era was fitted to the next product up in the Audi S-model ladder, the S3, though there, the software was tweaked for a 300PS output. Here, it was restricted to 'just' 231PS - though that's still rather a lot for a supermini-sized hot hatch of this sort in a segment where the class norm from its period was a 1.6-litre engine putting out 200PS.
It's just as well this S1 has that bit of extra poke because it must carry around a mechanical configuration previously unknown in this class of car: four-wheel drive. That's the thing that makes this Audi different from any other really compact shopping rocket from its period - and it's also the thing that makes this particular model different from any other A1. After all, think about what an A1 is underneath - a glorified Volkswagen Polo, with rudimentary torsion beam suspension at the back. Not the sort of thing likely to be able to support a powerful quattro all-wheel drive set-up.
In creating this car then, the Ingolstadt development team had to fundamentally re-engineer it - hardly the work of a moment. But then building all-wheel drive into something this small was never going to be easy; that's why no one else in this market segment from this period bothered to do it. Even Audi needed a dry run at the job, the engineers producing an exorbitantly-priced limited-run A1 Quattro model in 2012 with a back axle borrowed from the brand's TTS sportscar to support the quattro package. That was all a bit mix-and-match. With this S1 though, the job was done properly, with a proper, purpose-designed four-link rear suspension package installed at the back, along with a clever hydraulic multi-plate clutch for a quattro system that splits power 60:40 front to rear most of the time, but can divert as much as 50% of the torque rearwards if need be.
True, the bulky mechanicals needed rob you of a bit of luggage space, but who cares about that when the result's this good? If you're one of those hot hatch purists who don't like the idea of 4WD on a shopping rocket, then you need to try this car. For goodness sake, we live in a country where on average, it rains for over 200 days every year! Conditions in which theoretical rivals like Ford's Fiesta ST or Peugeot's 208 GTi would be spinning their front wheels impotently. If you've paid the extra to own this Audi, things are very different. Whatever the weather, you point it at the corner, you plant your foot and it powers through.
That clever clutch can talk to other electronic systems on the car to further help you out too. If the corner you're driving through suddenly tightens, the stability control will be told to imperceptibly brake the inside rear wheel to keep you from drifting wide. And if you're trying to slow the car quickly from high speed, extra braking force will be added in to maintain stability. Where Audi's cleverness ran out though, was when it came to the transmission. You'd expect the option of the brand's clever dual clutch S tronic paddleshift automatic gearbox on a powerful quattro car: you won't get it here. The trick transmission would have shoved another 25kgs over this S1's nose, which would have been too much for the front axle, so as a result, a stick-shift manual 'box was the only option.
You'll certainly need to be pretty quick at grabbing for gears because this car will demolish the sprint to 62mph in just 5.8 seconds. That's about a second quicker than something comparably sized from this period like a Ford Fiesta ST, a Peugeot 208 GTi or a MINI Cooper S. And about half a second quicker than something larger like a Golf GTI. In the dry of course. In the wet, none of the cars we've just mentioned would even see which way this Audi went.
It's the in-gear response though, that's probably most impressive. With 370Nm of torque on tap - just 10Nm less than you get in the larger Audi S3 - there's around 30% more pulling power than you'd get in something like a Fiesta ST, a difference that really shows itself when you're powering forward in second or third, say on the exit of a slow corner or up a motorway entry-ramp. As a result, point-to-point motoring can be very rapid indeed though for this, you'll need to choose your driving settings carefully. By that, we mean those from this car's standard drive select system, one of those that can alter the feel of the car to suit the road you're on and the mood you're in.
This welcome package offers two main settings - 'Efficiency' and 'Dynamic' - plus an 'Auto' option if you can't be bothered to decide between them. As usual, the engine management system and the air conditioning are tweaked to match the mode chosen, but more importantly, your selection will also deliver another feature never previously seen on a sporting car this small - adaptive dampers that either firm up or soften the ride. Select 'Dynamic' and these really do make the suspension very firm indeed - to the point where we can't think of many times we'd want to use this setting away from a racetrack. And that's a pity because it also releases a rortier engine note that really gives the 2.0-litre TFSI unit a chance to breathe.
Another reason why you probably wouldn't frequently select 'Dynamic' is that the other modes are already pretty firm, especially if you opt for the larger 18-inch alloy wheels many original buyers chose. In other words, whichever way you go with the set-up of this car, you're going to need to be a typical hot hatch customer to like it. If you are, then you might wish for a little extra feedback from the grippy three-spoke wheel - other rivals offer greater precision and feedback. But don't despair. This was, overall, still one of Audi's better, more rewarding, more driver-centric efforts - and if you want, you can switch all the nannying driver aids off and smoke the tyres a bit. In which guise this car will be as mad and bad as you'd ever want it to be.
Before dismissing the Audi S1 as an expensive indulgence, ask yourself this. How much space do you really need in your hot hatch? Yes, for similar money, you could buy a slightly larger car of this kind from this era, something from the next size up like a Golf GTI, a Megane Renaultsport, an Astra VXR or a Focus ST. The question is whether you really need to.
Typical buyers, after all, don't usually choose their shopping rockets prioritising rear seat room or boot capacity. So, what if you could trade a little of that and get something far more useful in return: all-weather traction. Plus, if as well, you could get a little more speed - and residuals offering a lower set of running costs - you'd be all set. Such is the appeal of this S1.
It's not perfect of course. On a dry road, some larger or less powerful models in this segment might feel a little more involving - and maybe they'd be better track day tools too. It's also hard to ignore the fact that in buying this car, you'll probably be paying around 20% more than you would be for a comparably-sized Fiesta or Clio-class GTi. In return though, you're getting something quite special: a proper quattro-driven Audi S-car that can hit 155mph and get to 62mph in less than six seconds, yet will nevertheless better 40mpg and emit just 165g/km (NEDC figures).
That kind of formula at this kind of price just wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. Now, it could be sitting in your driveway. Small, but almost perfectly formed.
Audi S1 (2013 - 2018) review by Jonathan Crouch