Despite the hype, you have to warm to the Audi A1

A proper Audi in miniature. That's the idea of the A1 which, its creator claims, is the first compact car in the premium sector. Already you can feel the hype.

Is Audi seriously ignoring the Mini, the Alfa Mito, the socially mobile Citroën DS3? I put this to marketing man Peter Hirschfeld, to be met with an almost xenophobically Germanocentric reply. "If we launched a new Audi A4," he said, "we wouldn't say it was the first premium car in its class because obviously there are rivals from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But there is nothing else German to compete with the A1." So, by implication, nothing premium.

That means he considers the Mini to be British and not a BMW, which is oddly heartwarming, but it's still a ludicrous position. "We knew it would be provocative," he said. He was right, and he made me more determined not to be taken in by the conceit on which the whole "premium" notion is based.

There's a danger that if you fall for the Audi A1 instead of the Volkswagen Polo, whose under-skin genes it largely shares, you might end up feeling you've been had. And there are those who might even liken its optional silver-coloured roof arches to those of the well-intentioned, tragically floppy and somewhat uncool Citroën Pluriel convertible. So I approached the A1 with scepticism mode fully fired up. And here I am, in Berlin, A1s at the ready. I must be objective. I must assess this car for what it is, not for what its maker imagines it to be. And I must not wish that it emulated the last compact Audi, the all-aluminium, uniquely engineered, technically fascinating and career-endingly expensive A2, a car too far ahead of the demand curve. Today, the A2 would be a winner, but the A1 is a much safer corporate bet with its average price of £15,345 when it goes on sale in October.

First off, a red one with silver roof hoops and a 122bhp, 1.4-litre, turbocharged engine. And I catch my intuition in the act of rather liking it. It looks neat, uncluttered, taut, confident, with a shorter front overhang than today's droopy norm. The look will age well. The wheels are set more widely apart than the Polo's, the suspension is a little firmer, and the body sits a little lower on the wide wheels. Inside we find expensive-feeling surfaces. The scope for personalising the decor is considerable, with various electronic enhancements including a hefty drive for music files whose album covers can be displayed, Apple CoverFlow fashion.

Things are less pleasant in the back, where space is tight and the side trims are in hard plastic, while the boot seems small. A five-door version arrives later. And so to the road, on which the A1 immediately feels taut, solid, all-of-a-piece, a quality object. The 1.4 turbo engine pulls strongly and smoothly, and some buyers may think the seven-speed, double-clutch auto transmission fitted to this example a good thing. I don't, because it takes away involvement with the driving process and surges annoyingly when coming to a rest. That it will be the only transmission offered in the future 180bhp, turbo-and-supercharged version is a shame. It seems there is no manual gearbox able both to fit the 1.4-litre engine and handle the "hot" version's hefty torque output.

The A1 scuttles tidily around corners and soaks up bumps with ease but, as ever, the largest-diameter wheels option is to be avoided. The fluidity and grace that mark a Citroën DS3's progress isn't quite present here, but the A1 is still good fun. Quick-witted steering helps, with a more alert ratio than used in the Polo. I also tried an A1 with the little 1.2-litre, 86bhp turbo engine, which was obviously less lively but makes up for it with its sweet, willing power delivery.

Have I been won over? The A1 is the sharpest to drive of all mainstream Audis, and neatly embodies the brand's good points. It's an excellent small car and an excellent Audi, and I like it. Much more than I like its creators' absurd claims.

The Rivals

Alfa Mito 1.4 MultiAir 135: from £15,045.

Turbo MultiAir engine has revolutionary camshaft-less intake system. Car looks cute, should be fun but spoilt by stodgy steering.

Citroën DS3 1.6 VTi DStyle: £13,700.

Derived from C3 but racier three-door with upmarket trim. Recalls crisp handling and pliant ride of past small Citroëns and Peugeots.

Mini Cooper 1.6: from £13,980.

Also has 120bhp engine but lower CO2 thanks to stop-start. Original "premium" small car. Still good, but most buyers add options packs.

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