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The new Audi A1 Sportback seems to have slid in under the radar of the near-feverish publicity that normally accompanies such debuts.

But I suppose it’s better late than never to sample it on Irish roads.

Audi’s smallest hatch is, or should be, a key rival for the likes of the MINI 5dr, for example. At least Audi have said this would be the case with the new model.

Like the new Volkswagen Polo and SEAT Ibiza, it’s built on the famous MQB platform.

And as a Sportback now, it comes only as a 5dr hatch.

Like the other two it has stretched – to four metres in length in this instance.

The easy winners from that extension are those occupying the back seat (quite a bit better knee and leg room than before).

Additionally there are 65 litres more luggage space now.

Unusually, I’d like to highlight the super-slick 6spd manual gearbox that comes as standard. It made a difference in town driving where automatics are usually tops.

The A1 certainly packs in a good deal of equipment and technology, something the brand recognised is needed to compete at this level.

The only thing is, however, some of the items are charged as optional extras which drive up the basic price of the car. And that attracts criticism.

One major element they promised was a much sportier/sharper design because the old one had begun to look downright dowdy.

Maybe I expected too much of this new one. Or maybe my idea of ‘sharp’ is different to theirs.

I thought it was, despite a neat frame and much-heralded new design, a bit underwhelming to look at; maybe the dark paint coloured my view. But I do like the grille. It lifts the front from the pedantic.

The cabin evoked mixed feelings and verdicts. I really liked the multi-angular dash. What a wonderful way to project visual necessities such as instrument cluster and infotainment system.

However, they set things back a good bit in the case of my test car by dressing it up in drab dark and grey colours and upholstery.

Maybe some find that a ‘cool’ combination. I didn’t.

You know what they say: first impressions are hard to shake.

And mine with the A1 were of a bigger, roomier car for sure, but hardly one to elicit too much excitement.

Despite promises to sharpen its drive I think, after some nippy journeys, that it is still difficult to pass the MINI on driveability.

Buyers of the latter are regarded as prime targets, as I’ve said.

And I have my criticisms of the MINI’s interior too, of course, but it is some way from the rather minimalist approach in the Audi.

Yet Audi obviously know their market better than I am giving them credit for.

The A1 has been a consistently popular buy in Europe for a long time.

We’re told, for example, that only once since its original 2010 incarnation has it dipped below 90,000 a year. Not bad.

Anyway . . . my test car had the VW group’s wonderful little 3cyl 1-litre petrol under the bonnet.

And it was a significant redeeming feature if ever there was one; it brought life to the car and drive in no uncertain terms.

With that manual 6spd gearbox I mentioned that was as sweet as a nut, I flitted around south Dublin with ease.

We trudged through some horrendous capital city gridlock on a couple of occasions.

That is where the A1’s big car comfort came into play in another significant area.

Two of us, with what we’ll call sensitive backs, were well looked after by the excellent seating – something I tend to notice more by its absence than presence these days.

We had good room to stretch the old legs too, though rear-seat passengers would have noticed our generous incursion of the front duo.

I drove the A1 a good deal around town, over short journeys and on one great old spin to the midlands.

I found it handy, neat and nippy. But then, without attempting to be disparaging, I could say much the same about many a similarly-sized motor.

For ‘research’ reasons I didn’t tell any of my passengers the price of the A1. As I expected, a couple inevitably asked and they seemed quite surprised that we were sitting in something costing around €35,000.

That is without doubt a, if not the, potential major stumbling block for the car.

Is it worth so much more than a Volkswagen Polo for example? It would put me off – I’d want a lot more car for my money.

I’m not saying the MINI is a world beater either but for that sort of money I would need something with a bit of character; something that has a bit of real fun and drive at its nerve centre.

The MINI has. I don’t think you can say the same about the A1.

So I can’t give it A1 rankings. Knock a few grand off and would it be a different proposition?

Of course it would. One’s entire approach would be different.

But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon I reckon.

Especially if 100,000 or so Europeans continue to buy one.

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