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The Clarkson review: Audi S1 (2014)

Oh, it's fast, but it lacks that je ne sais quatt

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S1

IN THE original Audi quattro the engine was mounted right at the front and sent half its power to the front axle. Owners complained that the understeer was catastrophic and while cornering they felt as though someone had strapped a log to the radiator grille.

There were other problems too. The engine in question was a 2.1-litre, which in the big scheme of things is fairly small. To make up for the lack of size, it was fitted with a gigantic turbocharger that must have taken about 10 days to respond to requests for more power.

Other stuff? Well, the steering wheel would have been described as “a bit big” by the helmsman of the Titanic, and although the car was a coupé, it wasn’t a hatchback. So it was jerky, nose-heavy, impractical and unwieldy. And yet this deeply flawed vehicle makes me go teary-eyed even today.

I absolutely loved it. We all did back then. We loved its blistered wheelarches and its offbeat five-cylinder soundtrack. We loved, too, the noise made by its chattering wastegate as it roared through the frozen forests of Finland, or the dunes of Africa, on its way to yet more rallying success.

The steering wheel would have been described as a “bit big” by the helmsman of the Titanic, and although the car was a coupé, it wasn’t a hatchback.

Back in the early 1990s I was working for a magazine called Performance Car, which made the 20-valve quattro its car of the year. Even though, on the day when the staff were gathered to drive all the contenders, a colleague understeered into a cornfield on the first corner. It wasn’t his fault, so I shan’t reveal his name here. Only that it begins with K. And ends in Evin Blick.

I remember him emerging from the field and deciding that, despite his off, the quattro was excellent, and all the rest of us agreeing. It was. Even though we all sort of knew it wasn’t. But we did know that behind the problems there was a properly good idea trying to escape.


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Today its spirit lives on in the Nissan GT-R. It’s a quattro with all the flaws ironed out. A four-wheel-drive, turbocharged monster of unparalleled savagery. Nothing — no car made today — leaves the line quite so violently. Nothing corners quite so hard. Nothing is as brutal. And you’d have to work hard to find something that is quite so well made. If you truly love driving, if you worship at the altar of speed and bleed four-star, then you should have a GT-R. Anyone who can afford one but chooses not to buy it is frankly a bit of a ladyboy.

And all of this raises the question: what is Audi playing at? It invented the recipe of four-wheel drive, good build quality and turbocharged power. And yet it is quite happy to sit back and let Nissan reap the rewards.

S1 rear

Oh, Audi may say that the RS 4 and the RS 6 are worthy successors to its original design. But they’re not. Not really. They lack the character. They lack what the Nissan GT-R has in spades. They lack the wow factor. An original quattro was hard to own, difficult to drive and awkward to handle. It was tricky. It was unusual. And it put Audi on the map.

Which brings me on to the car you see photographed this morning. It’s called the Audi S1 and in spirit at least this all-wheel-drive turbo nutter gets closer to the original quattro than anything the German giant has made for the past 20 years.

You may think that it’s nothing more than a normal A1 with a bit more power and four poo chutes to tell other motorists why they have just been overtaken by something a bit unusual. But it’s more than just a hot hatchback.

An original quattro was hard to own, difficult to drive and awkward to handle. It was tricky. It was unusual. And it put Audi on the map.

Audi hasn’t simply fitted a powerful engine, lowered the ride height and splashed a few red trim pieces round the cabin. It has actually given this little car four-wheel drive, and that meant completely re-engineering the rear end. Which meant new tooling at the factory. Which is probably why the S1 carries a price tag that sits just south of £25,000. That’s a lot for a small car. But it’s not a lot at all if this all-wheel-drive turbocharged rocketship relights the quattro candle.

My first problem is the 2-litre engine. It’s very good, very gutsy, and it makes a nice sort of bellowy noise at the top of the rev range. But Audi demonstrated with the S3 that this unit can be tuned to deliver 296 brake horsepower, so why in the S1 does it deliver only 228bhp? Yes, that’s a lot in a car this small, but it’s not as much as the four-wheel-drive system could handle.

Or is it? Well, this is my second problem, because, strangely, you get torque steer. I’ve never encountered this in any four-wheel-drive car before, but in the S1 it’s there in spades. Put your foot down hard, coming out of a tight corner, and you can feel the front wheels squirming as they struggle to cope with both the steering and putting the power down. It’s odd.

My next problem is the comfort. On even a moderately bad road surface the suspension is just too firm. It doesn’t crash, but it feels busy, which means that if you are a bit fat you tend to sit behind the wheel constantly wobbling. It’s like driving round on one of those Power Plates. Who knows — after a month or so you may even lose some weight.

So. Torque steer, a poor ride and a sense that the engine isn’t as powerful as it could be. And none of that is the end of the world. The original quattro was riddled with flaws and everyone still loved it because it was so charismatic.

S1 cabin

Which is the S1’s biggest problem. It isn’t. It’s fast and it’s fun and it’s beautifully made. Audi has even resisted the temptation to make the interior look like a man’s washbag. But it doesn’t put its hands down your trousers and have a fiddle. It’s a bit too clinical and aseptic.

I have much the same problem with two of the Volkswagen Group’s other hot hatches: the Golf R and the Seat Leon Cupra 280. They’re both immense, but they don’t feel thrilling.


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The Ford Fiesta ST, on the other hand, just does. It’s not as powerful as the Leon Cupra 280 or the Golf R, but it is ten times more fun. It’d be my choice without a moment’s hesitation.

But I realise, of course, that it wouldn’t be yours. You don’t care how brilliant it is: you are not going to buy a Ford Fiesta because your friends will imagine that your life has taken a turn for the worse. They may even sneer when you tell them what you’ve done.

Which means that if you want a hot hatch, you will have to buy the Golf GTI. Which is no great hardship at all, because it’s fabulous in every way. If, however, you want to drive round in the spiritual successor to the original quattro … Well, then you have to have the Nissan GT-R.

Clarkson’s verdict ★★★☆☆

The thrill has gone

Audi S1 specifications

  • Price: £24,905
  • Release date: On sale now
  • Engine: 1984cc, 4 cylinders turbo
  • Power/Torque: 228bhp @ 6000rpm / 273 lb ft @ 1600rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • Performance: 0-62mph: 5.8sec
  • Top speed: 155mph
  • Fuel: 40.4mpg
  • CO2: 162g/km
  • Road Tax Band: G