What is it?
When you scan the spec and see the VW Up GTi is powered by a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine producing a meagre - by the standards of this illustrious performance brand today - 114bhp, you might come over a bit cynical. You might, for instance, wonder if this baby GTi, set to launch early in 2018 and driven here in prototype form, is a cynical marketing exercise to add a bit of vim to the Up range.
Read more about the confirmed Up GTi here
But, even before you get behind the wheel or chat to the wide-eyed engineers working on the project, VW has a pretty convincing counter-argument through a comparison with the Mk1 VW Golf GTi. Demonstrating once again how safety requirements have grown modern cars, for starters, the Up GTi is not far removed from the Golf - 3600mm of length plays 3705mm, 1627mm width 1610mm, a 2415mm wheelbase 2400mm, 1020kg to 880kg.
And if that latter figure makes you twitch, consider that the Up’s 114bhp tops the 109bhp made by the 1.6-litre engine of the 1976 original. Sure, the safety kit and technology packs add a significant amount of extra heft, but the power-to-weight ratio is not far removed at all. Nobody is revealing torque figures just yet, but this manual Up GTi will do 0-62mph in 8.8sec, compared to the Golf’s 9.2sec. If it’s offered with DSG, the Up GTi’s will come down further, too.
Even on this prototype - still more than a year from launch - all the GTi hallmarks are present and correct. There’s a stripe down the bottom edge, tartan seats, red stitching on the steering wheel and a fancy red and black finish on the Up’s moulded dashboard, plus a six-speed gearbox with reverse up and off to the left and a chunky steering wheel to grip; entry-level GTi or not, there’s no corners cut.
Technically, the engine is quite a remarkable feat, running 1.5-bar or turbo pressure (the same as a 911 Turbo, no less) and at a 10.5: 1 compression ratio. Coupled with a water-cooled intercooler, the output from the three-cylinder 1.0-litre unit is pretty impressive and, while engineers reckon they could have pushed closer to 125bhp, this they reckon gives the best trade between power, torque and response.
What's it like?
The Up GTi's peppy engine pulls remarkably well and has a linear power band. The only interruption is an overly-long second gear ratio, which pauses progress in the name of fuel economy gains, reason enough to pause to curse some aspects of the modern world. Work it hard and you are amply rewarded, aided by the slick manual gearbox shift and precise control weights of the pedals. It’s surprisingly refined too - almost disappointingly so, in fact, given its lineage.
Mechanically, the Up GTi is much changed from standard, not least in its use of some Polo-derived (but heavily modified) parts such as the steering rack and ventilated brakes. The car sits 15mm lower than standard and has a heavily reworked suspension set-up on its MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear, including stiffened top mounts, new-shape lower suspension arms and dampers tuned to control bounce at lower compression speeds.
Just how effective all this is was hard to judge on the largely straight roads of South Africa, where VW conducts hot weather and durability testing, but what opportunities there were suggested the car is set up with decent weight through the wheel and a balance that leans towards neutral before dipping into the safety first of understeer. Engineers suggest you can make it oversteer if you really try - but, again, the modern age demands they err towards a responsible set-up. Ride comfort was impressive, soaking up low-frequency ripples and damping down bigger bumps despite its sporty leanings.
Should I buy one?
From this prototype drive, what we can conclude is that the Up GTi is a car that has abundant promise even so far from making production. It won’t make your eyes water, but it is engaging and eager to please - even in top gear, the engine keeps pulling towards its 119mph v-max. Some will struggle to reconcile the idea of a three-cylinder GTi, but it’s worth noting that VW is believed to ahead of the curve here, as even the likes of Ford consider similar units for ST models; the times, they are a’ changing.
Of course, with time, so expectations have moved on too, and for all the comparison with the original Golf GTi it would be misleading to think that the Up GTi is going to evoke memories of yesteryear and have a generation of retirees rushing to dealerships to relive their youth. It’s a different car for a different era.
Instead, what VW is hoping to create is a car that will draw in a new generation of GTi lovers - albeit potentially financially aided by misty-eyed parents. Much will depend on pricing and running costs - especially insurance - but rumours already suggest an asking price of around £15,000. That’s a lot for such a small car, but on this evidence it may well be worth it.
2018 VW Up GTi
Location South Africa; On sale Early 2018; Price £15,000 (est); Engine 3cyls, 999cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 114bhp at tbc; Torque tbc; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1020kg; 0-62mph 8.8sec; Top speed 119mph; Economy tbc; CO2 rating/BIK tax band tbc Rivals Renault Twingo GT, Abarth 595