VW Up GTI: PH Fleet

Even with half a year chalked on the PH Fleet chalk board, the Up GTI is a source of constant discussion in the office. In one corner we merrily talk up the virtues of its size, usability and off-the-scale about-town liveliness, while in the other corner Matt Bird bellyaches about how no-one has noticed that the quickest Up is in fact neither one thing nor the other, and is therefore about as deserving of its hallowed badge as a Nissan Primera.

Naturally we all roll our eyes and throw up our hands and apologise on Volkswagen's behalf for its failure to build his nibbs a downscaled Golf R for the monthly cost of a mobile phone SIM card. But, as ever, the histrionics and tribunal-level name calling mask the lingering concern that Matthew might have himself the kernel of a valid point. The Up GTI is very likeable indeed and easier to live with than cotton underwear. But a bonafide successor to something like a Peugeot 106 Rallye S1? Not so much.

The counter argument, of course, is that it was never meant to be. On the universal scale of hatchback hotness, Volkswagen rarely aims for magma - it wants to be swift and sophisticated and sure. Where others might see compromise, Wolfsburg sees a middle way. And if you want to see how far it has come, you need a more appropriate benchmark. Something middlebrow, something a bit everyman... something like the Mk2 Seat Ibiza Cupra Sport GTI, for example.

Now, if we're honest, the red devil pictured was not originally sent to us to play foil to the Up, but the comparison is all but irresistible - not least because the three-door supermini of yesteryear is hardly any larger than what the industry now calls a city car. (Certainly its modest advantage in length is not to the particular benefit of its occupants, given that most of it is contained in what now seems like a colossal front overhang.)

Of course you need a bit of room when you've got, oh, about 400 different flavours of four-cylinder engine to accommodate. Lest we forget, the second generation Ibiza was the first car Seat produced with Volkswagen calling the shots, and while it maybe Giorgetto Giugiaro on top, it is very much the stock A03 platform underneath - the same front-drive architecture that underpinned the famously tepid Mk3 Polo.

That didn't prevent it from being casually lobbed a GTI badge though. After all, the parent company wanted to see some return on its investment in 'Latin flair' and chucked in the larger petrol engines for good measure. The pre-facelift model you really want is the 150hp 2.0-litre petrol engine boasting 16 (count 'em) valves and 130lb ft of torque. The brand's heritage car though is the 8v version with 115hp - and while that's undeniably not quite as good, it does make it an even match for the output whistling from the Up's half-as-big three-pot.

Or it does on paper, at least. On the road, it's a walkover. The newer car is quicker than even its half second advantage in 0-62mph time suggests. No prizes for guessing its secret - the Ibiza's longer gearing and 26lb ft deficit in peak twist tells its own story - yet it hardly describes the difference in delivery. True, the Cupra's naturally-aspirated motor was never the liveliest 2.0-litre unit in the world, but its flywheel seems all the more leaden when measured against theresponsive 1.0-litre TSI.

And it's not all about accessibility either - you'd expect that from a modern turbocharged engine - it's the way the Up manages to makes its coiled-spring reaction to the accelerator pedal seem like fun that takes the biscuit. Partly it's about the warble, of course, and a general lack of mass, but it's also about the zappy, gap-finding pleasure of making progress instantly. The Ibiza needs winding up like a grandfather clock if you want the best from it. The Up is solid-state.

It's a similar story on the handling front. The front-heavy Cupra wasn't built to be on a knife-edge either, yet its softness feels every bit twenty years-old with a 21st century equivalent in the foreground. The Up might be made to wilt in the face of something less compromising, but its change of direction is a model of composure in comparison.

The lesson? Time marches on. Obvious perhaps in the wider world, but occasionally forgotten when it comes to cars and the not so distant past, where we've started assuming everything was as glorious as an E39 M5. Had we plucked a mint condition 106 or second generation Suzuki Swift Sport from the historical pile, it might have been a different story - but compared to the Ibiza, a nineties hot hatch with the same onus on ease-of-use and genial speed, the Up feels like a quantum leap forward.

Does that make it anymore deserving of the GTI badge than the Cupra? Well, there we return to the sticky wicket. Matt would argue that a better standard of middle way is still too far from the genuinely exciting end of the hot hatch scale, and that simply being the best and quickest Up does not automatically confer classic status. That's hard to dispute. It is not a GTI which insists on the long way home or stolen Sunday afternoons. But for the road most travelled, for easing the everyday grind and mildly spicing a commute - while barely troubling a bank account or width restriction - its appeal could hardly be broader. Or warmer.

Volkswagen Up GTI
On fleet since: August 2018
Run by: Dafydd Wood
List price new: Β£14,055 (As tested Β£16,005 comprising Deep Black paint (Β£520), Vodafone Protect and Connect 6 (Β£485), City Emergency Braking Pack (Β£380), Cruise and Park Pack (Β£300), Climate Control (Β£265)
Last month at a glance: What's in a name?

Previous reports:
PH gets All Fired Up about the latest Fleet arrival
When is a GTI not a GTI? When it's an Up!
Getting a leg Up on the competition
Pondering room for improvement

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Comments (33) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Kawasicki 14 Dec 2018

    I reckon the big wheels and super low profile tyres on the Up are part of the reason it changes direction in a more composed manner. On a bumpy, twisty B road the Ibiza has no chance.

  • suffolk009 14 Dec 2018

    Will there ever be an Up! R?

  • iandc 14 Dec 2018

    how about an "Up!URs"?

  • DaveTheRave87 14 Dec 2018

    suffolk009 said:
    Will there ever be an Up! R?
    I'd love to see an up! GTI Clubsport.

    2 bucket seats with half cage and harness bar and about 130bhp.

  • Mike1990 14 Dec 2018

    Guess that’s progress for you.

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