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The latest Audi A1 is a mainstream car in a way that, say, the Audi A2, or even the first A1, was not. They were both ‘nichey’, but the new A1 has been honed specifically to target entirely conventional rivals. Even just one conventional rival: namely, the five-door Mini hatch.

And so the latest A1, a five-door-only model because only 20% of previous A1 buyers ever bought a three-door, and being small-ish and affordable-ish means Audi only makes small profits on each one, hence the Volkswagen Group MQB-A0 architecture and no room for stragglers. There is a range of small petrol engines – no diesels – of between 115bhp and 197bhp for now, with manual or dual-clutch automatic ’boxes, all driving the front wheels, although it’s hard to imagine a fast S1 version won’t come later.

Now that Audi has adopted its numeric engine naming system based on power output, there are three different ways to identify an A1. The 30 has a 1.0-litre with 115bhp, the 35 is a 1.5 with 147bhp and the 40 is a 2.0 with 197bhp. We’ve tried them all but spent most time in the 35. A 25, another three-cylinder 1.0-litre with 94bhp, will follow soon after the model’s UK launch in February. That’ll be priced from less than £18,000, the 30 operates in the low-£20,000 area and, like a Mini, you’ll be able to spend £30,000 if you try.

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What changes has Audi made for the new generation A1?

It’s no great surprise that the latest A1 is slightly longer than before, now broaching four metres overall, because cars get bigger and a paucity of rear accommodation was a common complaint about its predecessor. It’s now a mirror of a five-door Mini – at 4092mm long there’s 47mm between them. 

Gratifyingly, though, it’s a touch narrower than it was and it’s lower, too, which is all the better for giving the kind of assertive, purposeful appearance Audi does so well. Audi says the design is in part motorsport-inspired (three narrow vents atop the grille, like a Sport Quattro rally car) and partly yacht-inspired (the hydroplane light signature). I think it’s quite successful, but you can make up your own mind via a close-quarter inspection in your rear view mirror imminently.

The purposeful theme is carried inside to a prominent driver-oriented instrument pack flanked by air vents. I think you can see what has happened here: they’ve pulled a Mini five-door into a workshop and identified what makes it so appealing, specifically the distinctiveness of the design and the ability to customise it – which is why you can blend A1 interior themes and colours, and exterior, wheel and roof colour options in more than a million different combinations.

The cabin theme is new to Audi, then, but it’s quite an appealing one. And as in a Mini, it pays to look rather than touch. For those accustomed to finding Audis with the most solid-feeling interiors in the class, the door cards and dashboard plastics might come as a bit of a surprise. Surfaces at hand and under elbow tap hollow and harsh, which is unexpectedly disappointing. There are soft-touch squishy surfaces, on the dash top where presumably they help reduce noise and windscreen reflections but which you never touch. 

Multimedia is now all via a central touchscreen, which you can make a larger one by ticking the right option box. However, given that there is no option of a knob to control it, which would be preferable, you might as well pick the smaller screen and just have it mirror your phone. 

The 2563mm wheelbase (up by 94mm) makes rear accommodation pretty good – normal-adult behind normal-adult stuff – with a 335-1090-litre boot (bigger than a Mini’s) partly afforded by compact torsion beam rear suspension, which is mated to struts at the front. Choose an SE or a Sport and you get what’s called ‘dynamic’ suspension; opt for an S-Line and you get Sports suspension which you can deselect as a no-cost option. The 2.0-litre comes, though, with adaptive dampers instead.

How does the A1 perform on the road?

I’m told the 1.0 and 1.5 models we tried were on the Sports suspension. I hope they were, because the A1’s ride isn’t terribly clever, with a lot of patter and mated to a fair degree of road noise on poorer surfaces. Wheel options are 15in to 18in, with the three cars I tried being on 17s (the 30 and 40) or 18s (the 35), but that didn’t seem to make too much difference. This is a car with better body control than compliance, even on adaptive dampers in their softer setting.

You can change other driving characteristics on the move, such as the dual-clutch automatic gearbox’s responses or the steering weight, and adaptive damper firmness if fitted, but the usual formula applies: set the powertrain up to the max, the suspension and steering to the minimum.

Either way, the A1 is quite a pointy little car. Mini tries to give all its cars ‘maximum go-kart feel’ whether they should have it or not, and it’s as if Audi has opted for the same. The A1’s steering is quick and responsive, and the chassis seems in tune with it. It’s really quite willing to turn, and yet it’s without any sense that you’re in a hot hatchback, just a brisk one if it’s the 2.0-litre. It takes more work to make the extremely quiet 1.5 responsive, and the 1.0 isn’t a car you’d want to be late for a train in. 

Audi thinks it knows what customers of its small cars want: an aggressive-looking car with a cool interior, please, a lot of exterior and interior colour and option choices, but mechanically something as reassuring and familiar as a bowl of soup. 

The A1 gives them much of that: outside and in, it has the kind of appearance you’d expect of a small Audi, and mechanically it’s predictable, but thereafter it diverts from the script. The interior plastics and the ride are both brittle, but it’s more willing to turn than most recent Audis.

It’s an unusual car, then, the A1: at once a more conventional small Audi than ever, but at the same time one with some surprise lurking inside. That’s not all bad, but by no means all good, either.

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