Volkswagen Up! GTI: Driven

Have you heard that VW made a fast Golf in the mid-70s? 1976, if memory serves. It was quite successful, all things considered. Made a few. This new Up GTI, in case you hadn't heard just yet, is intended to evoke the spirit of that original GTI. The spiritual successor. The rebirth of an icon. The modern interpretation. That's the bingo card of cliches done, isn't it?

It is hard to escape the comparisons when you look at the vital statistics: the power (115hp) is within 5hp of that Golf, it's just 17mm wider and the 2,415mm wheelbase is only 15mm up on the GTI. An admirably low kerbweight of 990kg is 110kg more, but stronger torque sees it dash to 60mph a few tenths quicker. See, it's irresistible; you can't help but compare it. There are red accents and everything.

Which is all well and good for nostalgic VW fans - and the marketing operation - but not of much relevance now. Mk1 Golfs these days make for very valuable classics; the Up is a £14k city car that will probably have a nice PCP offer. What the 2018 GTI actually needs to achieve is a distillation of that effervescent 70s Golf spirit that's gradually ebbed away with 21st century maturity and - more tangibly - offer the best city car hot hatch experience around. After all, there's a new Swift Sport on the way, plus the Twingo, and you can still have an Abarth 500 - albeit a 145hp one - for £15k.

Things do begin well for the Up, it being predictably similar to the other GTIs as an object. The styling is confident and appealing, the interior conveys an appropriate sense of sportiness and everything you touch is very pleasant. (If a little too far down from your perch in the driver's seat.)

Turning the ignition key does alter the perception somewhat. Rather than four subdued cylinders humming back at you, there are three thrumming, fizzing, angry ones ready to tear off into the distance. There's probably some manipulation going on, and there's a hint of Beetle at idle - all things considered though the turbocharged EA211 is a great little engine, and remarkable for just 999cc.

Certainly it's responsive from just 1,500rpm, hurling itself up the road hard from 2,000rpm and revving out eagerly, if with the inevitable hint of tightness that comes with small size and forced induction. It feels quicker than you might expect it to, and all the time it's accompanied by the three-cylinder tune, with hints of Giulia Quadrifoglio, 911 - bet you didn't see that coming - and the old Toyota Aygo, which is really rather pleasing.

The gearbox is a decent accompaniment: precise and quick if a bit light for genuine satisfaction. And while understandably geared for better economy, it would be nice to have shorter, sharper ratios. Sixth can be an overdrive, can't it?

Fortunately you won't be giving those ratios much consideration when you're screaming between hairpins and wondering just how late those disc brakes - with drums still at the rear - can haul you up. (Very well is the answer, with plenty of power and an easy-to-modulate pedal; shame heel-and-toe is so difficult). Obvious though it may sound, there's a distinct pleasure in driving something that's actually light as fast as you can, rather than one that creates a mirage of litheness through four-wheel steer, active anti-roll and torque vectoring. This is just a simple, honest, fairly brisk little car; i.e. the antithesis to much of what's offered in the performance car realm today, and arguably the better for it. An Up GTI and a Golf GTI together still don't weigh as much as one Audi SQ7...

So on the road you get all the agility, tenacity and vigour you would hope for from something that's less than 1,000kg and above 100hp. The car dives for a bend and settles quickly, the lack of inertia immediate and very welcome. The wheelbase is short but the wheels are pushed out - so stability is good - and grip strong. Occasionally you might see a flicker of the traction control light with a particularly greedy throttle application, though mostly the front wheels seem to have everything under control. A ride height 15mm lower than a regular Up gives the GTI some toughness around town, offset by the additional precision and control at higher speed. It feels like a sensible everyday set up.

Which is kind of the Up GTI's best and worst attribute. It feels not like a reinvention of the Mk1 Golf, but rather a shrink-wrapped Mk7 Golf, with everything worthy and frustrating that that entails. It's superbly refined, nicely appointed, thoroughly engineered and impressively capable. But it's also not the most joyful car to drive fast. The formula works so successfully in a Golf because the compromise of daddy daycare with devil-may-care attitude perfectly suits the car's remit; once it becomes applied to smaller hatchbacks, the balance is skewed - like when children imitate adults at six years old. It's kind of cute, but a bit weird, too.

Sure, you can't make small, fast cars like a 106 GTI or a Twingo Renaultsport anymore. Not really. But it just would have been nice for the leash to have been loosened a bit more for the Up, to make it feel a little naughtier in terms of handling balance and demeanour. Of course the argument there is whether anybody (beyond the Internet) actually wants slightly raw, exciting, cheap hot hatches any more - the last Swift Sport was hardly a runaway success, the Panda 100HP was never replaced and the Toyota/Citroen/Peugeot city car triumvirate hasn't spawned anything sporty in over a decade.

So VW should be applauded for creating the Up GTI, for delivering a snazzy and semi-sharp city car that delivers everything you might expect from a downsized GTI. For those aspiring to a Golf this will be the perfect introduction. It deserves to sell well - not least thanks to a surprisingly competitive asking price. Without much competition the GTI is easily the best car in its class, too. However, it's hard not to wish for just a bit more excitement from the Up as an enthusiast, churlish though that may sound in an increasingly mature performance car market.


Engine: 999cc, 3cyl, turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 115@5,000 rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@2,000 - 3,500rpm
0-62mph: 8.8sec
Top speed: 122mph
Weight: 1,070kg
MPG: 49.6 - 50.4 (combined)
CO2: 127 - 129g/km
Price: £13,750 (3 door) (£14,150 for 5-door)









P.H. O'meter

Join the PH rating wars with your marks out of 10 for the article (Your ratings will be shown in your profile if you have one!)

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Rate this article

Comments (443) Join the discussion on the forum

  • eddietiv1 18 Jan 2018

    I think it's going to be a massive success, looks great and very competitively priced, the new Panda 100 Hp which was fantastic, but obviously better quality materials, well done vw.

  • ManicMunky 18 Jan 2018

    Very very tempted... will have to see what the PCP deals are on the 6th of Feb wink

  • mcg_ 18 Jan 2018

    I imagine when the lupo GTI was released it was more ground breaking (lighter than this, more power and.....rear discs ha)

    Still, hopefully the misses can be persuaded to get one!

  • LuS1fer 18 Jan 2018

    It may go well but it's still an awkwardly boxy car to look at and the looks kill it, for me. I would pay more for something more visually appealing.

  • Jbeale96 18 Jan 2018

    As I sit in my Citigo Monte Carlo waiting for the Brother in law to finish Air Cadets I cant help but think about how much fun this car is with 59 bhp, let alone 115!

    I’ve had it very nearly a year and covered nearly 27,000 miles and it’s got under my skin a bit. Every day I marvel at how good it is at cruising on the motorway to work (hence the miles) for a tiny city car. I do sometimes consider giving it to the Missus due to my commute and buying a Volvo S60 Auto or something but then I get it on a tight twisty road and remember why I love it so much. It makes a cracking noise, handles exceptionally well and loves being above 4K rpm.

    All this for £12k brand new before discounts, £20 a year in tax, insurance group 2 and a comfortable 50mpg.

    Honestly with a bit more power, cruise and slightly comfier seats it would be perfect.

    TL;DR the Up! family really is tremendous fun and the GTI will only make it better. When my Citigo eventually has some equity in it I might be tempted....

View all comments in the forums Make a comment