VW Up GTI
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