Why the comparison?
Ten years is a long time at the top. In 2001 we knew that the MINI was good - it handled well, looked unlike anything else (other than the original Mini) and trounced other cars of similar size for quality. Little did we know how many would leave the forecourts though. Within a decade, German MINI has become an icon (a word thrown around a lot, but true in this case), worthy of its British lower case namesake.
The Fiat 500 and the Citroen DS3 are both good, but neither has truly succeeded in conquering the car they've tried to emulate, with their focus on funkiness and personalisation. The Audi A1 doesn't try to play the MINI at its own game, but instead condenses all that's desirable about Audi's big cars, namely quality, solidity and prestige. By not pandering to the MINI business plan, Audi has presented BMW with its biggest threat yet.
How are they similar?
They're both small, premium cars. The aforementioned Italian and French rivals emulate premium, and do it quite nicely, but ultimately neither has the necessary badge to do it properly. The four rings are different.
Despite being in its second generation, the MINI's cabin is virtually unchanged from the 2001 car. Very few interiors have the MINI's personality and sense of individuality, yet all the boring stuff that makes a car pleasant to live with - the intuitiveness of the switches and layout of the driving position - are just right too. You can be 6'6” or 5'5” and still get comfy in the MINI.
Even though it's brand new, the A1's interior feels almost as familiar as the MINI's, and that's because of Audi's never-changing design philosophy: substance first, style second. It's arguably the opposite of the MINI's, but both work just as well. Even more so than the MINI, the Audi feels like a top end product, with a spongy dash surface that shames those of much bigger cars, as well as top-drawer ergonomics. The Audi TT style air conditioning vents in particular are a lovely touch.
How do they differ?
The MINI is the more rewarding drive, no doubt, but the Audi isn't too far behind. And, actually, for the majority of buyers, the Audi's more supple ride will be of far greater importance than the nuances of handling during a countryside drive.
The Audi has space and usability in its favour as well. Neither lacks in the headroom department, but whereas the MINI leaves notoriously little leg and luggage space from the B-pillars backwards, the Audi has enough of both.
Pit the A1 1.6 TDI Sport against the closest MINI, the Cooper D, and the latter is both punchier and more frugal - thank BMW's hugely impressive EfficientDynamics engine tech for that. The MINI's 74.3mpg and 99g/km make it VED free, whereas the Audi can only achieve 70.6mpg and 105g/km. We say 'only', but 70mpg is hardly gas guzzling and it'll cost you a mere £20 per year to tax. That's not the sort of amount on which to base a car buying decision, we feel.
A 99g/km A1 has just been launched as well, putting an end to that argument.
So which one would we have?
There's nothing really in it in terms of pricing, and the Audi is likely to enjoy the same sort of premium residuals as the MINI. If we were choosing one for the weekend, just for the fun of driving, we'd have a MINI Cooper D every time. But from a buyer's perspective, the A1 makes a far more compelling case because it's more spacious, more comfy and - if this sort of thing bothers you - far less common (for the time being).