The Up GTI has been on fleet for a little over a month now, during which time it has mainly seen action on the daily commute to and fro across south west London. This, though, is a task which a standard Up could also readily complete, so does the GTI offer a sufficiently improved experience to justify not only its higher price, but also its very existence? Pondering that has raised more questions than answers.
Initial comparisons to the Mk1 Golf GTI, perhaps unsurprisingly, do the Up no favours. Yes, on paper there are undeniably similarities, but in reality it's just nowhere near as focused a car. The gear change is somewhat loose and frequently notchy, not half as tactile you might hope for a GTI. The three-cylinder engine has a strong mid range, but with little on offer at the top end you soon give up on chasing the revs, while the sound it emits is just rorty and loud rather than purposeful or aggressive.
On excursions outside the M25 the Up GTI is entertaining nonetheless. The ride is composed and it feels a more mature experience than its price tag or position in VW's lineup suggest. There is certainly fun to be had in tearing down routes which larger, more powerful cars would be simply too much for. On larger B-roads it can start to seem a little out of its depth, however, with the steering feeling a somewhat vague at higher speeds and poor surfaces catching out the suspension. There is fun to be had in a countryside drive, but not enough to make the trip especially for the purpose. Not often, at least. If you're looking for a practical runabout which can also fulfill weekend warrior duties, then the class above - Fiesta ST, Mini Cooper S et al - remains the starting point.
As a sporty city car, though, the Up excels. The engine delivers its 148lb ft between 2,000 and 3,500rpm providing nippy acceleration which, partnered with the nimble steering, makes getting out of junctions, zipping around cyclists, and negotiating gridlocked roads not only a breeze, but in fact rather fun. Its diminutive size, meanwhile, makes navigating the daily onslaught of double-parked delivery lorries, yellow box-blocking bozos and moped-mounted maniacs considerably less stressful. The brakes proved themselves effective too, when a man in Richmond decided to stroll out into the road - whilst reading a book.
Which brings us to the debate that has consumed PH Towers this week (for about 10 minutes one lunchtime). Does the GTI badge simply identify the sportiest iteration of a particular model - in the absence of an R, of course - or is it a title that needs to be earned in its own right, one that represents an ascendance to a higher echelon of automotive purity and driver engagement?
The Up GTI is undoubtedly the most able model in the range - whether that extra ability justifies its additional cost will have to wait for another time - and when viewed through the lens of the city car, this iteration ticks all the right performance boxes. When judged against other great GTIs past and present, though, it just doesn't possess the same driving credentials to be remembered alongside them. Not on the past month's impressions, at any rate.
I personally don't think that matters, so good is the Up at fulfilling its design brief. If you want a car that's great to drive outside an urban settling, don't buy a city car. Others will disagree, and I can see the logic behind expecting a GTI badged car to deliver a certain experience. All in all, though, our time in the Up GTI has been very positive so far, mainly thanks to the fact that it has largely operated in its comfort zone, perhaps, but isn't that why people choose these cars in the first place? The next few months are bound to reveal even more about the Up's character, as well as just how much of a step up over the rest of the range it really is. The answer to that question may well be the most important one of all.
Car: Volkswagen Up GTI
On fleet since: August 2018
Run by: Dafydd Wood
List price new: £14,055 (As tested £16,005 comprising Deep Black paint (£520), Vodafone Protect and Connect 6 (£485), City Emergency Braking Pack (£380), Cruise and Park Pack (£300), Climate Control (£265)
Last month at a glance: Moving Up in the world as the GTI shines in the city
PH gets All Fired Up about the latest Fleet arrival
Images: Dafydd Wood