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First drive: The Volkswagen Up! is the GTI we’ve been waiting for

Motors | Published:

VW has added to its GTI 'family' with a new baby brother - the Up! GTI. Tom Wilshire heads to Spain to put it to the test

There are few names more synonymous with hot hatchbacks than Volkswagen GTI. This is the new, smallest member of the family – the Up! GTI. Though it’s really a successor to the brilliant Lupo GTI of the 2000s, Volkswagen is actually pitching it as the spiritual successor to the original 1976 Golf GTI. The comparison isn’t as ridiculous as you might think either, with similar weight, dimensions and power figures, this pocket rocket aims for maximum fun rather than maximum speed – much the same as the iconic original.

  • What’s new?

Though it’s wrapped up in a standard Up! body, the GTI model gains some serious upgrades over the standard car. First off, there’s the engine – a 1.0-litre TSI, as featured in top-spec Ups! – but here tuned to produce 113 bhp and 200 Nm of torque. It’s also mated to a six-speed gearbox rather than the five-speed seen on standard models.

The suspension has been heavily revised and overall the car sits 15 mm lower on handsome, 17-inch alloy wheels. The interior gains the classic GTI tartan upholstery, wrapped around comfortable and supportive sports seats.

  • What’s under the bonnet?

The engine is an uprated version of the TSI found in the range-topping standard Up! – here it produces 113 bhp, which is a lot in such a lightweight car (995 kg). That endows it with a 0-60 mph sprint of 8.6 seconds and a top speed of 122 mph.

It’s a peppy engine, with plenty of low-end torque, making it relaxing to drive around town. Press on, and the ample in-gear grunt makes faster roads an absolute pleasure – though the amplified engine note piped into the cabin alternates between charming and irritating.

The whole mantra of the Up! GTI isn’t ultimate power and speed – there’s far more pleasure to be had maintaining momentum and having fun within the legal limits. Another perk of this junior hot hatch is running costs – with a quoted fuel economy of 58.9 mpg.

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  • What’s it like to drive?

The standard Up! is one of the best-handling city cars on the market, and that supremacy shines through in the GTI. It’s very chuckable thanks to its light weight, and the quick steering – though not endowed with bags of feel – is nicely weighty and accurate.

Push into corners hard and the GTI feels a little softer than some more hardcore offerings in the hot hatch segment. VW’s stopped short of turning this into a true pocket rocket in the name of retaining some everyday usability. It’s a compromise we’re more than happy to make, especially given the car’s compliant ride over rough surfaces – the GTI would make a brilliant daily driver. However, real enthusiasts may hanker for something with a bit less pliancy and a bit more urgency.

  • How does it look?

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Cute and cheerful is the order of the day, and the Up’s! dinky dimensions, square body and wheel-at-each-corner stance make for a charming yet surprisingly purposeful look. The GTI-specific accoutrements aid this – with handsome 17-inch ‘Oswald’ wheels and a wider track, plus classic touches such as a red stripe on the grille.

Rivals such as the Renault Twingo GT or Smart ForFour Brabus can’t really match the Up’s! ideal proportions and tend to look just a little more awkward on the road. The Up! GTI instead strikes the perfect balance between city car and sports car, with enough performance-inspired touches to look purposeful without becoming a caricature of itself.

  • What’s it like inside?

Tartan sports seats are a must in any GTI, and in the Up! they’re comfortable and supportive, although we would have liked a little extra adjustment in the driving position. The same goes for the steering wheel, which is fantastic – thick-rimmed, the ideal size, and leather-wrapped – but does without any reach adjustment.

Elsewhere the cabin is standard Up!, which is a good thing – it’s roomy for its size and is packed with premium VW touches. All the controls feel solid and beautifully damped, the dashboard is a model of clarity, and storage is decent, with two cupholders (four in three-door models), good-sized door bins and a deep glovebox.

  • What’s the spec like?

As the range-topping Up! the GTI comes generously equipped. There’s no infotainment system as such – rather, VW provides an integrated smartphone mount, USB charging port and a free VW app to download which provides sat-nav. It’s a good system considering most Up! GTI owners will have smartphones – but the cradle won’t effectively accept ‘phablet’ style phones which are becoming ever more popular.

There’s climate control, electric front windows, cruise control and rear parking sensors, plus a small infotainment display underneath to control the stereo and other functions.

The GTI tops the Up! range, but it’s remarkably cost-effective to own.

  • Verdict

We’re big fans of the Up! GTI. Its mixture of perky performance, great handling and fantastic everyday usability makes it an easy choice if you want a fun car without shelling out for a full-sized hot hatchback. It may not be as mature as its Polo and Golf siblings, but it’s all the better for it, with a cheeky personality that’s infectious. It’s far from perfect – the synthesized engine note could begin to grate, and at times we wish it could be just a little more focused, but as a junior hot hatchback, it ticks all the boxes.

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