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10 February 2011

When Audi introduced its super-compact A1 to the market last year, it no doubt did so with BMW’s venerable MINI Cooper squarely in it sites. Audi’s designers, however, skipped the temptation to fall into the full-on retro trap that snared Mini as well as the Fiat 500 — not least of all because the brand lacked an iconic microcar in its archives. Instead, the A1 embraces the Audi’s progressive and forward-looking mantra as a thoroughly modern and tech-laden car, both inside and out. Now it will add one more piece of hardware — quattro all-wheel drive.



The A1 is Audi’s smallest car, and in standard form its transverse-mounted engine drives the front wheels. The drive unit for the A1 quattro is sourced from Swedish-manufacturer Haldex, and in this particular configuration it operates as a front- drive vehicle under normal conditions until slip is detected. When those front drive wheels start to spin, a hydraulic clutch-type center differential mounted ahead of the rear axle sends power to the back wheels.

When we weren’t amusing ourselves at the wheel of the RS 3 on our recent trip to Mont Tremblant, Quebec, we were testing out a pair of prototype A1 quattros. Not yet in series production, Audi has built a number of running test mules for final evaluation; the two examples on hand for us were essentially production finish. As if there wasn’t enough pressure on us testing hand-built prototypes, these had the added gravity of being the top bosses’ personal cars. We were told they were prepared specifically for duty as personal evaluation vehicles for Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and Volkswagen Group Chairman Dr. Martin Winterkorn.



Pressure? Yes, but also pleasure, as these two guys can have their cars built pretty much any way they want. Stadler’s A1, for instance, was painted in Samoa Brown — a choice color from the R8 GT palette — and fitted with matching leather-trimmed Recaro shell sport seats. It’s good to be the boss.



But they didn’t bring us out here to show off Stadler’s deft skills at selecting bespoke options, they wanted us to feel just how capable a compact Audi quattro can be. They didn’t have to ask us twice. Oh, and did we mention this A1 has no ESP? Driving the car on ice is the quickest and easiest way to get a feel for an all-wheel drive car’s abilities, and we wouldn’t want anything interfering with that.



The A1 quattro feels much like a seven-eighths-scale A3 quattro. It responds quickly, without the need to flick it to encourage rotation, as we had experienced in the RS 3. The A1’s 1.4-liter TFSI isn’t exactly a rally powerhouse, but thanks to the low traction on our ice-covered test course, its handling characteristics were condensed to a level that matched the engine’s modest output.



Sadly, North Americans won’t have the opportunity to experience this pint-sized rally star, at least not in its current form. Perhaps the market will be more conducive when the second generation arrives in a few years. Should it ever arrive Stateside, we’re guessing the A1 quattro would make a most intriguing addition to the growing small-car market.


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