To hear Wolfsburg tell it, the Up GTI is the Mk1 Golf GTI reincarnate. It's small, you see - and light and simple and only modestly powerful, exclaims the bumf. Much like the Lupo GTI when it was new. That was the reincarnation of the Mk1, too, gasped Volkswagen. Fooey. Two decades have rolled by without the comparison becoming any less dubious. No matter what its dimensions, the Golf of the mid seventies was a family hatchback through and through. The GTI variant was a grown-up's car. Albeit with revolutionary bells and whistles.
A far more satisfying reference point for the go-faster Up, with its non-existent overhangs and its sophisticated handling and peppy engine, would be the BMC-era Mini Cooper. It, surely, ranks as the archetypal fast city car; patient zero in how to be spartan, primitive, tiny and terrific all at once. Of course Wolfsburg could no more allude to the Mini than Pepsi could to the originality of Coca-Cola, but it's fair to say that the Cooper's cherubic image has been coveted since long before it ceased production. BMW coveted it all the way to the bank after all, and then built a look-a-like monument to its timelessness.
Handily, today's Mini Cooper - a significant step down from the steroidal performance of the S model or JCW - is very good indeed. Like the GTI, it has a turbocharged three-cylinder engine, not to mention (in its best, cheapest format) three doors, a small boot and not quite enough room for anyone to sit in the back. Its list price is almost £2,000 more than the Up, sure - and it's slightly larger in every direction, but it's in the ballpark, and only 21hp more powerful.
Is it doing a significantly better job than the Up in channeling the spirit of John Newton Cooper? Well, it says much about the Up that it's easy to like right off the bat. Volkswagen can get a little stuffy when it comes to its most famous trim level, but inside the Up has few more airs and graces than high-spec stock model. There's a moneyed glint to the shinier bits of interior trim - and no mistaking the heated tartan seats or GTI-badged six-speed manual gearbox - otherwise it's fairly unassuming. Ditto an exterior which has gained 17-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler but nothing you'd think gaudy. If anything, it still resembles the Up a little too plainly: upright and boxy and a shade too spindly.
Lordy, though, does it give off the right vibe. The doors almost clang shut. It feels no more substantial than a fruit fly without being poorly or cheaply made. Big windows mean it's very light and airy. The 1.0-litre motor - an evolution of the existing EA211 unit, wheezes into life with a flimsy cough, but settles into an angry (admittedly piped-in) thrum. The pedals are square on like a piano's and spread almost evenly. There's virtually no weight to the gearshift at all. Nor is there much sensation of mass when moving away. It's all very Up: amenable, dainty, uncomplicated and unassuming.
Consequently, its impression of the stock car at low speeds is almost faultless, save for the engine note. Even on larger rims and a lower-by-15mm suspension, the GTI's chassis hardly seems concerned with tacking you down in any conventional baby hot hatch sense. A Twingo 133 Cup, it is most certainly not - nor even an Abarth 595. Rather it is springy and sprightly and loose-limbed. And because it is all these things, and guiltlessly thrashable to boot, its spell is considerable.
It is a charisma built from a certain kind of mechanical perkiness rather than outright speed. After all, the GTI is not, objectively-speaking, actually very fast at all. But it is keen and very vocal about it. In stark contrast to the standard Up (and there is much contrasting going on) it is energetic out of low revs - plainly the work of the blower - yet it does not seem overtly turbocharged; rather it is linear and zesty in a way that makes it feel mildly hyperactive without ever threatening to pin you against the seat backs.
That it conjures such relish from 115hp is of course due to the fact that with a waif of a driver aboard it weighs just 1070kg. Yours truly is no waif, it's true - nevertheless the wanton lack of mass is palpable in just about everything the GTI does well. This extends to the handling, of course, where the car's roller skate-style change of direction is delivered despite a amiable tendency to roll - as if it were all inherent to the teensy wheelbase and tiny-ish kerbweight alone.
Certainly the combination is compelling enough to fat-shame the Mini. The current Cooper has 136hp from its larger 1.5-litre three-pot and claims a full second advantage in the race to 62mph, although you wouldn't know it. There's a syrupy, so-so response from middling engine speeds - unaided by the economy-minded gear ratios and BMW's efforts to smother whatever offbeat raspiness there might have been - but surely cramped too by the additional 90kg or so it heaves around.
Not being prone to over-elaboration, Nik says it feels like a tank. Grown-up would be a fairer description, because while it is undeniably larger and heavier, there is also plenty of perceived heft plumbed into the Cooper - much of it to do with the model's premium-ended market position. The cabin quality duly reflects the difference in cost between the pair, so too the superior level of infotainment (the Mini wearing its adulterated iDrive system at part of the £1500 optional Media Pack; the Up having you make do with a phone holder and a modest 5-inch touchscreen).
The heavyset, fun-done-seriously attitude is prominent too in the way the Cooper rides and handles. Where the Up bounces and skips over the road like a particularly trim water boatman, the Mini tends to push down on it like a charging rhinoceros. The overdamped silliness of previous generations has largely been seen to - although the Cooper is still quite capable of making your head bob if you mismatch your speed to choppy terrain.
However, as it tends to, BMW's reasoning surfaces soon enough, and it hardly takes a full lap of the New Forest to figure out that the Mini's chassis is ultimately more capable than the Up's. That firm suspension is there to keep the body strictly in check while cornering, and while the GTI's track may have been made marginally wider than the standard version, the front end's resistance to understeer isn't nearly as staunch as the Cooper's. The Mini excels at turning in, and the weight and the positivity of its steering rack encourages plenty of liberty taking.
In the GTI there's no off-centre heft to help you along when your speeds are great and inputs small, and the car is less keen to tighten its line in sharp bends or carry as much speed through fast ones. It also fails to let a motorway journey pass by quite so peaceably or insulate you quite so well from the noise of the road or airflow. How much will you care? Potentially not a jot. More often than not, the Up undermines the Mini's broader talent by the simple, subjective act of being more fun - regardless of how lightly it wears its GTI status.
Over time BMW has turned its Cooper into the quintessential modern supermini: rounded, accomplished, quiet and obliging. A big car made small. But the sportiest Up makes its material superiority seem more like a millstone than an asset. This is about lightness, yes - but also light-heartedness. The GTI is louder, nimbler, cruder, quicker and cheaper - much cheaper. Not only to buy - although the spectacle of our press demonstrator's £21,760 price with options (versus £14,615 for the Up) does speak volumes about the perceived difference in class - but also to run, the GTI proving more economical than the Mini virtually across the board in the real world.
Does that make it a better Cooper, spiritually speaking? Not entirely. For a GTI, the car does undeniably spend rather too much of its time feeling less like a hot hatch and more like a stock Up - and while that often proves acceptable, it does eventually limit the thrill factor somewhat. Had Volkswagen deigned to tweak its turbocharged motor up to (or marginally beyond) the 125hp supplied to the Lupo GTI all those years ago, it might have delivered a more riveting replacement - or at least one capable of equalling 7.8 seconds to 62mph. Perhaps that version is to come. Until then we'll just have to accept the Up GTI for what it is. Which is just shy of bloody brilliant.
|Mini Cooper - Specifications|
|Engine||1,499cc, 3-cyl turbocharged|
|Transmission||six-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||162@1,500rpm|
|Price||£15,485 (As tested £21,760 comprised of £750 for lapis luxury blue paint, £1,800 for Media pack XL, £105 for Mini Yours Sport leather steering wheel, £1,340 for Pepper pack, £100 for 16-inch victory spoke alloy wheels in black, £80 for bonnet stripes in white, £220 for darkened rear glass, £110 for Auto-dimming interior rearview mirror, £120 for Anthracite headlining, £670 for LED headlights and daytime running lights, £80 for first registration and number plates, £700 for delivery and £200 for RFL34)|
|Volkswagen Up! GTI - Specifications|
|Engine||999cc, 3-cyl turbocharged|
|Transmission||six-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||147@2,000-3,500rpm|
|Price||£13,750 (As tested £14,615 comprising £485 for Vodafone Protect and Connect 6 and £380 for city emergency braking pack)|