To read the internet, you'd think the VW Up GTI is just about the greatest hot hatch ever to grace mankind. It's small, cheap, accessible and cute, after all. And apparently channelling all that lovely Mk1 Golf GTI spirit - first tick on the bingo card - into a modern, fizzy, desirable pocket rocket package.
Us? Not so sure. There's an awful lot to recommend the GTI to prospective buyers, sure. We're running a longtermer based on some of those reasons. But that doesn't automatically mean that for the enthusiast, the only way is Up. It's done a decent job in isolation - VW's almost always do - but nothing really tests a car's mettle like a comparison with its immediate rivals.
Trouble is, what to compare an Up GTI with? The Renaultsport Twingo hasn't been replaced (more's the pity), the Abarth 595 range is now 10 years old, a Vauxhall Adam S is £18,875 at list price and, well, what else is there? Fast, small cars aren't the focus they once were, the motivation for manufacturers during leaner times understandably on larger products that generate bigger profits. For those who lusted after various 106s and Saxos, even SportKas and Pandas, that will be a disappointment - and it's precisely why we've ended up with rivals of a slightly different stripe here.
First, the Mazda 2 GT Sport, a model you may well not even know exists. Launched last year to a pretty muted PH reception, the car boasts a series of interesting dynamic improvements over a regular 2 - recalibrated electric steering, reworked dampers, changes to arms and bushes - to make it an even sharper steer. Don't forget, either, the G-Vectoring Control, a system that varies engine torque - all 109lb ft of it - across the front axle to "provide more precise handling". Five-door only and a touch dowdy in this company it might be, but don't dismiss the 2 on first acquaintance.
The second car here is perhaps the most logical rival for the Up: Suzuki's third generation of Swift Sport. More powerful, more mature and more expensive than ever before, and hoping to retain ownership of the ebullient charm present in all previous versions while featuring a turbocharged engine. You'll probably already know that it costs more than we were expecting - and therefore has almost as much to prove as the Up...
With the downsized Volkswagen most familiar and the Swift at least experienced beforehand, it makes sense to begin in the Mazda. As it transpires a couple of days are spent in the 2 ahead of anything else and, to be frank, there's absolutely no desire to swap out - it's an unheralded little gem.
The GT Sport is not some under-the-radar performance hero - because it's actually quite pricey for how fast it goes - and neither is it the very best handling FWD car that ever there's been, but that doesn't stop it from being really enjoyable to drive. There's that cohesion and precision to the controls that Japanese manufacturers seem to do so well, the steering light but faultlessly accurate, the gearshift short and sweet and the brake pedal firm and progressive. Not areas you would expect a run-of-the-mill 1.5-litre supermini to excel, and perhaps all the more impressive because for it. Mazda evidently still cares about this stuff, even if many people won't pay it much mind.
The engine comes from manufacturer's much lauded Skyactiv-G family, and all that they've been praised for elsewhere is in abundance here. It's a willing, zesty little four-cylinder that rewards every last rev, yet is equally happy to bimble around with barely four figures on the tacho. While muted, the sound isn't unpleasant, and, if you're willing to keep the revs high and the gears low - which was always the aim with old hot hatches, wasn't it? - then it's just about fast enough to be fun.
Introduce some corners and the situation improves further still. Mazda quotes a with-driver weight of just 1,050kg, which sounds eminently believable given the 2's agility and eagerness. Again, there's nothing out of the ordinary in its behaviour beyond being well-honed, transparent and approachable. It's light without feeling brittle, the springs kept soft because of the low mass but with dampers always in control of any roll. Grip ebbs away progressively, a lift of the throttle brings things back in order and the car doesn't seem ruffled by a style of driving few will subject it to - the 2 is calm, composed and resilient, perfectly happy to be driven hard if not actively encouraging the endeavour. It's a really pleasant surprise.
In fact, the Mazda's dynamics are the polar opposite of the VW's. That it overdelivers on expectations only increases your affection for it. The Up, with its chunky wheels, badges and sporting pretensions - plus the expectations around that 'GTI' moniker' - makes you believe it's going to be something a quite special. Sadly it doesn't take long to realise it probably isn't.
Why? The Up GTI is a car that goes fast - comfortably brisker than the Mazda, thanks to its always accommodating turbocharger - but it never actually feels like a fast car. Bear with me on this one. All the communication and satisfaction from a driving a thoroughly engineered performance car at any speed - the way the pedals feel underfoot, how the steering and gearshift are in your hands, the work of the suspension - just aren't present in the same quantities found aboard the Mazda.
Changing gear is a vague and indistinct process, the steering wheel (which is too large, and too far away) never offers up any genuine sense of connection, and the ride is too uneven: new springs have made the Up stiffer, but without the dampers to support it there's still float and frustration when you really start to push. For all its low rev liveliness, there's still a lot more 'Up' in the car than bonafide 'GTI' - and that's a shame even if it was inevitable given the (very competitive) price point that must've been agreed from day one.
So while there's undeniably some fun to be had in baiting more expensive cars with the Up's lusty, tuneful performance away from the lights, and no doubts about its funky interior, as a driver's car - something to interact with and enjoy against every backdrop - the Up falls short of the bar set by the Mazda. Which we'll call surprise number two...
Unlike the Up, it's possible that you've come to know the latest Swift Sport for its negatives rather than positives. This is because, as mentioned, it has a large price tag, too many doors and a blower where once a tightly wound naturally aspirated engine sat. This has meant that its more favourable aspects - it does have them, believe it or not - have been ignored in the collective furore.
The new motor, for example, is actually a corker. Sourced from a Vitara it may be, but that only means there must be some very satisfied SUV drivers out there. By combining the VW's gutsiness - 162lb ft isn't far off 50 per cent more than the Mazda - with the effervescence of its domestic adversary, the Suzuki's 1.4-litre Boosterjet is by far the best engine here. Lag is imperceptible, performance is plentiful and the appetite for revs is undeniable, even if the limiter calls time at what seems a deeply pessimistic 6,000rpm. Combined with an evolution of the previous Sport's slick six-speed manual, the Swift can very easily be coaxed into some considerable speed. And enjoyably. Apparently 50mpg is on the cards, too...
The problem is that, on this experience and drawing on memory, dropping this powertrain into the old Swift Sport would have probably made a more enjoyable hot hatch. That car came with all the modern amenities buyers would want and expect, yet retained a pleasingly simple, enthusiastic edge to its handling. This car, presumably with the aim of making a more mature, more rounded offering, feels a bit flat by comparison.
For a car with such an admirably low kerbweight, the Swift does pitch around quite considerably. Grip is there, but it doesn't help confidence. The front end is keen enough, yet neither the steering nor tyres deliver the sort of tenacity and incisiveness you would want from a sub-1,000kg car with sporting pretensions. Overwhelm that purchase and there's little to be done, the balance safe and predictable but without the agility enjoyed before - an impression not aided by undefeatable driver aids. They allow plenty of scrappy, unpleasant wheelspin to remain - which, to Suzuki's credit, is about the only clue it's turbocharged - but not much leeway to work with the available grip front to rear.
So while the steering is nicely weighted, the brakes are powerful - it's the only car here with discs all-round - and the Swift is patently capable of pretty much all that will be required, there's not much by way of entertainment. Again, it's perfectly pleasant, a car that combines pace and practicality with a decent interior and a refined, mellow maturity when required. Trouble is it never quite shakes that grown up side, feeling for all the world like a larger car whatever the driver does, a frustration only compounded with knowledge of the effort invested to make it lighter.
Choosing a winner from this three, then, is a difficult task, given that they all present significant issues: the Up being unresolved, the Mazda possessing potential it can't quite fulfill and the Swift seeming a tad underwhelming given what preceded it. Moreover, and no less frustrating, is the fact that there is no car among the trio that isn't a tweak or two away from being demonstrably better. Given the MX-5's new 1.5-litre motor, the GT Sport might be Fiesta ST good; the Up would be miles better if its driving position were seen to and more money lavished on its dampers; and had Suzuki not aimed for the middle ground, the Sport might still have the edge of its predecessor.
Purely from the driver's seat, it would be easy to call the game for the Mazda2. It is easily the most rewarding steer of the three, and manages to feel very grown up even as it merrily exceeds your expectations. However - and there's really no getting around this - it's also the most expensive by some distance (£18,175 for this GT Sport Nav+ with metallic paint is a lot of money) and, equally unforgivably, it is the slowest. If you can find a deal - see this ex-demo car for £14,500 - then it still comes wholeheartedly recommended, but if ever there was a car crying out for a proper performance variant, this is it.
Which leaves the Swift and the Up. The Suzuki has the better powertrain, the Up is better looking. The Sport is more practical, the GTI more compact. The blue car is faster, the black car more economical. To drive, the Suzuki probably shades it. But, again, in a segment founded on value for money, it's hard to ignore their comparative price tags. Even with all the equipment you would arguably ever need, £17,999 is a lot of change when a good GTI should, in theory, be less than £15,000. That feels like a victory more for Volkswagen's strategy than its engineers, but balancing fun and frugality with the bottom line has never been easy - and, right now, the Up is playing the game better than anyone. What a shame then that Renault, Citroen and Ford haven't even made it onto the pitch.
SPECIFICATION - VOLKSWAGEN UP GTI
Engine: 999cc, 3-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 115@5,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 148@2,000-3,500rpm
Top speed: 122mph
Price: £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)
SPECIFICATION - SUZUKI SWIFT SPORT
Engine: 1,371cc, 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 140@5,500 rpm
Torque (lb ft): 162@2,500-3,500rpm
Top speed: 130mph
CO2: 125 - 129g/km
SPECIFICATION - MAZDA 2 GT SPORT NAV+
Engine: 1,496cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 115@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 109@4,000rpm
Top speed: 124mph
Price: £17,395 (as standard for GT Sport Nav+; as tested £18,175 comprising Soul Red metallic paint for £780)