We’ve all tried limiting ourselves to ‘just one’ at some point.
But whether it’s hot chips, surfing a wave, or an episode of True Detective, indulgence, the moreish bastard, usually wins out. We gorge, splurge, upgrade. Cars offer no exception to this rule, even in the world of shrunken hatches.
In a segment defined by tight wheelbases, cheap trims, and tiny engines, there is still a niche for performance and price tags that aren’t so little. That’s why those with cramped car spaces and bigbank accounts will be shopping for one of the outliers we’ve brought along today.
Up first is Audi’s S1. It’s the brand’s cheapest ‘S’ model and roams the small hatchback yard with some hefty knuckle dusters on its fists – specifically, the S3’s 2.0-litre engine and Haldex-based all-wheel drive system. Its wears a bloodied nose after losing to VW’s brilliant Golf R last year, but the fact it put up such a convincing challenge meant it deserves a fairer fight.
The problem was, though, nothing’s been able to offer one until now. At $49,900, the S1 commands almost twice the price of nearest size rivals like the Ford Fiesta ST and VW Polo GTI, and its dust-up with the Golf R proved climbing a weight class or two isn’t a good idea.
Luckily, MINI’s Cooper has recently welcomed its latest and most hard-core variant, the John Cooper Works. Based on the third-generation retro reboot, the longer and wider new JCW dive bombs into our comparison also with a six-speed manual and four-seat capability for only two grand less, at $47,400, bunkering in a trench right opposite the S1’s.
In terms of firepower, it too arms itself with a 2.0-litre engine. MINI’s engineers stole the Cooper S’s unit then slapped on a new turbocharger and dropped new pistons in its bores. With a bigger intercooler and new exhaust, the turbo helps it deliver 170kW at 5000rpm and 320Nm as soon as 1250rpm.
With its bulbous-nose pointed down Heathcote’s dragstrip, we discover giving the MINI’s front axle full responsibility for 320Nm is a recipe for axle tramp. Get too hasty with the throttle and it’ll chatter in protest before scampering off. Senior road tester Messr Morley finds launching the JCW instead requires patience. Rather than stomp the loud pedal, you slowly roll on to it from low revs, easing it in to a healthy swell of torque that lasts until 4800rpm.
While the S1 makes the same power as the JCW, getting there requires coming from an entirely different direction. That is, from above, not below. Audi’s engineers bolted a smaller turbocharger to the S3’s EA888 to erase 40kW, no doubt to save it taking its bigger brother’s lunch money. Thankfully, though, torque is only 10Nm less, the muscular S1 flexing 370Nm at 1600rpm – 50Nm more than the MINI.
This torque advantage plays out in the S1’s favour at the strip. With its impressive torque peak harnessed by all-wheel drive, it distributes power across Heathcote’s sticky mix in a cleaner fashion. But with temperatures cranking to 31 degrees C, we could only manage a best 0-100km/h time of 6.3sec and 14.27sec across the quarter mile.
It takes the JCW more than half a second longer to reach 100km/h, but with 135kg less to lug it reels in the S1 by two tenths at the end of 400m. Its higher power-to-weight ratio results in an extra two kilometres an hour at the traps and you’ll also be further down a freeway on-ramp in the MINI, its 3.42sec 80-120km/h time a tenth faster than the Audi’s.
Despite four-piston calipers hiding behind the MINI’s front wheels, it’s the Audi’s humble single-piston jobbies and 310mm discs that pull up the shortest from 100km/h. It could be a tyre issue, with the MINI on Dunlop run-flats and the S1 using wider Bridgestone sport rubber, but the Audi pulls up 1.5m behind the MINI’s 39.97m effort.
While the JCW’s front-drive antics are no help against a stopwatch, the sounds it makes while doing so suggests drama is part of its appeal. The dual-tip exhaust poking from its rear bumper squeezes out a delicious note that sounds like a chainsaw blaring through a digeridoo. Or lift off the throttle and it’ll not only ignite unburnt fuel with a few juicy pops, but flush out a HKS-like sneeze from its compressor.
The Audi’s war cry is a little more Germanic. It’ll growl with a discernible rort, hiss as its little turbo stuffs 20psi in four hard working cylinders, and even burp a little on upshifts, but overall it sounds like it’s at work rather than having a genuinely good time.
Having escaped Heathcote for Victoria’s open roads the S1’s still the reserved one, but to its credit. Over poor roads it doesn’t make imperfections disappear like a 7-Series – with such a small wheelbase it never would – but it pillows impacts better than the MINI and is less disturbed over bumps.
Meanwhile, MINI’s thrown dual-mode adjustable dampers under the JCW’s guards, but even they can’t calm the abruptness created by its 18-inch wheels and 205/40 run-flat rubber. As we fire both cars over a single-lane bridge, the entry lip almost makes the JCW’s dampers burst through the dash like a scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien.
On the flipside all that stiffness makes it hyper-alert in corners, like a kick-boxer that’s just drunk their weight in Red Bull. It dives for apexes with feverish alacrity, activating a lively rear end that wants in on the action. But, again, there’s a trade-off. You’re always winding off lock in the JCW and its electric steering can’t shake a simulated feel. Also, the MINI’s grip limits are spookily vague, so it’s hard to commit.
The MINI’s gearshift, too, is far from satisfying. Its shorter throw needs more effort and slots with a smidge of reluctance. The fact reverse neighbours first and can be freely slotted from neutral without a safety mechanism is also a worry.
Contrastingly the Audi’s a friendlier companion. It doesn’t offer huge amounts of grip, but there’s enough that you can mash the throttle before charging down the road in a hissing fit of boost and quattro stick. Softer springs means it likes to lean more, but its steering rack feels so natural and bang on for speed, you can exploit this to your benefit, knowing you can catch whatever adjusted angle you choose with brakes or throttle.
Their interiors, too, are interestingly similar in personality to each car’s on-road behaviour. In the MINI, it’s like stumbling upon a night-time carnival. There’s an array of things going on: lines of coloured stitching, coloured inserts, mood lighting that changes to suit the chosen drive mode, and details like the chequered ‘redline’ from the speedo’s 200km/h to 260.
It’s as well put together as you’d expect, but even with all its verve and refinement, its functionality takes odd directions: accessing the brilliant iDrive-derived controller requires pulling up the armrest; the starter switch is hidden behind the gear stick. And while the speedometer has thankfully moved from the centre console to a smaller dial behind the steering wheel, the tachometer now sits offset in a half-moon dial. With the needle only needing to only travel a few inches from idle to redline (which is 6500rpm, like the S1), it’s hard to keep your eyes on when to shift.
Call it naff, or eccentric, but you can’t accuse MINI of not having fun. After you’ve got your head around its flaws, and flood the cabin with notes from the 410W Harmon Kardon system, you might even catch yourself feeling its good vibes.
Switch to the Audi and it’s an immediate mood change. At five years old, the S1’s infotainment system’ is well behind the MINI’s for intuitiveness and ease of use. Without any options adding funk to its cabin, the only ‘fun bits’ inside the S1 are its red stitching and metal pedals, which makes it as stimulating as a dentist’s waiting room in comparison.
That said the cabin oozes with refinement and thoughtful design. Its armrest is similarly obstructive, blocking your elbows during gearshifts, but the touchpoints are spot on – the leather steering wheel is a particular highlight – the shift knob moulds to your palm and the door handles are less awkward to grab. Better yet, the instrument cluster’s speeds and rev readouts are easy to scan, and its big digital speedo in the centre screen is handy.
Looking at the cars from the outside suggests the MINI was designed for ADD sufferers – there’s so much going on. Its front bumper grabs at the air with multiple cooling cut-outs and a faux bonnet scoop is flanked by a power bulge. Big headlights dominate its face while black bonnet stripes ($200), a red stripe in its grille, and plastic wheel guards are eye-catching but rob it of any aesthetic refinement.
Meanwhile, drinking in the S1’s facade is like rinsing your eyeballs with Ritalin. Audi’s used its contour lines strongly to create a cleaner, sharper looking mite. The xenon headlights, silver mirrors, and horizontal front-grille slats also give it a more premium vibe. Sure, it’s missing some venom by lacking the angrier spoiler and the ‘quattro’ stickers offered as options, but the contrasting roof dome ($600) and 18-inch wheels (part of the $3900 quattro exterior package) are enough to catch your attention. Especially when matched to the Vegas Yellow hue.
Unlike the Audi, a premium sound system, reversing camera, parking sensors, contrasting roof colour, and 18-inch wheels are standard on the JCW, which makes it a more full-fruit package. But that’s the larger problem. It feels like MINI’s thrown everything possible at the JCW. From the brawny engine and rock-hard suspension, to the feverish styling and loads of equipment, it’s a MINI Cooper with the lot, which only exaggerates it as less than the sum of its parts.
We could be to blame for that because MOTOR’s previously nailed the Cooper S for lacking sparkle in the last 20 per cent of its drive experience. This must have tickled MINI’s ears back in Oxford because we have no doubt the JCW would carve up a track, where there’s plenty of space for it to unleash its crazy. There’s no doubting it’s quick, but on the road, it feels one parole-check away from a straitjacket.
This, however, shouldn’t deter thrill seekers from the Audi. Every time you hop in it, its snicky gearshift and point-and-boost driving style conjures juvenile behaviour. It’s a brilliant tool for blasting through urban city traffic and genuinely entertaining. Better yet, its unintimidating look means you can get away with such things.
At the same time, to quote Morley, the S1 also manages to feel more grown up than the JCW. Its greater thirst at the bowser might not suggest so, and the cruise control might feel “calibrated by a cabbie” to quote him again, but the torquey engine and cushier ride means the S1 can also be driven at a more relaxed level, whereas the MINI bounces around you like a bored puppy, begging to be played with.
For that, the Audi’s the winner. Is it twice the car a Volkswagen Polo GTI is? Probably not. But there’s a genuine depth to its mechanical package and polish to its vibe that helps it feel like a ridiculously cheap S model rather than an A1 dialled up to 11. It also it injects the ‘super’ in to supermini.
Sure, you’ll need to add a hefty chunk of options to have one looking proper (I’d have mine in black with the quattro wing; that’s $4990 in the S Performance Package). It’s a sting, but remember that time you promised yourself one chip? Exactly.
|AUDI S1||MINI JCW|
|Body||5-door, 4-seat hatch||3-door, 4-seat hatch|
|Engine||1984cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo||1998cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo|
|Power||170kW @ 6000rpm||170kW @ 5200-6000rpm|
|Torque||370Nm @ 1600-3000rpm||320Nm @ 1250-4800rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|Steering||electrically-assisted rack and pinion||electrically-assisted rack and pinion|
|Price as tested||$52,490||$49,350|
Entertaining; sure footed; refined
|Extroverted driving fun; exhaust note; cabin spec|
|Cons||Boring interior; needs more power||Weird look; spooky grip limits; steering|