We've been hearing about them for years: premium small cars. We've even seen some of them, albeit through the distorted lens of the transatlantic Internet. But soon Americans will get to enjoy the segment Europeans have kept largely to themselves, and Audi's upcoming A1 minicar, set to make its official debut at the Geneva Motor Show, will be one of the first.
Previewed a number of times over the past several years worth of auto shows, the Audi A1 is most closely analogous to MINI's Cooper in the current small/premium segment. Leaked from a photoshoot with Justin Timberlake about a month ago, the A1 is expected to show up with a 1.2- to 1.6-liter range of engines, three- and five-door hatchback body styles, plus a possible convertible variant.
Premium and small aren't exactly ham-and-cheese partners in America, though. We tend to equate size with value, and, according to conventional wisdom, intentionally buying smaller is seen as un-American; an admission of one's low self-worth. But Audi thinks it can change that, and that there's actually already a market in place, waiting to be tapped.
So who are these people that don't revel in the resplendent largeness of American vehicular freedom? The young, urban, upwardly mobile crowd, apparently. And Audi thinks that's a big enough group to sell 80,000 cars worldwide in the A1's first full year.
That's an ambitious figure, but certainly not impossible. In the first half of 2008, MINI was on course to hit nearly 60,000 sales in the U.S. alone. Even in post-carpocalyptic America, the MINI pulled in over 45,000 sales for 2009. But the MINI audience is often rabidly loyal, and Audi will have a hard time poaching on BMW's small-car territory.
The impresarios in Ingolstadt aren't deterred, however. Audi is forecasting huge growth in the sub-compact market by 2015, and that growth will be driven, they think, by people looking for high-tech, comfortable and well-built small cars. And when those younger buyers decide it's time to move up to something bigger, they'll stick with Audi--or at least that's the plan.
“It’s the perfect entry-level model for young customers in particular," said Audi board member Peter Schwarzenbauer. "And of course we’re confident that we’ll be able to delight these customers with the new A1 so that they will stay with the Audi brand and will later want to drive our larger models.”