VW’S ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated mini GTI looks the part, but does it have the depth of tal­ent to de­liver where it mat­ters?


VW strug­gles to ap­ply its GTI magic to mod­els other than the Golf, but can its new pocket rocket buck that trend?

ON PA­PER THE RAW sta­tis­tics don’t look all that ap­peal­ing – 113bhp, 999cc, 0- 62mph in 8.8 sec­onds and a top speed of 122mph. These aren’t fig­ures to get the adrenal gland work­ing over­time. Yet de­spite the hum­ble num­bers it’s fair to say that the car they be­long to, the VW Up GTI, is one of the most hotly an­tic­i­pated ar­rivals of 2018.

Why? Well, there are a cou­ple of rea­sons. Firstly, the tiny VW prom­ises to be a timely an­ti­dote to a modern mo­tor­ing land­scape dom­i­nated by sto­ries of dra­co­nian vari­able speed lim­its, crip­pling con­ges­tion and the rapid con­sump­tion of the earth’s re­sources. Se­condly, the Up’s power and per­for­mance fig­ures are un­can­nily close to those of the VW Golf GTI Mk1, which de­liv­ered the sort of un­fil­tered driv­ing thrills every sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tion of GTI has ar­guably strug­gled to re­cap­ture.

Parked up in the win­try sun­shine just out­side Nice air­port there’s no deny­ing the boxy Up GTI looks the part. It plays the classic hot VW game of per­fectly blend­ing vis­ual ag­gres­sion with classy, un­der­stated ap­peal. All the GTI call­ing cards are there, from the ever-so-sub­tle bodykit to the front grille’s red pin­stripe.

Now, it would have been all too easy to make this a cyn­i­cal mar­ket­ing ex­er­cise by slap­ping some big wheels and go-faster stripes onto any old Up, but VW has tried to do this prop­erly. The com­pact en­gine bay means no room for four cylin­ders, but the tur­bocharged triple has been mas­saged with more boost pres­sure and an in­ter­cooler to de­liver 113bhp and 147lb ft – gains of 24bhp and 29lb ft over the cook­ing TSI model. That should be enough given the GTI tips the scales at 995kg. Power is trans­mit­ted to the front wheels via a six-speed man­ual gear­box (ear­lier Ups have made do with a fivespeed man­ual) with closer stacked ra­tios.

Like the hum­drum ver­sion, sus­pen­sion is by in­de­pen­dent struts at the front and a tor­sion beam at the rear, but on the GTI the ride height is 15mm lower and the springs and dampers have been stiff­ened. Other tweaks in­clude tougher top mounts and re­designed rear trail­ing arms, plus heav­ily mod­i­fied ver­sions of the Polo’s steer­ing rack and ven­ti­lated front brake discs. All very promis­ing.

VW’S peo­ple have planned a route that saun­ters along the au­toroute to the over­po­liced tax haven of Monte Carlo, be­fore tak­ing in some twisty ru­ral roads on the re­turn leg to the air­port. How­ever, as we’re in the shadow of moun­tains that are home to driv­ing play­grounds such as the Col de Turini and Col de Vence, it takes pho­tog­ra­pher As­ton Par­rott and me about three nanosec­onds to de­cide to splin­ter off from the group and head for the hills.

As we make our way through the sub­urbs of Nice it’s fair to say the GTI doesn’t feel that much dif­fer­ent to a stan­dard Up. Yes, there’s the chunky three-spoke wheel from the Golf and that car’s natty Jacara tartan trim, too (al­though the seats them­selves are the same flat-look­ing items you’ll get in any Up), but like its lower-pow­ered rel­a­tives the GTI is un­com­monly quiet and com­posed for such a small ma­chine, while the ma­jor con­trols have the sort of slick, easy-go­ing pre­ci­sion that mark out VW’S

‘The Up GTI’S power and per­for­mance fig­ures are un­can­nily close to those of the Mk1 Golf GTI’

‘Find a twisty stretch and the Up will hang on to the tail of much more pow­er­ful cars like a hy­per­ac­tive ter­rier’

larger mod­els. Yes, the ride is firmer, but it never be­comes brit­tle and does a fine job of fil­ter­ing out the worst im­per­fec­tions.

It’s the en­gine that’s most no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent, and not nec­es­sar­ily for the right rea­sons. In an ef­fort to give the three­pot more grav­i­tas, a sound sym­poser has been added to aug­ment the off-beat thrum. Un­like sim­i­lar sys­tems that use the car’s speakers, this one uses acous­tic res­onators for a more nat­u­ral sound, but at low speeds and low revs the slightly boomy back­beat is a lit­tle off-putting.

There are pos­i­tive signs, though. The com­bi­na­tion of low mass and a torque peak of 147lb ft from just 2000rpm means the GTI ac­cel­er­ates with the sort of ef­fort­less elas­tic­ity of all the best hot hatches, while round­abouts are dis­patched with the low in­er­tia, low roll ea­ger­ness that marks out all light­weight spe­cials.

As the sub­ur­ban land­scape turns to sparse and rocky hill­side it’s pos­si­ble to give the GTI its head. It’s brisk rather than gen­uinely quick, but there’s enough poke to keep things in­ter­est­ing, plus you’re able to wring every last drop of per­for­mance po­ten­tial from it with­out risk­ing life and li­cence. As the roads open out, third gear is all you re­ally need, with the triple pulling throat­ily from 25mph and spin­ning mer­rily to 6000rpm and around 80mph – more than enough on roads pep­pered with blind ex­its, rocky out­crops and steep drops. Hap­pily, the sound­track im­proves with ex­er­cise, the en­gine note tak­ing on the cry of a 911 flat­six that’s taken a lung­ful of helium.

The mod­i­fied Polo brakes scrub the speed off ef­fi­ciently, while the pedal ac­tion is bet­ter weighted and more pro­gres­sive than the stan­dard car’s. The steer­ing is slower and lighter than you’d ex­pect, but it’s pre­cise enough and

the 195-sec­tion Goodyears bite hard. Fac­tor in dinky di­men­sions and you can fling the GTI along these roads with real aban­don, play­ing the old, wheel-at- each­corner Mini game of try­ing to main­tain mo­men­tum through each bend. Find a con­sis­tently twisty stretch and the Up will hang on to the tail of much more pow­er­ful cars, like a hy­per­ac­tive ter­rier snap­ping at the heels of a flee­ing post­man.

It’s this David ver­sus Go­liath point-to­point pace that cre­ates the real magic, be­cause as a true driv­ers’ car the VW falls a lit­tle short. There’s not much in the way of feed­back through the steer­ing, while any at­tempt to ad­just the car’s mid- cor­ner bal­ance us­ing the steer­ing and throt­tle elic­its a well- cal­i­brated but firm re­sponse from the sta­bil­ity con­trol, which can’t be switched off – this is a car that has to work for com­plete novices rather than hard­ened track he­roes.

Push re­ally hard and the Up’s city car roots are cru­elly ex­posed, with bumps send­ing the slightly too soft sus­pen­sion into oc­ca­sional bouts of dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing bounci­ness. It’s enough to con­vince you that the VW is more fun play­thing than se­ri­ous road war­rior. An­other hint is given by those flat seats, which look the part but fail to truly sup­port on the many hair­pins around these parts.

Yet to cas­ti­gate the Up for these flaws is to miss the point. No, it’s not the fastest or sharpest tool in the box, but at this price there’s cur­rently no other new car that de­liv­ers the same in­fec­tious ap­petite for fun. If you’re a young­ster start­ing out on your per­for­mance car jour­ney, or even some­body try­ing to re­cap­ture their youth, then the Up GTI has been worth the wait. I reckon it’d be a great base for a harder and faster Club­sport ver­sion too. Over to you, VW.

Above: Up GTI goes per­for­mance car bait­ing on the Côte d’azur’s finest twisties. Left: steer­ing wheel is lifted straight from the Golf. Be­low left: seats look good but of­fer lit­tle sup­port

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