Baby GTi proves that just enough is just fine
Jim Holder
15 December 2016

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.


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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.

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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


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16 December 2016
I think it's a nice car. It can't have too much power as it would step on the toes of the Polo GTI but in my opinion I think it looks good and can see this selling well.

16 December 2016
Having recently bought a quickish golf, and as much as I love it, I'm beginning to realise that on the roads today in Britain all the extra power does is give you more opportunities to drop yourself in the poo with PC plod and other motorists.

If this is really fun, and stable on the motorway, it could be my next car....or something like it anyway. More cars like this needed.

Dear motoring industry, can we stop the race for power and speed, and focus on more fun please?

Sometime enough power is, Erm, enough power.

Did I read it correctly? How can a car be almost disappointingly refined? You like discomfort? Maybe the UP S&M limited edition is the answer! I am sure some wag can come up with a useful UP something for the S&M version.

16 December 2016
This has moved Up! to top of the list for our household second car. As long as they offer it with decent all LED headlights and not those horrific halogens on these pictures.

16 December 2016
It'll all be down to price, because if a Polo 1.8 GTI is only £3,000 more then I know which one I'd have, although I suppose I don't have to worry about insurance

At 114hp "output from the three-cylinder 1.0-litre unit is pretty impressive " doesn't the current Ford unit chuck out 125hp?

16 December 2016
xxxx wrote:

It'll all be down to price, because if a Polo 1.8 GTI is only £3,000 more then I know which one I'd have, although I suppose I don't have to worry about insurance

At 114hp "output from the three-cylinder 1.0-litre unit is pretty impressive " doesn't the current Ford unit chuck out 125hp?

True, and the 1.5 in a BMW I8 does 230bhp.

16 December 2016
Why has it taken 5 years (and still not available until 2018), and why must it have to cost £15k? Maybe Skoda or SEAT could knock one out now and save us all the wait?

22 December 2016
Skoda need a hot Citigo. The MonteCarlo and Coulur editions look good, but need more power. At £13500 for a Citigo vRS, Skoda would be onto a huge winner.

16 December 2016
Oh dear, when this first appeared as a concept it looked fabulous with a different front grill to the rest of the range. This new version has done away with that number arrangement and given us the same as on the standard UP!

It's not at all cool, come on VW give us the proper GTi styling

16 December 2016
Should have said Bumper arrangement

16 December 2016
Why bother? probably the dullest car currently on the road, it looks like some sort of Apple appliance from 1985, perhaps a washing machine. Its the ultimate White goods transport. Stick a few more bhp and harder dampers in it..woo! maybe go to town and an extra badge and a stripe on the seat. There must be something better they could spend the development time on.


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