Driven: Audi A1 TFSI Sport 2012

Here's the Audi that has the Mini Cooper S directly lined up in its cross-hairs. The Sport takes the already very competent A1 to a completely new level. It's not a cheap Cooper S alternative like its sibling the Volkswagen Polo GTI might be, and starting at $42,500 needs to be a pretty compelling package to get buyers over the line.

First up, it needs to be properly fun to drive. And it certainly achieves this objective. The punchy 1.4-litre motor boasts a supercharger and a turbocharger to ensure there's power throughout the rev range. In this clever unit the supercharger works to provide low-end torque, while the turbocharger takes care of business high in the rev range. 136kW is put to the ground via a 7-speed twin-clutch automated manual gearbox - sophisticated, smooth changing and well suited to the nature of the engine. Drive it as a normal automatic and it goes well enough. Select S mode and the car's character changes instantly to a gnarling, sporty bull at a gate. It hangs onto the gears, lets the driver get the best out of the revs and allows for very pleasurable back street racing. Of course I didn't try this... The $200 option of paddle shifters would be a no-brainer option, however the test car wasn't fitted with these.

When pushing hard the A1 takes a little getting used to. Especially in S mode, it's too eager to spin the front wheels and make the driver look like a hoon. It baulks a little off the mark sometimes which is disconcerting. Then there's the feeling that it will understeer too much, which fortunately it doesn't. With a little practice and reducing the ham fistedness (footedness?) of my driving it became a pleasure to punt around. And it's very fast. Turn in is sharp, there's little body roll (it's quite stiffly sprung) and the brakes are confidence-inspiring.

It's a chic looking little package, inside and out. Very Audi styling (at least it's not a different sized photocopy which their sedans seem to be) and it's well recognizable by people who know their upmarket brands. There are some very nice details in some areas, such as the headlights and the arch over the pillars - especially when (expensively) optioned in silver paint. The S line body kit includes deeper, more aggressively styled bumpers, a roof spoiler at the back and rear diffuser. Inside the A1 is class leading both in design and finish. The quality isn't up there with say their big A6, but for the class it's superior. Unlike the overtly styled (and some say tasteless) interior of the Mini, the A1 is classy and well laid out. The big multimedia screen is a plus too. The sporty front seats hug occupants well and the rear seats, well, they're fine for short journeys or short passengers.

There's not much boot space, but it's no worse than any other car in the class.

So the A1 offers itself as a credible opponent to the Mini - it's not a tarted up cheap car, but has a chic style and wears an upmarket badge which gives it street cred that's backed up by proper performance and quality. If you like the idea of a Mini but can't bear the cartoon-like characteristics of it, then here's a car which might be just what you're looking for.

 Engine type: 4-cylinder 1.4-litre turbo and supercharged
 Power: 136kW
 Torque: 250Nm
 Transmission: 7-speed automated manual
 Performance: 0-100km/h 6.9 seconds
 Price: $42,500 at time of writing
 Text - Paul Blank (copyright)