The trouble with the original version of the Up GTI is that it was too cheap. At least that's how Volkswagen saw it. Launched two and a half years ago, the littlest GTI could be yours for less than £14,000, a modest figure for a highly regarded performance-lite machine these days. Too modest, in fact, because demand in the UK far outstripped right-hand drive supply and VW had to pull it from sale.
At the same time, the new WLTP emissions regulations were introduced and the Up GTI had to be retuned for compliance. Earlier this year, therefore, VW launched this updated version with engine tweaks and a loftier price tag, the additional £2000 seemingly an effort to quell some of that rampant demand. I believe they call that 'a nice problem to have'.
There are two ways in which I could review My First Hot Hatch. The first would be to diligently assess it in as many different settings as I can, like a hard working road tester hunting out rough and smooth roads in town and on the motorway and on quiet B-roads, earnestly paying attention to its secondary ride quality and individual wheel control. Or I could just drive the thing as hard as I dare for as long as I have it, like a Bristolian Jean Ragnotti with barely a fraction of the talent, then tell you how much fun I had, or otherwise.
In the end, I did both. The thing about this Up GTI is that it almost defies conventional road testing practices. Objectively, it isn't very good at all: the engine doesn't really want to spin out, the ride never settles, the seating position is awkward with a steering wheel that doesn't adjust for reach, the gearshift isn't especially precise, the ESP system cannot be knocked back, the suspension doesn't really deal with a broken road surface and there's lots of body roll.
But the Up GTI also made me honk with laughter as I hoofed it along motorway slip roads and along country lanes. Unless you have your grandmother in the car with you, there is literally only one way to drive a tiny hot hatch such as this, and that's to absolutely hammer it everywhere. The throttle pedal becomes a switch rather than something to modulate, the rev limiter becomes a target and to leave any grip in reserve in corners is to admit to being overwhelmed by this car's rippling 115hp.
And I can assure you, driving a sporty little hatchback that way is more entertaining than nervously contending with a wide and expensive supercar, squirting along on full throttle for three seconds at a time. The Up GTI demonstrates as effectively as anything else on the road that fun behind the wheel and sophisticated dynamic attributes are not necessarily one and the same.
It looks tiny and feels even smaller to sit in. With the driver's seat pushed back far enough for my legs to get comfortable, I feel as though I'm sat closer to the back wheels than the fronts. It's a surprise every single time to peer over my shoulder and see another row of seats behind me. Visibility is very good and you're so keenly aware of the car's extremities that you fling it at gaps in the traffic like a young pickpocket darting along a crowded street.
There aren't too many modern performance cars that are small, cute, slow and inoffensive enough to be fun to drive in town. On more open roads, the Up GTI longs to be chucked into corners with scarcely a lift, the body leaning heavily on its outer springs but also skipping up and down wildly as the suspension knocks and rattles over bumps. It's like pepperoni pizza - not at all refined, but irresistible nonetheless.
In that sense, it doesn't feel or behave like any other GTI Volkswagen. The Polo and Golf are so much more grown up in nature, and so much more polished dynamically, that the Up is made to feel like an adopted sibling. VW has tried to imbue the smaller car with some of those familiar GTI attributes, upholstering the seats with tartan trim and bolting on sporty 17-inch wheels, but the genetic commonality runs no deeper than that.
I actually like the Up GTI's fuss-free cabin with its simple infotainment system, very clear analogue dials and tiny reversing camera display (a £440 option). I also like the smartphone mount that sits atop the dashboard, making a built-in navigation screen redundant - or at least I do in principle, because my iPhone didn't fit.
Most of all, I liked the car's tiny proportions and sub-1100kg kerb weight. Against that modest mass, the little three-cylinder engine feels punchy. With only a trio of pistons that sweep through 999cc between them, plus a small turbocharger, it produces a lumpy 148lb ft of torque. Allow the engine to drop off its torque curve and not a great deal happens. Flattening the accelerator pedal from 1500rpm in third gear is a bit like watching a pot of water come to the boil. To begin with, nothing whatsoever. Then you detect the beginnings of something, the first few bubbles appearing at the base of the pan or, in this case, the soundtrack just starting to harden.
Gradually, the pan begins to bubble. Small bubbles at first, but as they grow in size and number the water becomes excited. At 2000rpm the engine starts pulling, and from there it works harder and harder as the turbo huffs and puffs. The motor spins through 4000rpm and then towards 6000rpm. Soon enough you can't bare just to watch on, so you lift the pan off the heat or hurriedly change up a gear.
The soundtrack is a strange one, not least because it's clearly being digitally augmented. There's a typically three-pot timbre to it, although it isn't fluttery like some, being more thrummy. It certainly isn't beefy. The engine is an effective one, but given the effervescent nature of the chassis and the steering, I so wish there was a dinky normally-aspirated, high-revving four-cylinder beneath the bonnet. You know, the type of engine that begs to be flogged gear after gear.
At more than £16,000, the Up GTI isn't the bargain it once was. If that price is enough to put you off, Volkswagen won't mind one bit. The baby GTI isn't the only car performance car you'll ever need, but even if you have a Ferrari or a GT3 in your garage, you'll have bundles of stress-free fun bumping around town and boinging through the countryside in one of these. It's the worst great car I've ever driven.
SPECIFICATION | VOLKSWAGEN UP GTI
Engine: 999cc, three-cyl turbo
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 115@5000-5500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@2000-3500rpm
0-62mph: 8.8 secs
Top speed: 122mph
Weight: 1070kg (EU, with driver)
Price: £16,540 (£17,985 as tested)
1 / 11